Red Cross change will hurt Suffolk

Published 9:40 pm Monday, June 13, 2011

With the retirement at the end of the month of Faye Byrum from the Suffolk Chapter of the American Red Cross, folks from the area stand to lose a lot more than they already expected.

Byrum’s impending retirement from the position of executive director after 37 years of service in Suffolk already was sure to be a painful loss for the community, as her face had been nearly synonymous with the local Red Cross chapter and its mission of providing relief to victims of disasters and helping people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies.

For those in Suffolk who concern themselves with such things, however, there was the reassuring assumption that someone else would take over the position and its duties here in Suffolk.

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That person, it was hoped, would — if new to the city — get acquainted with Suffolk in an effort to understand the things that make the city unique. And after a reasonable introduction to Suffolk, that person would slowly become the new face of the Suffolk Chapter of the American Red Cross, the new leader of a group of individuals whose direct connection to the city gives them additional incentive to provide a quick, comprehensive response in the face of disaster.

But a recent email from the Red Cross has revealed that the loss is much greater. When Byrum leaves her job, the position she held for almost four decades will be discontinued in favor of a more regional approach to disaster relief. Instead of hiring a new executive director to lead the Suffolk office, Red Cross officials have created a new Coastal Virginia Region, which will include communities throughout Hampton Roads and stretching up into the Northern Neck. That region will have a director who will be in charge of all the local offices. There will be no more Suffolk executive director.

Despite the care that Red Cross officials took not to blame poor donations or the economy for the change, it seems self-evident that both are contributors, no matter how much the organization wants to, in the words of a spokesperson, “erase the lines that used to divide cities and offices.” Economic pressure on the humanitarian mission of the Red Cross is neither surprising nor shameful.

What will be shameful, however, is if the organization allows that pressure to force a system whereby the special needs of unique communities fall victim to a cookie-cutter approach to disaster relief engendered by people attempting to manage situations remotely. With local people in each city’s Red Cross office, officials contend, such a result would be unlikely.

Still, though, anybody who has ever had to beg for the intervention of a faceless manager in some far-flung place in order to deal with a problem encountered in a national retailer’s local outlet can see the potential danger that lies ahead.

As they wish Faye Byrum a restful retirement, Suffolk residents can only hope the good work she did here will be continued with similar zeal by the person hired to fill the new regional position, wherever it might be headquartered.