Julie Zellmer needs 44 donors for every blood drive she organizes in Aneta, N.D. During the past year, she planned five blood drives, nearly matching the number of donors to the 222 residents who call the east-central North Dakota town home.

Last spring, Zellmer contacted me to be a donor, as we were living on my parent’s nearby farm. The last time I was scheduled to donate blood was on the day of our son’s December 2019 accident. I never made it to my appointment. Details of that day lingered in my mind when I answered Zellmer’s text message request. I immediately said yes — and have since returned three more times over the past year to donate blood when asked.

Zellmer’s passion for local blood drives shines through her example and words:

“It’s important for the community to donate blood. It’s also healthy for them. You’re not donating for yourself. Think of those you know who are cancer patients, are accident victims and have suffered strokes and heart attacks. You’re donating for others. Think of others rather than yourself.”

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The Aneta Quick Response Unit usually plans three blood drives annually, but the demand and need for blood prompted Julie Zellmer, volunteer organizer, to hold more events this past year. Photo taken April 20, 2021 in Aneta, N.D. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
The Aneta Quick Response Unit usually plans three blood drives annually, but the demand and need for blood prompted Julie Zellmer, volunteer organizer, to hold more events this past year. Photo taken April 20, 2021 in Aneta, N.D. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Zellmer, 61, works as a home care registered nurse with Sanford out of Mayville, N.D. She also has been an EMT for 28 years and both of her children, daughter, Carrie, 38, and son, Kelly, 34, serve as EMTs, which makes Zellmer “200% proud.”

The five blood drives in Aneta in the past year were run by Vitalant.

Zellmer usually plans three blood drives in Aneta annually, but the demand and need for blood prompted her to hold more events this past year.

“COVID-19, in some ways, has brought new donors as they wanted to see if they have antibodies, and some donated after they’ve recovered from COVID-19.” According to Vitalant, if a blood donation is antibody positive it can “produce convalescent plasma from it to help COVID-19 patients — and the remaining blood components will help other patients with serious medical conditions.”

Julie Zellmer's volunteerism in Aneta, N.D., changed Katie Pinke from being a once-every-couple-of-years blood donor to giving blood multiple times over the past year. Zellmer, a member of the Aneta Quick Response Unit, signs up 44 donors for every blood drive, held five over the past year, nearly matching blood donors to the total population of Aneta. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
Julie Zellmer's volunteerism in Aneta, N.D., changed Katie Pinke from being a once-every-couple-of-years blood donor to giving blood multiple times over the past year. Zellmer, a member of the Aneta Quick Response Unit, signs up 44 donors for every blood drive, held five over the past year, nearly matching blood donors to the total population of Aneta. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
It’s disappointing COVID-19 mask restrictions have kept a few people from donating blood, Zellmer adds.

“It’s so selfish. People who have donated every single time now don’t donate blood. Moms, dads, sons and daughters, they’re not donating,” she says. “As a home care nurse, I’ve taken care of many, many COVID-19 patients. Use precautions. Wear your masks.”

For each blood drive, Zellmer takes a day off from her nursing job to serve as the volunteer blood drive coordinator, which is sponsored by the Aneta Quick Response Unit volunteers. The unit includes four active EMTs and three Emergency Medical Responders who respond to all emergency calls in their district if they’re available, and “someone almost always is available and there,” Zellmer says.

The largest Aneta blood drive is usually the Tuesday following the annual Aneta Turkey Barbeque, which was canceled last summer because of COVID-19 precautions. The event is scheduled to return this summer on the third Saturday in June. Zellmer hosts a blood drive the following Tuesday with hopes of getting some new donors who are still in town after the large gathering.

The Aneta Quick Response Unit usually plans three blood drives annually, but the demand and need for blood prompted Julie Zellmer, volunteer organizer, to hold more events this past year. Photo taken April 20, 2021 in Aneta, N.D. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
The Aneta Quick Response Unit usually plans three blood drives annually, but the demand and need for blood prompted Julie Zellmer, volunteer organizer, to hold more events this past year. Photo taken April 20, 2021 in Aneta, N.D. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)
The next Aneta blood drive is scheduled for June 22 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Aneta Fire Department, where Zellmer’s husband, Lon, has served as the fire chief for 28 years. “He backs out the trucks for me and helps sweep the floor every time to get it ready,” Zellmer says.

In preparation for each drive, Zellmer calls all possible donors, usually more than 60 people, to fill her 44 donation spots. She also places posters around town and information in the Aneta Star newspaper.

“Sometimes I scan the phone book to see if anyone new is listed who I haven’t reached out to before,” she says. “I know who will donate, usually. I have farmers who will donate two units. I space them out throughout the day and have a schedule.”

Losing a sister-in-law to cancer in the 1980s inspired her to organize blood drives. When Zellmer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, she was told she wasn’t allowed to give blood anymore. However, since 2007, having multiple sclerosis no longer disqualifies her from donating blood – and she is honored to give blood every chance she gets.

Zellmer changed me from being a once-every-couple-of-years blood donor to giving blood multiple times a year, even in the most disrupted year of my life. Her unassuming, selfless example raises the bar for many of us in rural areas, communities and towns to get involved and give back.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.