Gray Ladies carrying on: Alexandria area group is only remaining chapter in US
They don't wear gray uniforms anymore, but Gray Ladies in Alexandria are still going strong after 65 years of service to the community.
"It's the longest existing group of Red Cross Gray Ladies in the United States," Linda Blackmore, executive director of Central MN Red Cross, said. "They're the only one remaining."
Candy Bohjanen-Hammitt, who is a Gray Lady volunteer, said the reason why they've been able to stay around is that the group has a solid foundation of people that are willing to work and provide blood. She attributed much of the decline of the other Gray Ladies organizations to an aging process where it's hard to maintain and bring in new members.
The average age of Gray Lady members in the Alexandria area is 75, but Bohjanen-Hammitt believes the group will continue to fulfill its mission in the area. That mission includes, in an average year, assisting with 50 bloodmobile events in the Douglas County area, putting in approximately 2,100 volunteer hours. That works out to around 2,100 units of blood that have been donated during that time.
The group consists of 23 members, and they register donors as they come in, provide meals for Red Cross staff and volunteers, and assist in helping people after they have donated, with a snack and something to drink. Bohjanen-Hammitt said that one of the constants is donuts from Alexandria's Roers Family Bakery, which donates to every drive.
The Gray Ladies, who are part of the Red Cross' volunteer services, received the regional honor of excellence award in Minneapolis two years ago from the Red Cross. They meet on the last Thursday of each month to discuss future plans and other blood drives to help sponsor in the Douglas County area.
The group started locally in 1954 and worked on community-based projects before primarily focusing on blood donations.
"We used to write and send letters to people in nursing homes before focusing on just helping with the bloodmobiles," Bohjanen-Hammitt said.
Formerly known as the Hostess and Hospital Service and Recreation Corps, the Gray Ladies were founded nationally in 1918 during World War I. During the war, female members wore gray uniforms and were responsible for helping wounded soldiers in combat hospitals. The name was changed to Gray Ladies in 1947.
Blackmore said their endless work in the community has been outstanding and their tight bond with each other keeps them together.
"It's hard to comprehend how many lives the Gray Ladies have saved," she said. "And the reason is the blood drives they've been able to host and run day after day."
Roger Haffner, a technician from Runestone Amateur Radio, has donated eight gallons of his blood since he started giving a few years ago. He said that each blood donation saves three lives.
Judy Powers, 60, has been volunteering in Gray Ladies for five years and since September has been president of the organization. Before joining, Powers worked in blood banks at other hospitals, and was persuaded by a friend who worked previously in Gray Ladies to join.
"In working at other blood drives, I learned what blood types patients needed and how it gets distributed," Powers said. "It's kind of a passion for me."
During blood drives, she assists people after they have donated by giving them food and water.
Powers joined Gray Ladies because she believes in the purpose of the American Red Cross and going out of her way to helping people. She's also a blood donor and has donated two gallons over the years.
"I really like the ladies that I work with," Powers said. "I believe that we're doing a huge service to the community because we're doing something that helps save lives."
MayVis Bruzuk, 60, wanted to do something to give back, and has been a part of Gray Ladies for two years. Her favorite part is meeting the regulars that come during blood drives and seeing the Gray Ladies' impact on Alexandria.
"We got to know many of the regulars, and it's so nice for them to come and greet us," Bruzuk said. "Our job is to make their experiences as comfortable as we can, and I always make sure to thank them for donating."
Janet McHugh has been volunteering for 10 years, and most times she works at the appointment desk for people who wish to schedule their next blood donation. McHugh said during her time volunteering at Gray Ladies, the organization has also hosted blood drives at Alexandria Technical & Community College, and it's an opportunity to help inform people how vital Gray Ladies is for people.
"The most important thing that I would tell people is a small thing can make a huge difference," McHugh said.
Gray Lady roster
Candy Bohjanen-Hammitt, Lois Braun, MayVis Bruzek, Lucrezia Campbell, Sharon Carlson, Sharon Dahle, Donna Felt, Dorothy Hlinsky, Sue Jelen, Sylvia Klminek, Cyrese Kragenbring, Sylvia Lefebvre, Kathleen Linn, Janet McHugh, Patricia Pederson, Luella Peterson, Judy Powers, Irene Pronek, Bettie Reis, Julie Roering, Judith Schjei, Judy Steidl, Ruth Steidl, Marlene Strehlow, Renee Stromberg and Irene Wheeler.