South Side Elementary School held its third annual Red Cross blood drive Thursday in honor of a former student whose giving spirit and recent illness inspired such a turnout that Red Cross Blood Services brought reinforcements to handle the overflow.
A seventh-grader this year at Indian Trail Middle School, Alicia Gwaltney is well remembered at South Side as the energetic fifth-grader who organized a school-wide “Pennies for Haiti” drive that raised several hundred dollars for Red Cross relief work in Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake that hit the country early in 2010.
Principal Amy Stover said when the school learned two weeks ago that Alicia had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and would be to traveling to Memphis for treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the blood drive was already planned and set up to handle about 45 anticipated donors. But flyers sent home to parents and posted around school announcing that this year’s drive would be held in Alicia’s honor quickly changed everyone’s expectations.
In little more than a week, Stover said, 65 parents, teachers and school staff members had filled up appointment slots scheduled every 15 minutes throughout the four-hour blood drive and more were asking if they could be worked in. Gwen Hunter, the local Red Cross Blood Services Center donor recruitment representative, was happily surprised by the development and pleased to accommodate the crowd.
Extra staff and equipment were called in, and Thursday afternoon there were four blood-screening stations, six phlebotomy stations and a small army of Red Cross nurses from the Johnson City and Asheville, N.C., offices rolling with the flow in the South Side gym, equipped to handle everyone scheduled and everyone who walked in.
Dedri Minutolo, the head custodian at South Side who Stover credited with suggesting the drive be held in Alicia’s honor, was among the first to roll up her sleeve. A longtime donor, Minutolo said she began giving blood in college in honor of several members of her family who are free bleeders. On Thursday, she brought her total to 42 units, or more than five gallons, of blood given over the past 30 years.
Virginia Buda and Bruce Dalton were among the South Side parents who made up the largest portion of the Thursday’s donors. Dalton said he knew Alicia only through the flyer his daughter, Diana, a fourth-grader, brought to him with her request for him to sign up. Buda, whose son, Miles, is a kindergartner at South Side, said she appreciated the drive and the Red Cross for providing “easy access to help a lot of people.”
“When you find out someone has cancer, you feel helpless and there’s nothing you can do,” Stover said. “This is something we can do. And even though this blood won’t go to Alicia, it will go to someone and help them.”
As for Alicia, Stover said she spoke to Alicia’s dad Thursday afternoon and was pleased to learn she is doing well after undergoing surgery Monday, and her doctors are already discussing her discharge to a nearby Ronald McDonald House.
In the meantime, Alicia is keeping in touch with friends from St. Jude’s ICU unit via a laptop that Stover said will soon bring her a surprise gift from the school, a YouTube video of the blood drive held in her honor complete with get-well messages from her old friends at South Side produced and posted by the school’s tech coach, Carlton Lyon.