Last year, the Gift of Life Marathon in Rutland, Vt., reached its goal despite COVID that kept some donors away as a blizzard that fell the night before one blood drive.
That success may be tied to the 100th birthday of Mary Ojala, who died Monday.
Ojala was named as the longest-serving volunteer for the American Red Cross’ Northern New England Region in an article for the organization last year.
Because Ojala, who had been a volunteer at Rutland blood drives since before the Gift of Life Marathon (GOLM) began, turned 100 in November, the 2020 GOLM served as her centennial birthday party.
Before the 2020 GOLM, Ojala told the Rutland Herald why she was asking people who wanted to give her a birthday gift to donate blood.
“(A blood donation) affects a lot of people. None of us know how many. You might be saving one life or you could be saving several. It’s a very important thing to do,” she said.
Locally, Ojala, who lived in the Rutland area for many years, had volunteered for about 33 years after retiring from her time as the activities director at the Beverly Manor nursing home. She stepped down from her volunteer work when she was 93 but came back as a spokeswoman for the 2020 GOLM.
She said in November that her fondest memories of volunteering were the people she got to know.
“I used to be at the table after the donors had given blood. I would be at that table where they would get coffee and some refreshments, and I got to meet a lot of nice people. I’m still friends with them for years,” she said.
Her son, Carl “Gus” Ojala, said her family had been able to bring his mother home before she passed so she could be with her family.
“She always had a big heart. She loved her family and the community,” he said.
After Mary Ojala left Jersey City, New Jersey, she came to love Vermont and the Rutland area, her son said.
The 2020 GOLM was “incredible and almost overwhelming” for Mary, Gus Ojala said, because she got such an outpouring of support and love.
“She just loved the volunteers, the people who worked at the Red Cross and the donors — she got to know a lot of the donors. So for her to have her name put on the same line as that blood drive, like she said, (it was) just overwhelming — very emotional for her,” Gus Ojala said.
He added that his mother was very pleased that despite the challenges, the GOLM met and exceeded its goal of 495 donations in 2020 by collecting 525 donations.
By email, Mary Brant, communications manager for the American Red Cross Northern New England Region, said more than 90% of the American Red Cross workforce is made up of volunteers.
“We could not fulfill our humanitarian mission without them. We were so blessed to have Mary Ojala as a volunteer with our organization. She brought joy to everything she did and everyone who met her,” Brant said.
Steve Costello, a vice president at Green Mountain Power and an organizer for the GOLM, said he had known Mary Ojala, whom he met as a blood drive volunteer, for a little more than 20 years.
“She’s just an amazing person. If you think about it, someone continuing to volunteer and help, literally right to her very last days of life at 100 is pretty amazing,” he said.
Costello noted Ojala did multiple interviews and wrote several letters supporting the 2020 GOLM just around the time she turned 100 in November.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that she had an enormous impact in helping us reach our goal,” he said.
Costello compared her effectiveness to Stefanie Schaffer, of Rutland, who served as spokeswoman in 2019, after Schaffer was injured in a 2018 accident, which left her needing blood donations.
Another GOLM organizer, Terry Jarrosak, known to his radio audience as Terry Jaye, said he appreciated the contribution Ojala made.
“We got to celebrate her and she got to celebrate her 100th the way that she wanted to,” he said.
Jaye said his heart went out to Ojala’s family.
Gus Ojala said that in a family with eight siblings, including himself, evenly split between sons and daughters, and which also includes grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Mary Ojala was the “glue of this family.”
“She showed us what family really is,” he said.