When Renee Love and her family struck out in a minivan for a long weekend at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., they never imagined how the vacation would end.
The day before they planned to return home to Rock Hill, a cousin reached them with devastating news.
"He called and let us know the house was on fire," recalled Nicole Love, Renee's daughter. "I couldn't believe it. I thought he was playing a joke."
For the Loves, a sun-splashed weekend in Florida quickly turned into a panicked scramble to get home. The good news: When they arrived, the American Red Cross was waiting.
Local responders offered hugs and reassuring words -- along with a debit card good for food, clothes and lodging at a motel. It was much-needed relief after an electrical fire gutted the family's two-bedroom house on Smith Street.
"They know what to do in bad times," Renee Love, 45, said. "At that point, I needed a shoulder, and they were there."
Families like the Loves have reason to worry about the future of the agency that served them so well.
Like many nonprofits, the York County chapter of the Red Cross is struggling through a difficult year, with monetary donations drying up and blood supplies dropping as donors scale back.
"This is very different from anything I've seen," said director Rebecca Melton, now in her 21st year. "The people that we traditionally depend on are not in a position to do what they did before or do anything."
Drop in donations
Direct donations were down 35 percent in December alone, leaving the agency about $125,000 behind where it was last year. That's an alarming drop in the typically strong Christmas fundraising season. The agency hasn't filled paid positions in almost two years. Last year, it eliminated out-of-town travel and training and stopped ordering office supplies not considered essential.
Those moves probably won't be enough. When a new spending plan is drawn up in May, Melton expects her board will have to cut $200,000 from a $1.2 million annual budget if current trends continue. She isn't sure where more savings will be found.
But the ongoing challenge is clear: The Red Cross must be prepared at all times to help victims affected by fires and other disasters because it's the only agency charged with that responsibility. Its volunteers are "first responders" to any number of emergencies, and no matter what, the agency cannot cut services to families in crisis.
Red Cross chapters consider two core services -- disaster response and emergency communications aid for military families -- to be congressionally mandated obligations they must meet regardless of other factors.
Supporters hope an annual fundraising drive this month will help ease the burden. Under the leadership of state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, the "Heroes" campaign seeks to raise $100,000 for York County by the end of March. A separate campaign led by county supervisor Carlisle Roddey aims for $25,000 for Chester County.
"I'm just going to remind them the Red Cross has always been there," said Hayes, describing the case he will make to solicit contributions from donors. "It's been there for service members, for fire victims. And now we need to be there for them.
"The times are a little tougher now. We'll have to work a little harder."
As resources dwindle, demand continues to run high for local Red Cross services. The agency has responded to 106 fires in the past seven months, providing shelter, food and supplies to 349 people in York, Chester and Lancaster counties. That's up slightly compared to previous periods, Melton said.
The busiest stretch came in January, when 18 fires left 55 people in need.
More living under one roof
The poor economy is changing the nature of demands. Grandparents, adults and children are moving in with one another because they can no longer keep up with mortgages and utility bills, said Denise Cubbedge, director of emergency services. That means when fires occur, more people are left in need of help.
"You're finding multiple generations housed together," Cubbedge said. "They're desperate right now."
Three weeks ago, Red Cross volunteers responding to a house fire in north Rock Hill found eight people sharing a two-bedroom abode. In other cases, relief workers have found as many as 10 people living under one roof.
Families are desperate to avoid high heating bills in the winter months. So they're turning to kerosene heaters and other portable devices that are cheaper -- and more dangerous. That might explain why fires peaked in January.
Last month, firefighters rushed to the scene of a house fire in western York County. They discovered the man living there had built a campfire outside his front door to keep warm, Red Cross officials said. The man's electricity had been cut off because he fell behind on monthly bills.
Money, blood dwindles
Red Cross leaders have made changes to keep resources flowing to those in need.
A major cost-saving move last year resulted in the merger of three offices in York, Lancaster and Chester counties. The newly created Upper Palmetto chapter relies on one administrative office instead of three.
Still, more tough choices loom. The Red Cross depends on three area United Way agencies for 20 percent of its funding, with the remainder coming from direct donations and product sales. In York County, the United Way has said it could fall short of its fundraising goal of $1.9 million by $400,000 to $500,000.
United Way officials say it's too early to project future allocations, but Red Cross leadership fears cuts of 20 to 30 percent next year, given the state of the economy. The Red Cross received its full $146,000 request for the current fiscal year.
And then there's the blood. About half of all blood donations come from company blood drives. With more corporations closing and laying off workers, fewer are able to match their commitments from previous years.
In Chester County, the agency expected to collect 698 pints over the past six months. Instead, donations totaled 416 pints. A similar trend played out in York County, where blood donations are down 300 pints compared with last year.
If the trend continues, Melton said, it's possible that elective surgeries could have to be postponed until blood can be found.
Amid the challenges, Red Cross responders must continue to mobilize when families, such as the Loves, are struck by disaster.
A week or so after the Valentine's Day fire that destroyed much of their home, Renee Love, daughter Nicole and Nicole's two young children moved in with various relatives. They are hoping to move into a new place of their own through the city of Rock Hill's first-time homebuyers program.
When moving day arrives, Red Cross workers told Love they would partner to provide furniture, dishes and other essentials to a grateful family.
"It kind of lifts your spirits," Love said, "when you know somebody is really trying to help you."