As the British might say, Wendi Keeler does a bloody good job.
Keeler, 50, organizes Penn State blood drives for the American Red Cross Greater Alleghenies Blood Services Region. Last school year, Penn State gave 8,260 pints, making the university the nation’s third-most generous campus. A donor resources field representative, Keeler also advises the student Red Cross club, whose members often visit her home near Port Matilda when they’re not busy collecting.
Q: What brought you to the Red Cross?
A: In high school, I was a swimmer, so it was natural for me to become a lifeguard. And to do that, the only course was the American Red Cross lifesaving course. ... I was involved with aquatics through the American Red Cross all through high school, all through my college days, and then my first job was at the YMCA in Bellefonte (as the) aquatics director there. ... (Then) I went a different road. I left the YMCA and went back to school and became a medical technologist. ... I chose to start a blood drive at my workplace and contacted the American Red Cross here. And we started having drives ... and then a position opened up at the Red Cross.
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Q: What’s kept you on the job?
A: I believe in the mission. The mission of the Red Cross is to help people — to prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters. ... When I was a lifeguard, I literally pulled a little boy out of the water and gave him mouth-to-mouth and saved his life. And that was very powerful. It was very powerful to know that you have the ability to actually help people.
Q: What’s the key to your success?
A: First of all, the club is an important part of that. If we didn’t have the student Red Cross club on campus, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. They are the underlying sponsoring organization of all blood drives on campus. They’re the ones that give us a majority of volunteers. Even in the summer, there’s a core group of students who are still here, and they still volunteer for us. ... So we have a huge number of students that we draw from, both for donors and volunteers, at our blood drives.
The second reason the program is so successful is the support of the university. From Dr. (Graham) Spanier all the way down to the staff assistants, or the contacts in each of the colleges that support our blood drives, the university as a whole is hugely supportive. ... We collect about 25 to 30 percent of the total number of units in the year from faculty and staff.
Q: And that’s different from other colleges?
A: The norm is pretty low, if any, participation. They may have some faculty and staff who just come into the blood drive because it’s there. But the majority of other colleges don’t have a huge number of drives that are really geared toward the faculty, and sponsored by the faculty and staff themselves.
Q: What’s the hardest part of your job?
A: It’s the hardest but it’s also the most rewarding, and that’s working with the student groups. ... It’s the best part of my job because ... it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see those kids become responsible blood-drive sponsors, that we have a planning meeting, and this is what I expect you to do. It’s really satisfying to see them actually do that, and to have the satisfaction on their faces when they do a successful blood drive.
On the other hand, I lose them every year because I have new contacts coming in, and sometimes it’s even every semester. So I don’t get the joy of working with the same students over and over, year after year.
Q: You’re constantly rebuilding your network.
A: I am. And it’s constant training. But on the other hand, I feel that it’s my duty, working with the young people, to be able to give them the skills and the knowledge to be successful. I’m helping them to become a leader, and that’s really, really satisfying on my end. ... We have a core group of 10, 11 officers who really lead the club. And I form a really strong relationship, very strong bond with those kids, each and every year. I mean, they come to our house. The big thing is, now, they want to have a sleepover! ... But we have them over for Christmas parties. We cook for them. They know at the beginning of the year, they get my home phone number: ‘If you ever get into trouble, you know, you need to call me. Call me. Your parents aren’t here. Call me.’ ... They know they have somebody here that they count on, and that’s pretty satisfying.
Q: In a way, you’re a surrogate parent.
A: They call me their mom all the time. I meet their parents and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is Wendi. This is my Penn State mom.’ I used to not like that because it kind of meant that I was getting older. It almost seemed like when I first started, I was a peer with them. ... But now, it’s more like, I’m more of an adult figure to them, and that’s OK.