Hard times for Red Cross

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A struggling economy can affect retail and Wall Street profits, but the oft-overlooked non-profit sector also deflates in tough times. When Lissette Bishins took over as Alexandria Red Cross executive director three months ago the third director in three years it became her job to push the donor-driven organization forward, despite its money problems.

Preparedness is not as compelling as someone standing on their rooftop and saying I need food and water, Bishins said regarding the organizations reliance on pre-disaster donations.

The Alexandria chapter is the smallest in the national capital region, serving about 139,000. It took an $83,000 loss last year and Bishins said she expects a larger hit this year. Part of the problem, Bishins says, was the chapters previously stagnant outlook and lack of local collaboration, so she has been reaching out during a busy first three months.

I think as a chapter we have taken our community for granted, Bishins said. We need to be bringing depth and engagement into the community. We need to be stewarding our donor dollars in a way that effectively services our community.

In addition to the giant red crosses donning helicopters over hurricane-ravaged New Orleans or Tsunami-stricken Thailand, imagine a smaller cross still red and still alms-bearing pasted on the side of a van with Virginia plates; this is the vision Bishins brings to her post.

We cant just do it ourselves, Bishins said. Its natural to look at your surrounding area. The chapter has a good relationship with the city government, she added, but the director wants to penetrate the community by way of the interfaith population and non-profit groups.

Bishins is committed to the national headquarters, but she believes increased local focus will swell the chapters funds and better its ability to respond in emergency situations, as well as provide a more efficient and reliable service to the city.

With Bishins leadership the Alexandria Red Cross provides unique services not found in the national charter, like providing company to 400 homebound or socially isolated senior citizens with their Friendly Visitors Program, started in 1993.

Bishins also hopes to nurture a relationship in its infancy, started by staff member Christa Lyons, which connects the chapter with the Alexandria Animal Welfare League. To reflect the pet-loving city, she and her staff are arranging a protocol with the league to house pets in a disaster. Creating shelters for humans is a given, she said, but people often stay behind with their pets in emergency situations, despite the consequences. Bishins wants to help them consider what would be necessary to shelter pets during a large emergency such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

She also hopes that her chapter, with just nine core staff members, will combine forces with Arlington on some projects so the cost to respond is not as high and volunteer depth is more.

If were in a deficit during a year when theres not a tsunami, 911 or a Katrina, then what does that mean for our resources next year? Bishins asked.

March is Red Cross Month, but it seems that for Bishins, the same will be true for every month.

Theres a lot of late nights and early mornings, Bishins said. And thats okay.

In the meantime, an open house meeting will take place this April for stakeholders at the Alfred St. headquarters.

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