Benton-Franklin Red Cross director to retire next month

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJune 13, 2013 

Jeanne Jelke became executive director of the Benton-Franklin chapter of the American Red Cross in 2002. And the California transplant quickly immersed herself in the community.

She went through Leadership Tri-Cities and became a presence at local gatherings such as chamber of commerce meetings.

"She's been a very hands-on leader, very involved. I think she's generated a lot of goodwill for the Red Cross in the community," said Brian Iller, chairman of the chapter's board of directors.

Now she's moving on.

Jelke, 61, retires next month -- a transition that will be bittersweet. Jelke plans to return to California to be closer to family, but she'll miss the community that's become her home, she said.

"This is the place I've lived the longest in my adult life," she told the Herald on Thursday.

Jelke has spent more than 13 years with the American Red Cross -- in the Bay Area and then the Tri-Cities. As a young woman in the '70s and '80s, she worked for eight years leading the Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society.

"During her time (in the Tri-Cities), Jelke has strengthened the local visibility and impact of the American Red Cross and initiated several signature community-based fundraising events," according to a Red Cross news release.

The events include the annual Real Heroes Breakfast, which has grown from 300 attendees in 2003 to almost 700 this year, and the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, which started with 600 participants in 2004 and is expected to draw 4,000 this year.

In a statement, Red Cross regional CEO Terry Pollard called Jelke "a great asset to our Red Cross team and to the community as a whole."

Jelke said her time at the Benton-Franklin Red Cross chapter has been personally meaningful. She talked about the network of volunteers, including those who mustered Tuesday when back-to-back brush fires broke out in south Kennewick and Finley.

The organization's mission is "phenomenal," she said. Even though she's set to retire, Jelke said she foresees staying involved with the Red Cross as a volunteer.

In an interview Thursday, when talk turned to saying goodbye to the community, Jelke grew emotional. "I'll just say thank you," she said. "Thank you to everybody."

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