Two Bartons: Red Cross founder inspired young relative

Many Red Cross volunteers and employees say they are inspired by the values and actions of founder Clara Barton, born 200 years ago and known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” after she provided medical services to soldiers on the front lines of the Civil War.

Athena Barton, in her fourth year as a Red Cross volunteer in Northern California’s San Mateo County, says she has an additional reason to be inspired by Clara Barton: they are related. Athena Barton’s great-great grandfather was Clara Barton’s cousin, making Athena a first cousin four times removed.

Left: Athena Barton, shown here in her high school senior portrait, is a first cousin four generations removed from Red Cross founder Clara Barton. Courtesy of Athena Barton.
Right: Oil painting of Red Cross founder Clara Barton by Mathilde M. Leisenring, painted in 1937. Courtesy of American Red Cross Photo Library.

Athena Barton was a sophomore at Burlingame High School in 2018 when a flyer asking for volunteers to work in San Mateo County’s Red Cross youth program caught her eye. The county has had youth programs for more than 30 years, working with high school Red Cross clubs in a wide range of Red Cross activities.

“I remembered my dad used to talk about Clara Barton,” the San Bruno resident said, including the fact that he volunteered for the Red Cross in high school.

“My dad was always interested in Clara and her life and legacy,” Athena Barton said, and “I was looking for volunteer opportunities. “

After taking some basic training from San Mateo County’s volunteer youth advisors, Betty Fleming and Mary Lee, Athena Barton jumped right in. She helped at a food bank, raised money for campaigns to end rubella and measles, helped put together disaster kits at the Red Cross offices, worked at disaster preparation events, blood drives and smoke alarm installation events, “helping with whatever I could,” Athena Barton said.

Youth advisor Mary Lee said Athena Barton was “very conscientious and learned quickly” and was “very good at teaching young children about disaster preparedness.”

Athena Barton said she loves working with kids. “Seeing all their faces light up, that made me happy,” she said. She also loves teaching academics to younger students by tutoring them in math and English.

Clara Barton also loved teaching, beginning her professional career as a teacher at a time when almost all teachers were men. She established the first free public school in New Jersey in 1853.

For Athena Barton, the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of Red Cross volunteer opportunities. But even after graduating from high school in 2021, Athena Barton continued to be interested in giving time to the Red Cross. That’s when she found out about the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and International Services programs. Athena Barton joined a team headed by Chandni Khetrapal and Nikki Rowe that works to engage and motivate new and existing volunteers in those two Red Cross fields.

“From the very first day, (Athena) was eager to learn and know more about the ways she can support,” Chandni Khetrapal said. “She is very enthusiastic and always willing to help.”

Athena Barton said she is especially happy to work in these two areas of the Red Cross because these activities were especially important to Clara Barton.

During the Civil War Clara Clara Barton provided clothing, food and other supplies to sick and wounded soldiers on behalf of several then-existing organizations, and then pressed government officials to give her passes to field hospitals and battle scenes, where she volunteered her nursing skills. After learning about the International Red Cross in 1869, Clara Barton volunteered in the battle zone during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. She went on to found the American Red Cross in 1881, when she was 59.

Today, Service to the Armed Forces helps both active duty soldiers and veterans, their families and caregivers prepare for, manage and respond to the challenges of service.

While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was mostly devoted to providing humanitarian aid on the field of battle, Clara Barton pressed the ICRC to adopt an amendment in 1864 to provide aid to those affected by natural disasters.

Today, the American Red Cross International Services workers help the International Committee of the Red Cross respond to disasters and prepare communities to respond to crisis around the world. Programs include The Measles and Rubella Initiative working to eliminate measles and rubella, and “Restoring Family Links,” reconnecting those separated by natural disasters, conflict or forced migration.

Athena Barton says she has learned a lot from her Red Cross work. “I was very shy,” Athena Barton says, and could have a hard time connecting with her peers, but through her Red Cross work has learned “not to be as nervous when I’m talking to people.”

Those character traits would be very recognizable to Clara Barton.

Famed photographer Matthew Brady took this portrait of Red Cross founder Clara Barton circa 1865. Courtesy of American Red Cross Photo Library.

Clara Barton (whose full name was Clarissa Harlowe Barton) was herself shy and somewhat socially awkward as a child, according to her 1907 autobiography, “The Story of My Childhood.”

 “In the earliest years of my life, I remember nothing but fear,” Clara Barton wrote in the book.

As the youngest of five children, a dozen years removed from her next oldest sibling, Clara Barton was coddled but also taught everything from reading to mathematics and horseback riding by her older brothers and sisters. “I have no knowledge of ever learning to read,” she wrote, “or of a time I did not do my own story reading.” Her brother had her riding bareback on a barely-broken horse at age five, and her father loved to tell her stories of his years of military service.

But she had a lisp and “I was what is known as a bashful child, timid in the presence of other persons,” Clara Barton wrote. “To this day, I would rather stand behind the lines of artillery at Antietam, or cross the pontoon bridge under fire at Fredericksburg, than to be expected to preside at a public meeting.”

That didn’t keep her from leading the Red Cross for 23 years, until she was in her 80s.

To learn more about Clara Barton, go to https://www.redcross.org/about-us/who-we-are/history/clara-barton.html .

To learn more about volunteering for the Red Cross go to https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html .

Find Clara Barton’s autobiography at https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Story_of_My_Childhood/wqcCAAAAYAAJ?hl=en .