August 23, 2001 11:00 pm

By Mike Ferguson

For The Observer

BAKER CITY Unless it can overcome a $30,000 budget shortfall in coming weeks, the Eastern Oregon chapter of the American Red Cross will close its offices in Baker and Union counties Sept. 30.

The Red Cross, a congressionally chartered organization that provides several crisis services and training opportunities, has served Baker County since the days of the World War I.

Robert Joy, field service manager for the states 15 Red Cross chapters, met with the chapters 11-member board and three employees this week to look for ways to keep the chapter afloat.

The chapter has received aid from the national office the past four years since reorganizing to serve just Baker and Union


We talked strategy, and the tremendous effort these people have made to make the need real to people, Joy said. Weve got to tell the Red Cross story.

Thats a task that board co-chairman Allen Chapin of Richland finds easy to do.

Chapin, a pilot in the 8th Air Force during World War II, was shot down while flying a mission over Europe. He spent two years in a German prisoner of war camp, where the Red Cross met both his nutritional and medical needs.

The Red Cross kept me and a lot of other people alive over there, and thats something the Germans wouldnt have done, he said.

Never forgetting the kindness shown to him, Chapin put 13,000 miles on his car the first year he chaired the emergency services committee, receiving training all over the state.

That kind of dedication is not uncommon among the chapters 200 volunteers, Joy said.

We have volunteers who turn out at 2 a.m. to provide food, clothing and shelter for families that have been burned out of their homes, he said. Our volunteers also teach lifesaving skills to families, workers in the wilderness, professional rescuers, lifeguards and baby sitters. They give of their time and money to make a daily difference in their community.

Giving to non-profit organizations is generally off as the economy has taken a downward turn, Joy said, but another factor also exists.

The local chapter has gradually increased the scope of its services over the past four years under executive director Beverly Higley. While fund-raisers and donations have made up about 25 percent of the projected shortfall, the local chapter cannot continue to rely on support from the national office, Joy said.

That support has echoed the Red Cross tradition of mutual support and the concept of a hand up rather than a handout, Joy said. But at the end of the day, the people we help and the helping community have to support themselves. Overhead is cut to the bone: The chapter operates from donated office space provided by the YMCA in Baker City and Eastern Oregon University in

La Grande.

Courses are taught from donated classrooms, Joy said. Volunteers have installed long-distance service over the Internet to save on phone bills. Training equipment and relief supplies are often provided through grants and donations from local businesses and foundations. The financial crisis is very real.

If the local chapter is forced to close its doors, some Red Cross services would continue, including major disaster relief, Joy said, but opening disaster shelters and aiding the victims of house fires would present a major challenge since the closest chapters would be in Pendleton and Boise.

How much time does it take for the Red Cross to turn out when youre in your nightclothes watching your house burn down? he asked.

What will certainly have to be scaled back or even eliminated, Higley said, is the many levels of training the Red Cross offers, including first aid, lifeguard, baby-sitting, and wilderness and rescue classes offered to everyone from emergency medical technicians to teen-agers to employees of the U.S. Forest Service.

Those training classes will have to be accessed through travel or through another provider, she said.

Baker County emergency services director Mark Bennett said he was surprised to hear of the possible closing.

They have an agreement with the county to be responsible for shelter operations, and they do an excellent job, he said. They provide a lot of services that are unheralded, including a Red Cross program that provides a warm shelter for motorists stuck in the area because of a winter storm.

Should they close, Id have to scramble to organize replacement programs and equipment right in the middle of fire season, Bennett added. Wed have to come up with some alternatives.

Higley said the chapter could remain open, but only with an immediate and then ongoing commitment from some of the areas 41,000 residents. Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to the Eastern Oregon Red Cross, P.O. Box 1024, Baker City 97814. The telephone number is 523-2231.

Joy called the chapters financial plight a story looking for a happy ending.