STARKVILLE — The mood was somber Thursday at the Oktibbeha County chapter of the American Red Cross.
The organization”s charter, which dates back to 1917, laid in its frame on a table. An intern answered phones at the front desk. And Becky Wilkes, who served as director of the Oktibbeha County Red Cross for the past four years, sipped coffee nearby.
“It”s a sad day for the county and the people who supported the Red Cross,” Wilkes said, shaking her head as she looked down at the charter.
Wilkes on Wednesday announced her resignation, effective July 13, due to the American Red Cross” statewide realignment. Program coordinator Connie Malone also resigned.
As part of the realignment, the Red Cross will maintain a Southeast Mississippi chapter in Hattiesburg, a Capitol River chapter in Jackson, a Northwest Mississippi chapter in Oxford, a Northeast Mississippi chapter in Tupelo and an East-Central Mississippi chapter in Meridian. Chapters in McComb and New Albany will close to avoid “redundancy” of services and to save the Red Cross money, said Paige Roberts, interim communications officer for the Red Cross in Mississippi.
Effective Thursday, the six remaining Red Cross chapters in Mississippi have been consolidated with the five main chapters in Hattiesburg, Jackson, Oxford, Tupelo and Meridian. The Tenn-Tom chapter in Lowndes County and the Oktibbeha County Red Cross now fall under the jurisdiction of the East-Central Mississippi chapter in Meridian, Roberts said.
It is unclear what will happen to the chapter offices in Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Clay counties. The Clay County office is a satellite of the Tenn-Tom chapter.
“There is restructuring going on, but it is business as usual throughout Mississippi,” said Becky Thomas, director of the Tenn-Tom chapter.
A team of board members and volunteers is being formed to discuss what to do about Red Cross services in the Golden Triangle, Roberts said. She does know, however, that either the Oktibbeha County or Tenn-Tom office will close. Which one closes is still up in the air, she said.
“There will be an office in the Golden Triangle; we just don”t know where and how that office will be,” Roberts said. “It”s a fluid situation. Nothing is set in stone.”
But Wilkes sees the situation differently.
“They told us, effective July 1, we were no longer a chapter,” Wilkes said. “So we”ve taken our charters off the wall and we”re no longer a chapter. We”re a location, at present, to be determined in the future whether it will stay open or not.”
“It could just serve as a volunteer base if we have fires in the area,” she added.
The Oktibbeha County Red Cross served Starkville and Oktibbeha County, along with Webster, Winston and Choctaw counties.
“I have been with the Red Cross for several years, and we have been through restructuring, and you never know who you are going to report to (after the realignment,” Thomas said. “We care about our communities. We want to do what”s best for the communities. We have never been upset, as long as we can do our jobs and take care of the needs in our communities.”
Wilkes said she found out about the Red Cross” realignment plans in June. She and other Oktibbeha County Red Cross representatives then met June 15 with Derrick Chubbs, division vice president for the American Red Cross in Mississippi, and discovered the Oktibbeha County chapter might close.
“We were told initially we would be kept open and Columbus would close,” Wilkes said. “Then they came in that night (June 15) and said Columbus had made a convincing argument to stay open and asked what could we do? We were totally unprepared for that.”
Plus, three key members of the Oktibbeha County chapter”s board of directors — Carol Read Moss, Vance Watson and Jim Henson — were out of town and could not attend the meeting.