HOLLIDAYSBURG - The Red Cross has come into Astride McLanahan's life in those moments when she needed it the most.
"There is more to the Red Cross than fires and floods," said McLanahan, who also is a board member for the organization's Southern Alleghenies Chapter, "although they do that very well, and they've been doing it this past year, it seems like, a lot."
McLanahan's relationship with the Red Cross began in 1944 when she was 4 years old, fleeing war-torn Latvia with her grandfather, father, pregnant mother and 1-year-old sister.
After settling into a displaced persons camp in southern Germany, the Red Cross provided McLanahan's mother with baby clothes and a buggy.
The family had left Latvia with nothing, she said.
McLanahan attended school in the camp, where she learned German and some English.
And every so often, the children would receive "a little box, and on the top of this box was a red cross."
Inside, McLanahan said, there were school supplies, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a can of Hershey's liquid chocolate, something she had never seen or tasted before.
But the most interesting thing in the box was something many children take for granted a No. 2 pencil.
"As a student in elementary school, all our work was done in ink. And in this box was this beautiful yellow No. 2 pencil. And it was like having gold, I think."
The pencils were "just miraculous," she said.
Years later, McLanahan's father's uncle, who had come to the United States as a young man, was searching desperately for her and her family.
Families were scattered all over the globe after World War II, she said, but the Red Cross had been keeping lists of those in the camps.
"If you went through the Red Cross, you could possible locate your relatives," she said.
Her great-uncle sponsored the family and they were able to come to America through Ellis Island in November 1949.
"If he had not found us, in that camp, I don't know where I would be today. ... Many families were helped that way," she said.
McLanahan's Red Cross story doesn't end there.
Two of her grandchildren suffer from an immune disorder and receive frequent intravenous immunoglobulin blood transfusions. Thanks to the Red Cross, they're able to get what they need, she said.
After everything the organization has provided her and her family, McLanahan said she was surprised but happy when chapter manager Jane Gable approached her about joining the board a year and a half ago.
"I thought, you know what? The Red Cross has touched my life all along, from the time I was very young, and maybe there's something I can do to help them," she said.
Now that it's Red Cross Month, Gable said McLanahan has been helping tremendously.
Red Cross Month, according to its website, is a time for everyone to remember the Red Cross' work and lend support to an organization that relies solely on donations.
One need not look far to see how much work the Red Cross does.
Gable said between July 2011 and January 2012, there were 26 fires in Blair County an average of one per week. And this year, the chapter which serves Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon and Fulton counties has seen an increase in the number of disasters, she said.
Between July 2011 and January 2012, the Red Cross responded to 34 events and served 43 people. For the same period in 2012 to 2013, there were 39 events and the organization served 53 people.
A lot of that has to do with the economy; with more people living under one roof, a disaster affects more people, she said.
In the central Pennsylvania region, Gable said the Southern Alleghenies chapter is the third-most active, behind only Harrisburg and Lancaster-York.
And with so much to do, Gable said she is grateful for McLanahan's help in organizing and reaching out to people to tell them about the Red Cross.
"It's touched different members of her family," she said, "and that's something I think a lot of people don't think about ... the international aspect of the Red Cross."
Part of this year's Red Cross Month is the new location grand opening at 4:30 p.m. March 21 at 415 Orchard Ave., Suite 1 in Orchard Plaza. McLanahan has been a big part of the grand opening effort, Gable said.
"We're very pleased that she's serving on the board and are thankful that we have someone with such a personal connection to the Red Cross, who can tell our story," she said.
McLanahan said she is just happy to help.
"I was touched when I was very young. I was touched by it growing up. I was touched by it when I came here, and I continue to be now that I have grandchildren who need blood products," she said. "I never thought that I really would have the opportunity to go out there and help them in any way."
Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.