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20 years of service answered with 'no'
The Red Cross says it can't help a volunteer's family after his death.
By JODIE TILLMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 13, 2007
Kathleen Oringer, left, and Stewart Oringer, right, pose while volunteering with the Red Cross during a hurricane. Stewart kept bags of supplies in their home to help out during storms.
[David Degner | Times]
Katheen Oringer hugs her grandson Sean Sehlough, 16, after the funeral of her husband, Stewart, who died last week. Stewart Oringer volunteered with the Red Cross for years. His family asked the agency for help after his death, but was told no.
HUDSON - The preacher never knew the man whose mourners now filled the church pews. But he saw the things Stewart "Chuck" Oringer Sr. had done and gauged the man he had been.
"I believe Chuck loved his neighbors," said Pastor Jake Richie at Oringer's funeral Wednesday. "I believe that was his mode of life."
Most significant? Twenty years of volunteer service with the American Red Cross.
"To give your time for 20 years, you've got to love it," the pastor said. "If you learn to help other people, it'll really bless you."
Out in the pews, his family wondered: How blessed did Oringer's deeds leave him?
Oringer had worked as a security guard and in the Pasco utilities department. His family and friends considered him the life of the party and a jack-of-all-trades.
More than 20 years ago, Oringer began volunteering with the Red Cross. He got out of bed at night to help families whose homes had just burned down. He kept bags of supplies and batteries ready during hurricane season. He helped run Pasco shelters and during one storm stood for so long he got blisters on his feet.
His health failed in recent years - three heart attacks, two strokes, lung disease - and his wife of 44 years, Kathleen, cared for him until his death last week at age 65.
Money never came easily for the Oringer family, but Kathleen says she has reached her lowest point. She is on disability, which pays about $285 a month. Her husband had received Social Security benefits that paid most of their bills, but his death means an unknown delay until those benefits can continue for Kathleen.
Their children went out to find help. Their first stop? Red Cross' Port Richey office, where they asked for some kind of financial assistance, even if it was just a collection jar set up on the office counter. Red Cross said no.
This situation raises questions about the nature of charity. People often expect something in return for our charitable works: a leg up in college admissions, for instance, or the satisfied feeling that comes from giving back or good karma. Was this any different?
"Red Cross helps people all the time," said daughter-in-law Jennifer Oringer. "Why wouldn't they help someone who's been helping them for 25 years?"
Here was the problem, said Judy Pontiff, community relations manager with the local Red Cross branch, and Melanie Koch, spokeswoman for the Tampa Bay chapter.
Red Cross has a specific mission: to help people dealing with disasters like fires and hurricanes. People in need for other reasons should find another type of charity. That means volunteers, too, they said, because why should they be treated differently than anyone else?
"I feel bad for them but there's nothing we as an agency can do," said Pontiff, who added that Oringer had not volunteered for the office for nearly five years and that she provided the family with a phone number for United Way.
"If we did for them, we'd have to change our mission and do it for everybody," said Koch. As for putting up a donation jar at the office, she said, where would Red Cross draw the line? "Why would we do it for him and not other volunteers?"
Former local Red Cross manager Connie Jackson, who occasionally clashed with higher-up officials in the Tampa office before leaving nearly 11/2 years ago, said she remembers Oringer.
"He did a lot of things," she said. "He just liked helping other people. I guess he figured he might need the help one day."
She wondered if the current officials might have been more flexible. She didn't see the big deal about putting up a donation jar.
"For the most part, Red Cross helps anybody they can," said Jackson. "I mean, I'm surprised they didn't do something."
Kathleen Oringer, the widow, said she had not known her children were seeking help from Red Cross on her behalf. But when she learned the outcome, she said, she was hurt.
"Believe it or not, this is my disaster," she said. "I just need some help. I'm not looking to take people for a ride."
But the Oringers did find some help. The Church of God, on New York Avenue in Hudson, volunteered its sanctuary for the funeral and its fellowship hall for the reception.
And after the Oringers called Pasco's Community Emergency Response Team CERT, for whom Oringer had also volunteered, team members knocked on the family's door the morning of the funeral. They brought bags of canned hams, pies and rolls for the reception.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.