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Centenary of Red Cross in Australia

In 2014, Red Cross will celebrate 100 years of humanitarian service in Australia. Lady Munro Ferguson, the wife of the then Governor General, began the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society on August 13, 1914, nine days after the outbreak of World War I.

Support for Red Cross was overwhelming, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers signed up during World War I. Here in NSW alone, more than 300 branches were created in the first three months.

The Centenary of Red Cross this year is a great Australian story about the extraordinary generosity and compassion of everyday people helping people. I joined Red Cross almost four years ago. It’s an honour to reflect on our remarkable history, to celebrate our achievements and thank generations of Australians for their support. For the past 100 years, Red Cross has been woven into the fabric of Australian life and has touched the lives of most people in some way.

The Red Cross idea was born in 1859, when Henry Dunant, a young Swiss businessman, came upon the scene of a bloody battle in Solferino, Italy, between the armies of imperial Austria and the Franco-Sardinian alliance. Witnessing 40,000 men lying dead or dying on the battlefield, with no medical attention for the wounded, Dunant organised local people to bind the soldiers’ wounds and to feed and comfort them, regardless of which side the wounded men were on.

As a result of his belief that more should be done globally to alleviate human suffering without discrimination, Red Cross was formed in 1863. Its emblem was a red cross on a white background: the inverse of the Swiss flag. The following year, 12 governments adopted the first Geneva Convention; enshrining care for the wounded and defining medical services as “neutral” on the battlefield. To this day, the Red Cross emblem during battle signifies a cease-fire.

By WWII Red Cross had become Australia’s largest charitable organisation – from a population of seven million, nearly half a million people were Red Cross members. Most of them were women.

In the post-war period Red Cross focussed on social welfare, national emergencies, natural disasters, the blood service and first aid programs, sustained by our extensive national network and thousands of volunteers.

The Centenary year represents a major achievement for Red Cross, and a significant milestone in the social history of Australia. Most Australians have shared a personal connection with Red Cross since 1914. Red Cross is inviting Australians across the country to share their memories through the Centenary Story Collection. Already hundreds of people have submitted their inspiring stories of helping or being helped by Red Cross. Today, there are over one million Red Cross volunteers, members, staff, donors, aid workers and supporters reaching right across the country, and further afield, operating in more than 1,000 locations across every state and territory.

The Red Cross network affords an unparalleled reach. Staff can mobilise volunteers and resources to target the most disadvantaged communities in Australia and overseas, wherever they are, to break the cycle of disadvantage and reduce vulnerability.

In NSW last year alone, Red Cross provided almost 8,500 visits to more than 500 vulnerable people through the Community Visitors program. Our staff worked with more than 150 volunteers to assist more than 3,000 people through bushfires and floods. Our Telecross volunteers made almost 830,000 phone calls to check on the wellbeing of vulnerable, isolated people in NSW.

Red Cross provides vital support to refugees, asylum seekers, immigration detainees and other people who are vulnerable as a result of migration.

Red Cross has Humanitarian observers who assess and monitor the general conditions of detention and treatment of people held in Immigration Detention Centres, supports people with no visa status who are permitted to live in the community and addresses basic health and welfare requirements of highly vulnerable clients while their immigration status is being resolved. The organisation also runs the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, providing financial assistance and health care to asylum seekers, the Emergency Relief program, providing one-off assistance to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in financial hardship, and supports people who have been trafficked or forced into marriage. They also work to reconnect family members whose loss of contact is caused by international or internal conflict, war and disaster.

Vulnerable young people are a well-established priority. The Young Parents program, a residential program located in Sydney, provides 24-hour support, accommodation and intensive case management to young women aged 13-19 and their children, with a view to developing safe and healthy relationships, self awareness and independence. Case management is also available for partners where appropriate. An Outreach program assists parents under 25 in semi-supported independent living to manage parenting challenges and access opportunities and Aftercare maintains contact with families, providing referrals and support to mainstream services as required.

Staff members and 42 save-a-mate (SAM) volunteers were also out and about at seven music festivals and events. SAM crews aim to reduce harm arising from alcohol and other drugs at these events, by engaging patrons and providing non-judgemental care and support. Volunteers rove festival grounds providing free sunscreen, water and fruit, and keep an eye out for anyone suffering from the effects of alcohol or other drugs or heat stress. These patrons can choose to spend some time in designated Chill Out Spaces, where they are cared for by trained volunteers and taken to the First Aid tent if their condition worsens.

I knew Red Cross ran the life-saving Blood Service, and that they were always there helping during disaster and emergencies, but I was thrilled to find out just how involved Red Cross has become across so many important areas. And when my daughter, Amelia, signed up as a SAM volunteer, I was secretly really proud that she was keeping up 100 years of tradition by volunteering with Red Cross.

Red Cross continues to rely on generous public support to carry out vital everyday work and wants to make sure it continues to come to the aid of vulnerable people into the future.

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