By Eric Gorton, senior contributor
While the Central Virginia Chapter of the American Red Cross needs blood to address a shortage in the area that includes Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, it’s also in need of people who are willing to lend a hand at blood drives without rolling up their sleeves to donate.
The agency has just 17 blood donor ambassador volunteers on its list to work blood drives in the city and county, and ideally would have 30, said Betty Whittaker, the regional volunteer services officer for the area.
Blood donor ambassadors greet donors when they arrive at blood drives, help them register, answer questions, provide information and support them through the recovery process at the refreshments table.
“This is probably one of the easiest volunteer positions that you’ll find, but it will be one of the most rewarding that you’ll ever experience,” Whittaker said. “The challenge that we are facing, that we have faced since COVID started, is that this is an in-person volunteer opportunity.”
Whittaker said the safety of donors and volunteers is a top priority. Volunteers are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID and must wear masks when they are performing their duties. Social distancing is also required, and part of the training to be a blood donor ambassador includes sanitizing hands and work areas.
Bill Brent, executive director of the Central Virginia Chapter, has become a blood donor ambassador during the pandemic, but not before being convinced it was safe.
“I was in my cubby staying as far away from humankind as I could, so I asked every single question there was of our volunteer recruiter when I recruited for the position,” he said. “I had a lot of questions because I was really … I needed to be comfortable with going out and doing it and they really made me comfortable.”
The Red Cross has a blood and platelet donation center in Harrisonburg, off Neff Avenue behind Valley Mall, but the agency collects more blood at community blood drives.
“We tend to do most of our big collections through our community partners,” Brent said. “It’s good to have the consistency of our blood centers, but it’s the drives that happen with our community partners, particularly our faith communities, other civic organizations like the VFWs, American Legions.”
Area colleges and universities also have been helpful but have cut back on the number of drives during the pandemic.
“Over the past two years we have certainly had challenges with all of our community university partners because of the COVID restrictions and we, like every industry, are being impacted by that, our workforce is impacted by that,” Brent said.
Brent said the Red Cross collects one to three more units of blood at drives staffed by blood donor ambassadors than those without them. When volunteers are not available, phlebotomists and nurses must handle ambassador duties in addition to their regular tasks.
“Things simply get backed up,” Brent said. “People get frustrated and they walk away. That’s not the experience we want any blood donor to have.”
Staffing the blood center had been a higher priority, Whittaker said, but now there is more need to staff community blood drives. Part of the challenge, she said, is that in the past, volunteers were typically retirees and college students, two groups hit hard by the pandemic.
“Our workforce tends to be older so we’ve lost some of those folks on the front lines,” said Brent.
Whittaker said she hopes to engage more young volunteers, more people who, for whatever reason, might have more time. “It’s really something anybody can do,” she said. “We ask for one shift a month.”
Since most blood drives are held on weekdays, the Red Cross needs volunteers who can commit to working weekday shifts, which average about six hours.
People who sign up to be blood drive ambassadors go through an hour-long online training course. Volunteer recruiters are available to answer questions after the training and during blood drives.
To become a blood donor ambassador, volunteers have to be at least 18 years of age, have to be available during the daytime, have to relate well to other people and need to have some general comfort around technology. Volunteers sometimes help donors use computers to register and they have to scan identifications.
The reward is worth the time, Whittaker said. “People get attached to blood drives. That’s one of the things blood donor ambassadors will tell you.”
Stacie Allred is among them. “It’s a wonderful way to help the community,” said Allred, a retired federal government employee who has been a blood donor ambassador for about four years. “It puts you in touch with your community.”
Allred said a lot of the donors come on a regular basis and “you get to know these people. It’s a great experience for me.”
Said Whittaker, “A lot of people can’t give blood for one reason or another. This is an excellent opportunity to be a part of saving lives.”
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