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From Disasters to Blood Drives

Volunteers John Gagen and Tom Erdmann before they head to Missouri to give assistance during floods in April.
Volunteers have fueled Red Cross chapter’s efforts for 100 years

Most people know the American Red Cross for its blood drives and disaster relief around the world, but not everyone is aware that nearly all of the people working on those efforts are volunteers.

The Southwest Michigan chapter of the Red Cross, which serves Kalamazoo County and eight surrounding counties, currently has just 12 paid staff members, meaning that 98 percent of the organization’s work is accomplished by its 470 volunteers.

In October, the chapter will mark its 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we interviewed a few of those volunteers, people drawn to the Red Cross’ various missions for pretty much the same reason: to help people whenever and however they can.

Nancy and Jim Kowalski

It’s mid-May, and retired Kalamazoo residents, American Red Cross volunteers and high school sweethearts Nancy and Jim Kowalski have spent the past two days not out walking their two golden retrievers or catching up on sleep, but responding to a plane crash — a simulated one, that is.

The Kowalskis, who have volunteered for the American Red Cross of Southwest Michigan since 2004, were participating in a plane crash response drill with county fire departments at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport.

The Kowalskis, who are prepared to respond to emergencies in the nine counties served by the area chapter, also work on the national level, serving on disaster-relief trips that last two weeks at a time.

Last year the Kowalskis responded to six national disasters: in South Carolina, Missouri, Iowa and North Carolina and twice in Louisiana. But before any of those deployment hours were counted, Nancy had already served 1,000 hours and Jim 800 hours last year working for the local chapter.

Nancy, 68, retired from Bank of America in 2013, and Jim, 69, retired after working as a repair splicer for Michigan Bell and AT&T. In the recent airport exercise Nancy served as assistant director of operations and Jim did “canteening,” feeding and hydrating first responders on the scene.

“Canteen captain is one of my roles here,” Jim says with some mirth. For the simulation, his team worked from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., serving 100 cups of coffee, “iced-down” water and Gatorade, and doughnuts and other snacks to those on site.

Nancy and Jim share the role of Disaster Action Team (DAT) captain for Kalamazoo County. DAT captains lead responses to local residential emergencies like fires, working with a body of volunteers to coordinate everything from temporary emergency shelter, food and clothing to replacement medication and emotional support for victims.

When deployed on a national disaster, the Kowalskis drive an emergency response vehicle, or ERV, a truck shaped like an ambulance that has the capacity to dispense 300 hot meals to people stranded without food. There are 364 ERVs in the United States. (During 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, every one of them was deployed.)

“That’s our chosen profession, if you will, when there’s a national disaster, and it keeps us very busy,” says Jim. “We start at 6 o’clock in the morning and sometimes get back at 11 o’clock at night, after doing the feeding route.

“It’s a long day. Then you may go to a shelter and sleep with 300 of your newest friends.”

“And spiders!” adds Nancy, laughing.

She’s recalling a flood she and her husband responded to in Lumberton, North Carolina, in October 2016. According to Jim, the spiders in a church community room were so big that “when you stepped on one, you heard it crack.”

“It was awful,” says Nancy. “When you get in a flood situation, there’s snakes and sometimes alligators.” (The couple didn’t encounter any gators in that flood.)

“And the smell is just atrocious,” she adds.

So why do they do it?

“We enjoy doing the feeding because we get to talk to people and hear their stories,” Jim says. “I’ve met some of the neatest people that I wouldn’t have met, and I’ve been to the neatest places that I wouldn’t have been, if it wasn’t for the Red Cross.”

Jim started volunteering for the Red Cross with his father, William “Bill” Kowalski, who was on the local chapter’s board before he died three years ago, at 93. Nancy first volunteered for the Red Cross as a 16-year-old candy striper, or hospital volunteer. Before retiring, she took personal time and vacation days to volunteer alongside Jim. They have three grown children who help care for their “two furry kids” when the Kowalskis are deployed on trips nationally.

