American Red Cross of Hawaii marks 100 years of helping others

Yellowed newspaper clippings and old photographs from Hurricane Iniki strewn across a table at the American Red Cross office in Lihue tell stories of the organization’s presence on Kauai.

The oldest date back to the 1940s, when volunteers with American Red Cross sold soda during movie intermissions and knitted wool socks to aid in the World War II effort.

Hurricane Iniki’s arrival on Kauai made headlines in 1992, as well as the Red Cross volunteers who aided in the relief effort.

Lucia Valentin said seeing the hurricane damage inspired her to join the American Red Cross.

“When Iniki came, I wanted to help. I used to work for the Navy, and I told them I can do a lot of things,” she said. “I went all over Lihue.”

Because Steve Soltysik, who was with the Red Cross, had access to gasoline after the hurricane, he drove his truck all around the island assisting anyone who needed help.

In addition to delivering supplies, Soltysik helped people organize emergency shelters.

“I was at Kauai Community College and it was full of people who didn’t know what was happening. I asked who was the most in charge, told them what to do, and came back a couple hours later with more supplies,” he said.

Hurricane Iniki was a major moment in the history of the Red Cross on Kauai, said Soltysik, who has been a volunteer for over 40 years.

“I was working nonstop for three weeks, and at some point, you realize you’re a victim and need to take care of yourself and your family,” he said.

Hearing stories about Hurricane Iniki inspired Michelle Molineaux to begin volunteering with the American Red Cross after she moved to Kauai six years ago.

“On an island we all have to pitch together,” she said.

Centennial celebration

March marks the 100th year the American Red Cross has been in Hawaii. To recognize the milestone, the organization is planning a six-month celebration.

Events include heroes breakfasts on each island, a historical exhibit at Iolani Palace on Oahu and a gala at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Padraic Gallagher, director of disaster services for Kauai, hopes to provide Kauai residents with ways to celebrate the organization.

A dinner honoring the Red Cross volunteer of the year will take place at the end of the month at Kauai Beach Resort and he plans on having another event in June.

During the year, he also wants to recruit more volunteers and organize training opportunities. The biggest training session he wants to complete is makani pahili, or hurricane preparedness training.

“It’s about opening up a shelter and getting the staff, cots and durable medical goods like insulin, dialysis and wheelchairs, people need for a hurricane,” he said.

He wants the training to be done by May, so it’s completed by hurricane season.

How it started

While the Red Cross was officially chartered in 1917, it has ties in Hawaii starting in 1898, thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Harold M. Sewell, Mrs. Sanford Dole, Princess Ka‘iulani and Queen Lil‘iuokalani.

The first Hawaii volunteers cared for sick and injured soldiers who came to the state from the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in 1898. About 300 women, including Princess Ka‘iulani, were mobilized to take care of the soldiers.

Over the years, the organization dissolved, but reorganized after disaster struck, like a breakout of bubonic plague, cholera and typhoid and World War I.

During World War I, the Red Cross, which was renamed to War Relief Committee and the Allied War Relief Committee, forwarded funds for orphans and widows.

The organization was headquartered at the Iolani Palace, where the throne room was used for hospital prep and stored First Aid supplies. Other rooms in the palace served as a place for people to sew, knit and pack supplies.

After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, volunteers sprang into action, evacuating people, transporting medical supplies and taking the wounded to the hospital. They also drove blood donors to blood banks, took books to hospitals and helped families find their loved ones.

During World War II, volunteers in Hawaii knitted sweaters, socks, beanies, afghans, children’s gas masks, operating gowns, bags and tent nets that were shipped around the world.

“The American Red Cross of Hawaii is the only Red Cross chapter to serve in combat zone,” Gallaghersaid.

A surprise finding

Last year, volunteers with the American Red Cross opened a box at the Lihue office that was labeled nursing supplies.

But what they found was not nursing supplies, but stacks of old newspapers about the American Red Cross on Kauai.

“It was really serendipitous because we found it four or five months before the centennial,” Gallagher said. “Finding them sparked this idea of putting them on display somewhere.”

There are tentative plans to put them in the Lihue Airport, and volunteers have been taking time to sift through the articles to find ones to put in the display, he said.

“The most interesting aspect is how things have changed,” Gallagher said. “We don’t knit socks anymore — we host fundraisers.”

Kauai volunteers

Over the years, American Red Cross volunteers from Kauai have been deployed to aid in disaster relief both domestically and internationally.

In 1999, volunteers went to the Big Island to help after a sightseeing plane crashed on Sept. 12, killing 10 people.

That same year, volunteers traveled to Honolulu to help after a mass shooting at a Xerox office.

Volunteers from Kauai went to New York City after 9/11, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and Texas after Hurricane Ike.

Internationally, Kauai volunteers have been deployed to Guam after a typhoon struck in 2002, and American Samoa after a tsunami hit the island in 2009.

During her time with the Red Cross, Valentin, who turns 93 this month, has traveled to Oklahoma, Miami, Louisiana, New York, Puerto Rico, America Samoa and Guam.

“As soon as I came home from an assignment, I was told to pack my bags again because I was going somewhere else,” she said.

Whenever she got to a new place, Valentin said she would go out in search of people who needed help.

“I didn’t wait for them to come to the office,” she said. “I went out of my door, went to them, hugged them and asked them what they needed.”

When they aren’t traveling off-island, Red Cross volunteers respond to house fires and open shelters when inclement weather threatens the island.

Molineaux, who lives in Koloa, is responsible for organizing shelters when there is threat of a disaster.

“We’re always on hurricane watch during the season, have to open at a moment’s notice,” she said. “That’s the name of the game, to be prepared when something happens.”

She said the most rewarding part about being part of the organization is helping someone get through what is probably the worst moment of their lives.

“I’ve been through a fire that majorly affected my home. There’s nothing worse than not having a place to go, not having a meal and not knowing what do,” she said. “So to have someone say ‘we’re here, let us help,’ that’s what gets people through to the next day. Sometimes, that’s all people can do. Sometimes, that’s everything.”

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