Loss of national charter forces closure of local Red Cross office

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The former executive director of the Carter County American Red Cross says the chapter's closure resulted when the national organization declined to renew the chapter's charter -- a decision she believes has victimized several small Red Cross chapters.
   "This all has come about because of smaller chapters being closed down," said Leigh McKeehan, director of the county's Red Cross chapter until its closure on Friday. "We have seen it with smaller chapters and it is happening like crazy ... smaller chapters losing their charter."
   The Carter County Red Cross is currently defunct and without a charter, a director, or a board of directors.
   McKeehan said the local chapter had received notice from the national Red Cross organization sometime this year that the chapter would not be re-chartered.
   "Our board chairman requested a face-to-face meeting with the regional chairman and regional office members," said McKeehan, who spoke to the Star via telephone on Tuesday from a relatives' home in Florida. "We did not get the face to face ... it ended up being a conference call. Eight weeks later our appeal was turned down and we were advised that we were going to lose our charter."
   McKeehan said the county's Red Cross Board of Directors met last Thursday evening to discuss the re-chartering issue. All the board members resigned after Thursday's meeting. McKeehan and Disaster Services Director Natalie Smith resigned on Friday.
   Inquiries made by the Star to the American Red Cross office in Washington as to the nature of the chapter's closure had not been returned as of Tuesday evening.
   An official with the state office of the American Red Cross said Monday that all telephone calls to the chapter were being re-directed to the Kingsport Red Cross chapter. The Kingsport chapter has been assigned to provide assistance for an emergency in the county.
   "We do not feel the same services will be provided by another chapter that we can provide to our own community," said McKeehan.
   The chapter's difficulties started after the devastating flood of 1998, she stated. The flood left scores of county residents homeless and in need of shelter. A rush of donations poured into various emergency agencies to assist those victimized by the flood.
   "Since 1998, people have been asking where's the money and why don't you have the money?" said McKeehan who has been with the local Red Cross chapter for more than 12 years. "Since then we've been trying to get a full accounting of the money. We've asked for an accounting of the flood money and we've never been given that."
   She said the local chapter officials had asked the Red Cross regional organization to let donors know what relief efforts -- inside the county or around the country -- were benefiting from their donations.
   "What we were asking for at the time, were the people who were doing fundraising to let donors know that their money would be put into the general fund," she said. "We are unable to give exact figures because we have not been supplied with all of the figures."
   McKeehan said the chapter's previous board chairman had sent a letter to the Red Cross office in Nashville within the past year requesting the financial information.
   McKeehan said that when donors' money was designated for Carter County, it could not be used in any other area or location. If, then, donations were not designated for the flood relief or any Carter County relief effort, the money was designated in a general fund of the entire American Red Cross.
   "Any money that raises more than what you need will be put in that general fund," she said. "We wanted the donors to know what they were giving to because we could foresee it being a problem, but we weren't allowed to tell that at that time."
   She said there was a policy at the national Red Cross headquarters stating how the donation money will work in this kind of situation. She also said the organization had implemented a new "donor direct" program to focus on appropriating funds based on donor's intent for relief funding.
   "The donations are down because we haven't given answers," said McKeehan. "We are frustrated. Actually, national (Red Cross) really doesn't like it because I'm asking these questions."
   McKeehan said the chapter received an independent audit of their books annually. An audit was conducted by the Red Cross internal auditor's office in May, she added.
   Local Red Cross officials had said in July that, without a major infusion of funds, the Carter County chapter could be closed in the near future. The budget for the 2002-03 fiscal year, was $60,639, or a little more than $5,000 per month.
   According to the Red Cross Web site, the organization had over 2,700 chapters in 1990. By 2000, that number had shrunk to 1,168 chapters.
   McKeehan said when Red Cross chapters were re-chartered in 1993, the organization sought to weed out the chapters that were not performing the services required. She said other, smaller Red Cross chapters had not been re-chartered, and their services had been transferred to larger chapters in neighboring communities.
   "We've never been told this consolidation is actually happening, but it is -- right before our eyes," she said. The Carter County Red Cross chapter received its original charter in 1917, McKeehan said.
   Red Cross relief efforts include assisting families victimized by house fires, floods, and other natural disasters. The chapter has dealt with several recent county disasters, including 1998's deadly flood that killed seven and a March blizzard that knocked out power to hundreds of citizens for several days.
   Local county and city governments had been strong supporters of the Red Cross chapter.
   "This has been a very trying and emotional time," said McKeehan. "I've given a large part of my life to the Red Cross, and I'm trying to figure out why this happened. If I never go back to the Red Cross, and we keep our charter and our community, that will be fantastic with me."