On one feeding route, the Kowalskis encountered a woman with two children, one under each arm, who hadn’t eaten since the day before.

“The woman said, ‘I’m so glad you came. We have no food, no transportation,’” Nancy recalls. “I told Jim if we never helped another person that day, feeding those kids was worth the whole trip for me.”

Mark Kleczynski

In the summer of 1988, when Mark Kleczynski’s oldest daughter, Grace, was 6 years old, she was hit by a car in downtown Three Rivers and airlifted to Bronson Methodist Hospital, in Kalamazoo. Badly injured, with two skull fractures; a broken arm, leg and collarbone; a collapsed lung; and a damaged liver, Grace was in emergency surgery for five hours, during which time her doctors replaced the average blood supply of a 6-year-old child five times over.

Kleczynski and his wife, Joy, who both lived at the hospital for 12 days while Grace was in a drug-induced coma, had no idea then that the Red Cross was responsible for saving their daughter’s life.

On the 12th day of the coma, Grace’s doctors took her off the drugs. She opened her eyes and started lip-syncing to one of the nursery rhyme songs playing in her room.

You can view The Amazing Story of Amazing Grace, a 700 Club segment on Kleczynski’s experience at

Mark, now 65, is still emotional about the memory. “There she sat, with her big blue eyes, communicating with us,” he says. Moved to a regular room and finally released to go home in a full-body cast, Grace made a slow but complete recovery.

Later, a nurse called Mark at home and said she needed to tell him something. He says he thought, “There cannot be any more bad news.” She said that during Grace’s surgery, Bronson Hospital ran out of its emergency blood supply, which must be O-negative. When the Bronson staff called Borgess Medical Center for backup, Borgess had only one unit left.

The local Red Cross found out about this situation and called its main Michigan office in Lansing. The Lansing office loaded up a state trooper’s vehicle with O-negative blood, and that officer sped the blood to Kalamazoo, saving Grace’s life.

Mark was “flabbergasted” by the Red Cross’ efforts for his daughter. “It changed my life,” he says.

He then began donating blood at Consumers Energy, where he had worked since he was 19. Before, he chose not to participate in the regular blood drives because he didn’t like the idea of a huge needle in his arm. “It just looked like a painful experience I didn’t want to go through,” he says. “But my life changed for the better because of blood donations.”

Kleczynski has since donated 11 gallons of blood over the past 27 years. He also happens to have the blood type needed by emergency rooms: O-negative.

He organizes the annual Good Friday Blood Drive at 28 churches in the Three Rivers and recently became an American Red Cross Disaster Action Team member, responding to single-family fires.

“People who know there’s a need to donate blood are like the fireman who pulls a person out of a burning house. They are heroes as far as I’m concerned,” says Kleczynski. “What amazing people they are. Selfless.”

Cody Benfant

When Brookline, Michigan, native Cody Benfant saw a table for the Red Cross Club at Western Michigan University’s first-year orientation, he signed up immediately.

He had been exposed to the Red Cross at a high school blood drive in 11th grade, so the Red Cross Club at WMU was the first thing he joined. He remembers thinking, “This is going to be great. This is something I’d really love to do.”

WMU’s Red Cross Club, which currently has 96 student members, is directly affiliated with the American Red Cross and organizes activities like sending holiday cards to military personnel overseas, installing smoke alarms in residential housing, holding food drives and collaborating with other Red Cross service projects and community missions.

The club also organizes campus blood drives. At one of these, the Bronco Blood Bash, the WMU club competes with a Red Cross club at Central Michigan University to collect the most blood donations. WMU came in first this past school year for the fourth year in a row, with 234 units donated.

Because one donation of blood saves up to three lives, during that eight-hour event this team of college students worked to save approximately 702 lives without even leaving the student center. Benfant, who will start his second year at WMU next month, was one of those students and participated in three blood drives during his first year of college.

“When you donate blood, you’re saving lives,” he says. “It’s not much to ask of a person, really.”

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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