As Black History Month draws to a close, one local American Red Cross employee notes the significant role that the African-American population has played throughout the non-profit organizationâ€™s national establishment as well as the vital part volunteers play for the Lincoln County chapter.
Although the countyâ€™s African-American population is much smaller compared to that of surrounding counties, the local organization has a constant need for rare blood types, according to Regional Communications Director Kate Meier.
She noted that more than half the race contains the universal blood donor type â€” Type O. In addition, many African-American blood types are U-negative and Duffy-negative, among other unique types.
Most significant is the fact that a percentage of black Americans, along with some Hispanics, suffer from an inherited red blood cell disorder known as sickle-cell disease.
The disorder results in “a constant shortage of red blood cells,” according to the Center for Disease Control, which noted that one in every 500 African-Americans and every 36,000 Hispanic-Americans have the disease. Sickle-cell causes severe pain episodes, stroke, eye disease and many other health-related problems and is only curable through a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.
Meier believes that the community overlooks the importance of making sure all ethnic groups donate blood.
“They arenâ€™t aware of these special needs,” she said.
“Itâ€™s essential that the donor diversity matches the patient diversity â€¦ For a small percentage of the population, finding someone else with the same blood type can be as difficult as looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Lincoln County Red Cross requires a constant supply of “safe and adequate blood,” Meier said, in order to prevent and prepare for community emergencies as well as meet the demands of local hospitals.
“The Red Cross doesnâ€™t have the option to be low on blood supply,” Meier said.
She added that the shelf life for red blood cells is about a month and a half while platelets store for a maximum of five days and frozen plasma up to a year.
Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 with the aid of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Meier noted that following the Civil War, the two historical figures sat around the dinner table discussing ideas for the organization. A little more than a decade after the organization was founded, African-American volunteers were involved in a majority of the relief efforts from the deadly Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893.
Meier said volunteers continue to be an important part of the Red Cross today. She pointed out that the organization has a national average of 34 volunteers to every one staff member.
“The Red Cross is not a government agency and relies on our community to donate blood, money and time,” she said. Meier added that sheâ€™s a regular blood donor and gives every 56 days.
According to Crystal Lattimore, one of more than 500 volunteers working with the non-profitâ€™s Lincoln County chapter, volunteering is a “rewarding” experience, especially since sheâ€™s a people person.
“Everybody should take part in it,” she said.
Lattimore has been teaching CPR and First Aid classes bi-annually for the local Red Cross chapter since 1996 in addition to working both a full-time and part-time job. She said she enjoys meeting new people and learning a diversity of backgrounds and believes additional volunteers as well as African-American donors are always needed.
“I donâ€™t know why they (people) overlook that,” Lattimore said of the importance of racial diversity among blood donors.
Most of the 35 families that the Red Cross assisted last year were fire victims, Meier said. In each situation, a caseworker works closely with the family to assess their needs. Officials also respond to storm-related disasters including structures damaged by flooding and fallen trees.
“We respond anytime there is a natural disaster,” Meier said. “There is no such thing as a small disaster. Every situation can be tragic to the family experiencing it, and thatâ€™s how we treat each case.”
The Red Cross will hold its next community blood drive 1-5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Brian Center in Lincolnton. The Lincoln County chapter hosts nearly three drives a month. A total of eight are scheduled for March including three at local high schools. To donate time or money, call the Lincoln County chapter at (704) 735-3500 or visit www.redcrosslincoln.org.