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Ex-Red Cross leaders work to form new organization


Tim Pratt



From the ashes of the former Oktibbeha County Red Cross, a new organization is forming to provide local disaster response services.  


The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a resolution of intent to form a new, yet-to-be-named organization which would operate as a branch of the Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Office. The organization would respond to fires and natural disasters, much like the Red Cross did, and provide food, shelter, clothing and other services, former Oktibbeha County Red Cross Director Becky Wilkes said.  


Wilkes and former Oktibbeha County Red Cross program coordinator Connie Malone, both of whom resigned from their positions amid a statewide Red Cross realignment, plan to spearhead the new organization. Wilkes said she is dedicated to serving the community, but admits she has become frustrated with national Red Cross leadership. She cited the Red Cross'' CEO''s salary of more than $500,000 plus a bonus, and the fact that she was told the Mississippi Red Cross was $500,000 in the hole, but then was offered a 3 percent bonus because the Oktibbeha County chapter finished the fiscal year "in the black."  


"We are tired of contributing to a bureaucracy that pays exorbitant salaries to its leaders and ignores the needs of the local people and the local chapters," Wilkes said.  


The Oktibbeha County Red Cross had to pay $16,000 annually to the national office just to remain a chapter, Wilkes said. And the national office expected the Oktibbeha County chapter to raise approximately $300,000 this year, she said.  


"Something''s not right with the Red Cross," she said. "I cannot fight that organization any more." 


The Red Cross still will operate five main chapters in Oxford, Tupelo, Meridian, Jackson and Hattiesburg. As of July 1, the Oktibbeha County Red Cross chapter and the Tenn-Tom chapter in Lowndes County operate under the Meridian office, although Red Cross officials plan to leave just one office open in the Golden Triangle. Whether the Oktibbeha County chapter or Tenn-Tom chapter remains open is still undecided.  


Paige Roberts, interim director of communications for the Red Cross in Mississippi, said last week an office even could open between Starkville and Columbus and both existing offices could close. 


Wilkes went before the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors and the Starkville Board of Aldermen Tuesday to inform local leaders about the plan to start the new organization and ask for their support. 


"The first couple of years will be hard," Wilkes acknowledged, saying the new organization could operate on $60,000-$70,000 per year. "We''ll lose that brand identification of the Red Cross, but we think the people of Oktibbeha County will step up and support this organization."  


Oktibbeha County typically contributes $11,000-$12,000 per year to the Red Cross and would contribute those funds to the county''s Emergency Management Office when the new organization gets up and running. The United Way typically contributes $14,000, Wilkes said, and the city of Starkville contributes $5,000.  


Wilkes hopes the county, city and Mississippi State University sign an interlocal agreement in support of the new organization. The only function the Red Cross serves that the new organization wouldn''t is the ability to bring military members home from different locations if their families have been affected by a disaster, Wilkes said.  


"Give us two years and let us see if we can make this work," Wilkes said, and noted the organization would be open to working with the Red Cross office out of Meridian during local disasters.  


The Oktibbeha County Red Cross responded to the Academy Crossing Apartments fire on Dec. 28, 2009, which killed three women and six children in one unit. The Red Cross also paid for all nine funerals.  


Oktibbeha County''s Red Cross chapter also raised more than $15,000 for victims of the Haiti earthquake earlier this year and assisted residents displaced by the fires at Crossgates Apartments and Campus Trails Apartments in April. More than 110 people were displaced by those two fires. 


Additionally, the Oktibbeha County Red Cross helped victims of the tornado outbreak this spring, which killed 10 people throughout the state, including five in Choctaw County.  


The Oktibbeha County chapter''s response to those disasters has left Wilkes bewildered as to why the office might close.  


"I''m baffled, I''m confused, I''m hurt by the Red Cross," Wilkes said.




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