Celebrating a milestone

140 years of service, innovation, and hope

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross volunteer

May 21 marks a milestone in the history of American compassion and generosity: 140 years ago today, Clara Barton organized the American Association of the Red Cross to appeal for clothing and funds for victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan.

Circa1865. Matthew Brady portrait of Clara Barton.

Her visionary leadership laid the groundwork for future generations to transform the Red Cross into a leading humanitarian organization. It brings together the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors to prevent emergencies and alleviate suffering across our country and around the world.

This video provides a brief history of the Red Cross.

Throughout the 1880s, Clara and her corps of a few hundred volunteers mobilized to help survivors of floods and famines, storms and outbreaks of disease. During the Spanish-American War, she led support activities for U.S. military forces in Cuba.

By 1904, the organization had taken on such crucial roles that it received a charter from the U.S. Congress, giving it official duties to support American armed forces and to provide disaster relief.

Cleveland-born Mable Thorp Boardman took over leadership of the American Red Cross in 1905 and a local chapter was founded in her home town. During her 44 years of involvement, Mabel was credited as being the “administrative genius” who presided over exponential growth of the organization and expanded its range of prevention and response activities.

As World War I spread across Europe, readiness-minded folks in Lorain, Elyria, Toledo and Erie and Wood counties formed chapters in 1916; the following year, chapters sprang up in Medina, Summit, Stark, Wayne, Trumbull, Mahoning, Portage, Ottawa, Sandusky, Huron, Hancock counties and the Muskingum Lakes area!

Late in the 20th century, Cleveland again provided leadership to the Red Cross – Steve Bullock. After 16 years as CEO of the greater Cleveland chapter, Bullock was tapped to serve as interim president of the American National Red Cross during 1998-99. He brought a wealth of experience to national headquarters, having worked for the Red Cross in military installations in the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asia as well as being executive director of the St. Paul, Minn., chapter.

Steve Bullock
Photo credit: Daniel Cima/American rRed Cross

Steve quickly outlined his “100-day plan” to enhance the organization’s strengths, support local chapters, strengthen international relationships and address problems in the blood services division. “It’s a matter of making sure we’re performing at an excellent level,” he said.

Local and global impact

As we mark this anniversary, the Northern Ohio Region of the Red Cross serves 5.3 million residents in 31 counties, where trained responders provide comfort, essentials like food and shelter, and support for folks to rebuild their lives after crises of all kinds – more than three times every 24 hours.

This video recaps 140 years of disaster responses.

Meanwhile, we’re collecting, testing and distributing blood and blood products for accident victims, surgery patients and those undergoing treatment for chronic conditions and life-threatening diseases. Most recently, we began free COVID-19 antibody testing on all blood donations.

Men and women in our armed forces, veterans, and their families and caregivers can turn to the Red Cross for emergency communications, mental wellness courses, deployment readiness briefings and  morale-boosting activities in military medical facilities here and abroad.

Through a diverse portfolio of classes, more than 4.5 million people a year receive Red Cross training in first aid, water safety, nurse assistant training and testing, along with other lifesaving skills. The Red Cross also offers free mobile apps that about 2 million people download each year, including our First Aid, Pet First Aid and Swim apps. 

And as part of the world’s largest humanitarian network, the Red Cross is one of 192 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies across the globe that respond to disasters, help families search for loved ones missing as a result of war, natural disaster or civil unrest, and work to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

How you can make a difference

American Red Cross humanitarian activities are only possible through the generosity of donors and volunteers, who comprise more than 90% of our workforce. Visit redcross.org to get involved by making a financial donation, volunteering, giving blood or taking a class to learn lifesaving skills.