When Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross more than 125 years ago, she envisioned Americans organized to help those who had been touched by disaster.
Three generations of the Sharpe family, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa -- Gwenyth Sharpe (from left), Luke Sharpe, Gary Sharpe and Gary's sister, Karen Mercer – are proud of a family connection to Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. Mercer took in all three generations when their homes were inundated in recent flooding. (Photo by Dave Knoer/American Red Cross)
In the wake of floods that swept through Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Red Cross disaster volunteers have been bringing hot meals, water and cleanup supplies to three generations of a family that claims Barton on their family tree.
For decades, 87-year-old Gwenyth Sharpe treasured a genealogy, "Barton and Hummel Family Histories," that showed a connection to the famous humanitarian.
Sharpe's late husband, Kenneth Virden Sharpe, was the grandson of Sarah Barton Stewart. Family lore had it that Kenneth was a great nephew of Clara Barton.
This year, Barton's humanitarian descendents – hundreds of disaster workers – have provided food and shelter, medical and emotional attention, and emergency assistance to thousands across Iowa. The Sharpes – Gwenyth, her son Gary and his son Luke – are among the recipients.
"I've eaten many meals from the Red Cross trucks," Gary Sharpe said. "The volunteers seem happy to help, genuinely happy. It makes me feel good, because happiness is contagious."
The relief operation has impressed Luke Sharpe. "My wife and I volunteer for the humane society. But when all this is done, maybe it's time I join the Red Cross and carry on the tradition," he said.
"It took a disaster like this to see what the Red Cross really does and be proud to be a part of the family."
Now, the Sharpe family is working together to put life back on track after one of the worst natural disasters in Iowa history.
Luke Sharpe, whose family draws a connection to American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, shovels debris from his flood-damaged home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "It was our first house," he said, "but my father's place is home." Flood waters destroyed both his father's and his grandmother's homes. (Photo by Dave Knoer/American Red Cross)
"We are a family and we take care of each other," Luke Sharpe said.
Gwenyth Sharpe agreed. "There are people out there that really need help more than we do."
But she cherishes the family connection to the Red Cross founder. Through the years, she collected materials connected with Barton – most of which were ruined when flood waters filled the first floor of the house where she had lived for 27 years.
Gary Sharpe, now 61, remembers being skeptical when someone contacted the family in 1964 about their genealogy. "This guy called and sent letters. I thought it was a scam. Then sometime later, we received the book, which linked our family (to Clara Barton) and we never heard from the guy again.
"It seemed authentic enough. He put too much time and effort into the book and asked for nothing in return."
The book backed up family lore. "All of my kids and some of my grandkids all used the book for school reports through the years. It was an important part of us," Gwenyth Sharpe said.
Now the book is just one of the many things she has lost. "I had a blanket collection, like the one from the Olympic Committee, or the Veterans blanket. My blankets meant a lot to me," she said sadly.
She feels the tragedy in piles of debris on curbsides around her city. "These are not just belongings," she said. "These are people's lives and memories."
Gary Sharpe reflected on how hard it was to abandon the historic home where he lived for 30 years and raised four sons.
With waters rising swiftly on June 12, authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order. "I wasn't going," he recalled. "Then two big boys with arms as big as trees showed up and said I was leaving, now! At that point, staying wasn't an option, so I left."
The situation hit Gary's son Luke, 27, differently. "My wife and I just bought our first home," he said as he shoveled debris. "Our first payment was due on July 1. But our home was just a house. I'm more concerned about my father and grandmother, because their houses were actual homes."
Those homes housed a quiet connection to the famous founder of a major disaster relief organization.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and counsels victims of disasters; provides nearly half of the nation's blood supply; teaches lifesaving skills; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization – not a government agency – and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its humanitarian mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at www.redcrosschat.org.