Central Coast Chapter Volunteer of the Year Megan Erk says love of community led her to the American Red Cross
By Marcia Antipa
“Showing kindness and getting help to people that need it without regard to anything else – that is how I was brought up.”
Megan Erk – the Volunteer of the Year for the Central Coast Chapter – credits her father for inspiring her dedication to the community. He was a military man who brought his daughter along on volunteer projects.
“I kind of grew up in that environment where people just volunteered in the community to help out.”
Now Megan is taking on multiple roles with the American Red Cross. From hurricanes to wildfires, from blood drives to blog articles, Central Coast Chapter CEO Michele Averill says Megan has more than earned her award.
It all started over 30 years ago when Cathy Mendoza of Modesto, California was pregnant. As a normal part of her prenatal blood work, Cathy discovered that she had O negative blood and was CMV (Cytomegalovirus) negative. CMV is a flu-like virus that most adults are exposed to over their lifetimes. Cathy was never exposed to CMV, so she does not have the antibodies to it. While CMV is generally harmless for adults, it can be fatal for babies. In layman’s terms, Cathy has very special blood. Her blood type and Rh factor, plus the fact that she does not have CMV antibodies, make her blood essential for babies who need a transfusion.
Cathy is one of a small but mighty group of blood donors across the country who are often referred to as “Heroes for Babies.” Without these special blood donors, sick babies would not receive the lifesaving blood transfusions they desperately need. Initially, Cathy was the donor in the family who would regularly be called to donate her blood to help medically-fragile infants who needed transfusions. Then, her dad, Gerald, decided to donate, and low and behold, he has the same blood type and Rh factor as Cathy.
Since her first donation over 30 years ago, both Cathy and her father have continued to donate blood regularly. Cathy recently hit her 14-gallon donation milestone. In addition to regularly donating blood, Cathy is also the Executive Director for Society for disABILITIES in Modesto. The Society provides numerous adapted recreational programs, and it also operates the largest medical equipment loan closet in Northern California. You can find out more about the society’s work on their website.
When asked what she would say to someone who is considering donating blood but worries that the process might hurt, Cathy simply encourages people to try it.
“Sign up, make sure you are well hydrated, and if you are a little nervous, don’t be afraid to let the Red Cross nurse know you are a first timer” she said. “They are always so caring, and will take good care of you. The process is easy and painless, and can literally save a life. It’s a way to give back to your community that does not cost anything but your time. The reward of knowing that your donation may save a life far outweighs a little time taken out of your day.”
A family affair, Cathy and her father have spent decades giving life to their community, one unit of blood at a time.
About the author: Megan Erk is the Pacific Division External Relations Lead, Executive Board Member, and CEO Volunteer Partner for the Central Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross.
The first time Juanita Ellington donated blood, she was in her late 20s and became a little woozy during the process. She opted not to donate for a while, but then COVID hit. In December 2020, Juanita fell ill with COVID-19, which left traces of the virus’s antibodies in her blood. So, after a 30-year hiatus, Juanita decided to donate her platelets and plasma, specifically to help those who were sick.
As Juanita explains, “I had COVID; I know what it feels like. I feel very fortunate that I was not in the hospital like others, suffering.”
Before Juanita took ill, her father experienced a rapid decline due to an unrelated, pre-existing condition. Sick and isolated, Juanita endured her father’s failing health, his subsequent admission to the hospital, and his untimely demise. After a horrific year of unrest, sickness, and death, Juanita is determined to turn her tribulations into positive outcomes through regular blood donations.
When Tracy Pico walked into the American Red Cross blood donation center in Pleasant Hill, California to donate blood, she was on a mission. She was determined to help another person in need just as others had donated blood for her 14-year-old daughter, Brandi. Last year, Brandi endured a long and arduous course of treatment for cancer which included multiple transfusions.
Tracy’s family have all been blood donors for years. In fact, her father has been a regular donor for over 30 years at the Red Cross facility in Pleasant Hill. But it was Brandi’s ordeal with cancer that ignited her personal commitment to become a blood donor.
In June of 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandi was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. Ewing’s Sarcoma is a rare form of bone cancer that typically occurs in children and young adults. Her early symptoms, which included a painful bump below her left knee, were initially thought to be caused by another condition that, although painful, would eventually resolve. Unfortunately, the first diagnosis was wrong, and Brandi faced a devastating cancer diagnosis at an incredibly young age.
Penny Mount likes to have her hands full of projects and people for whom she cares. During a recent phone chat to talk about compassion calls she made on behalf of the American Red Cross’ Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program, she was also looking after her 11-month-old great-granddaughter, Jolene. “She’s headstrong, just like her mother,” Penny says. By the end of that same call, Jolene had “creatively decorated herself” and Penny’s counter with her lunch. “Her mother’s not going to be too happy with me,” Penny chuckled.
And that’s just how it is with Penny: breezy, light and full of gratitude.
The compassion calls were part of SAF’s month of service this past February. Volunteers from across the Northern California Coastal Region placed calls to the nearly 3,000 families served by SAF in the last 18 months. They checked on the families’ health and welfare and extended a hand of assistance should any be needed. The purpose was to deliver the Red Cross mission of providing care and comfort to service members, veterans and military families.
This is the story of Lillian Phan, a bright and accomplished young woman, who also happens to be a stellar volunteer with the American Red Cross. Like so many American stories, Lillian’s begins with immigration, determination, and hard work.
Lillian’s parents immigrated from Vietnam, sponsored by a Christian organization that gave them a head start with food and shelter. Eventually, the Phans moved to Santa Clara County. Both had to overcome the language barrier and reinvent themselves.
“My Dad gave up architecture and became a nuclear engineer. My mom gave up her law degree.”