The cost of providing relief services in the Merrimack Valley caused American Red Cross of Merrimack Valley to merge with Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay, but the Ward Hill office will stay for at least two years.

Merrimack Valley, with flooding in the spring and fires in the winter, is an expensive area to provide services, and the Red Cross wants to stretch funding to best fit its mission.

As of January 2008 Massachusetts Bay Red Cross is the regional chapter responsible for all of Eastern Massachusetts, which includes the Merrimack Valley. Mass Bay now provides administrative and management support for the Merrimack Valley chapter, which serves 25 communities — 18 in Massachusetts and seven in New Hampshire.

"Consolidation means less money for bricks and mortar and more for support services," said John Lavery, chief operating officer of the Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay.

Lavery said the Merrimack Valley chapter was in financial trouble before the consolidation. The organization raises about $330,000 annually, but that money barely helped them break even as costs for disaster relief rose.

In 2007 the chapter responded to around 100 fires that each required anywhere from $14,000 to $33,000 in aid, but it was not receiving enough donations to fulfill it's needs.

There were also changes in personnel. Executive Director Yvonne Zinicola retired in November of 2007 and the national office placed Jamie Devlin in Ward Hill as the interim director.

Public relations director Jay Foley's departure may have been because his position was a casualty of the consolidation, but Lavery wasn't sure and didn't feel comfortable commenting.

Lavery said that the Merrimack Valley Chapter will have the same community involvement, phone number and physical office in the Merrimack Valley as it has a long-term lease at the current Ward Hill site for about two more years.

"The Red Cross of Merrimack Valley is still going to be in the same form for the foreseeable future," Lavery said.

Consolidation has affected Red Cross chapters nationwide.

According to Lavery, there are less than 800 chapters in the United States today, but just five years ago there were about 2,000. The Mass Bay Red Cross serves 127 cities and towns, but has only seven offices.

"That's the tricky part for us," Lavery said. "We want to have just the right number of offices in just the right places."

Lavery understands the sharp decline in offices may worry some communities, but asserts that it will be business as usual in the Merrimack Valley because direct services, disaster relief, and health and safety education won't change

"I don't think there will be any change in public perception," said Lavery, adding that when the Merrimack Valley chapter moved from Lowell to Ward Hill five years ago, people were concerned services would change for the worse, but he hasn't heard anything that has indicated so.

It is a constant tug of war for the Red Cross to "find the most effective use of donor dollars," said Lavery. Local donations, however, are used locally, not sent to the national office.

"We're always looking for ways to achieve office consolidation so we can provide more and more direct relief," Lavery said. "Even in the world of nonprofits, you have to worry about the bottom line, unfortunately."

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