SAN DIEGO — For many people, the American Red Cross invokes scenes of earthquakes, mud slides, fires and floods. But beyond disaster relief, the Red Cross human services programs touch millions of lives daily.
In San Diego, Donita Rotherham runs the ship. Precise, thoughtful, unflappable, she's just the sort you'd want at the helm when scudding through rough seas.
"I really love my work. I've enjoyed all my nursing jobs, but there's something special about Red Cross," she said. Recently selected the 1986 Distinguished Alumna (nursing, 1971) from San Diego State University's College of Human Services, Rotherham serves as executive director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Chapter of the American Red Cross.
"She's the first nurse in the country to hold this position," said Jimmy L. Nichols, administrative operations analyst at the College of Human Services. "That's a distinctive honor."
Along with seven other alumni, Rotherham was recognized May 24 at the ninth annual SDSU Awards Gala at the U.S. Grant Hotel.
"I'm really excited about this!" Rotherham said. "It's great for San Diego State to be doing this, recognizing their students. And it's great for the Red Cross. The majority of my opportunities have come because I've worked for Red Cross."
Despite whizzing cross-county and nationwide to attend meetings, run training sessions or complete grant proposals, Rotherham exudes an aura of calm, a sense of order. Her multifaceted administrative skills stem from 24 years of experience in nursing and executive level management.
In her tenure at Red Cross, Rotherham has spearheaded a range of innovative programs. Three key programs--her "pride and joy"--are WHEELS (a transportation service); the Oceanside- Carlsbad Community Clinic, and the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Food Program.
Early on, Rotherham recognized the transportation problems of many San Diego residents.
"WHEELS is a very special program, one of the most rewarding," Rotherham said. It provides rides for frail elderly and disabled to doctors' appointments, church and social events. Most riders are in wheelchairs, on walkers or crutches.
"I had not been out in the community for two years, until I discovered WHEELS," one client wrote.
"We're almost 100% booked every day," Rotherham said. "We project that we'll be doing 90,000 trips this fiscal year.
"Clients call a day ahead and say, 'I need to go to the doctor at 10:30 tomorrow morning.'
"Most of the physicians and medical centers are very cooperative. They're just wonderful about timing appointments and helping us get the people out as quickly as possible."
Rotherham hopes to computerize the complex schedule of vans and riders. Through networking with smaller agencies, WHEELS offers a coordinated transportation service agency that makes optimal use of all available vehicles countywide.
"Our drivers go through extensive training," she said. "We have first aid, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and empathy training in which we give them the experience of what it's like to be disabled. They use wheelchairs or walkers and hear from actual WHEELS riders who describe their specific needs: 'I have difficulty bending forward,' one might say. 'If you offer me your arm, I can get into the vehicle.' The natural instinct is to take hold of the person."
Rotherham's second major program focuses on health. A door-to-door survey affirmed her conviction that a clinic was needed to provide primary medical care, regardless of income. The Oceanside-Carlsbad Community Clinic, opened in 1972, provided medical care for people with no private insurance or area doctor. Rotherham, one of its founders, still presides over the board.
At first the clinic was open only in the evenings, with volunteer doctors, nurses and staff dispensing medical care. Today the facility, now on Cassidy Street in Oceanside, includes a pharmacy and lab, and handles 1,200 to 1,500 pediatric, adult and elderly patients monthly. The clinic provides extensive family planning and prenatal education, a pediatrics clinic and general adult medical care.
"Anyone is eligible for the clinic, but we do use a sliding fee schedule based on ability to pay," Rotherham said.
The clinic also serves as a site for the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Food Program, Rotherham's third major program. Red Cross runs the largest such program in San Diego County.
Each month, more than 4,000 people with nutritional problems receive vouchers to purchase high-protein, high-vitamin, high-iron foods: cheese, eggs, milk and infant formulas, juice and nutritional cereals.
"The No. 1 person we want to serve is the pregnant or lactating mother," Rotherham said. "Because, of course, better nutrition during pregnancy results in better fetal development." The program includes infants, children to age 4, and low-income families.