Retired educator Willis at helm of local Red Cross chapter

Retired Des Plaines Community Consolidated School District 62 Superintendent Dr. Robert Willis embarked on a new career-related adventure. Willis became the American Red Cross Rock River Chapter’s new leader Aug. 7. He comes to the job with well-formed priorities.

“We need to continuously build up that volunteer base,” Willis said, adding there are nearly 900 volunteers in their database now.

Getting more volunteers is crucial, since Willis said the Rock River Chapter strives to increase its presence in Boone and Ogle counties. According to Willis, he’s met with Belvidere Mayor Frederic C. Brereton and an Ogle County United Way representative to “make sure we’re all on the same page.”

While the Rock River Chapter plans to branch out, Willis noted it hasn’t lost sight of those here in Rockford. He pointed out the organization responded to a fire on 9th Street Tuesday, which left two families homeless. Willis said the Rock River Chapter was able to provide a disaster kit as well as food and housing assistance.

But as its duties seemingly increase, some support has decreased. Since the United Way is reallocating more resources to new programs, its contributions have gone down from $200,000 to around $136,000 annually. So, Willis wants to encourage more fund-raising. He said more money would help fill any gaps and offset the possibility of securing fewer grants. Willis stressed 93 cents of every dollar goes directly to programming, which he said is “unheard of in any kind of agency.”

“We don’t know from one year to the next what’s the need’s going to be,” Willis said.

He added needs were somewhat more predictable in his last line of work, “(With schools), you know who your customers are.”

Manmade and natural disasters like Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina have caused the Rock River Chapter to rethink its response. A possible worldwide flu epidemic has also been on the radar for the last year. According to Willis, the organization has been working with the Winnebago, Boone and Ogle county health departments as well as the Centers for Disease Control.

Lauren Zimmerman, director of emergency services, said a flu pandemic is far overdue. Zimmerman said the last flu pandemic occurred in 1918, taking 36 million lives, and others of a lesser magnitude took place in 1957 and the early 1970s. Zimmerman credited medical advancement and more information with lowering the death rates.

Willis said his new role isn’t far removed from his old job, since he’s leading an organization that teaches to prepare for and prevent emergencies. The Rock River Chapter also helps prevent homelessness.

The chapter’s 48-bed homeless shelter, named for chapter Board President Nancy Smith, had about 15,000 overnight stays in 2005.

Zimmerman said the American Red Cross and its Rock River chapter are mandated to provide members of the armed forces with certain services. The Red Cross relays messages about births, deaths and illnesses of loved ones to those in the military. The organization also helps civilians abroad. Zimmerman said the Red Cross can attempt to locate people in foreign countries in order to check on their safety at the request of loved ones.

From the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2006, issue

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