Exuberant nurses sporting bright red T-shirts greeted students three at a time in a small office inside the University of Montana pharmacy school Nov. 5. While feel-good pop relics of the 2000s provided background sound, people lay back in leather chairs squeezing stress balls as Red Cross volunteers jabbed their arms with needles to draw blood donations.

The drive saw little traffic, but workers continued boosting morale among the donors, and spirits remained high in their efforts for a good cause.

The Red Cross and Missoula community food banks are riding a wave of enthusiasm leading up to the Brawl of the Wild football game Nov. 20. Paired with the game are two cross-town competitions: the Cat-Griz Blood Battle and Can the Cats Food Drive.

The blood drive started Nov. 5 with a student-focused blood drive at the School of Pharmacy, which will host four more drives through Nov. 17. The food drive began with a Nov. 6 Lady Griz Volleyball game, where attendants could donate five cans of food for free entry. The drive will end with the Brawl of the Wild game.

Carmen Thissen, the events and marketing coordinator for the Missoula Food Bank, said the Food Bank and UM Food Pantry need donations now more than ever.

“In our Missoula community, the pandemic has obviously been really hard on a lot of families,” Thissen said. “We as a community center have helped to meet the basic food needs of one in five people who call Missoula County home, which is more people than the max capacity of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.”

This year marks the 22nd Can the Cats competition, of which UM has only won four. Last year, UM beat the Cats by 267,525 pounds of food, and the Missoula Food Bank is aiming for 406,000 total pounds this year.

“When it comes to Can the Cats, the coolest thing is having it tied to the athletic events to make it exciting and also hopefully engage people who might not otherwise think of donating to the food bank,” Thissen said.

Matthew Ochsner, the American Red Cross of Montana communications director, said this year’s blood drive is especially crucial to combat a national blood shortage resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re at our lowest point of blood donation at this part of the year than we’ve been in the last 10 years. Part of this has to do, of course, with the challenges of COVID-19,” Ochsner said. “We’re a very strong blood-collecting state right now, and as compared to many other states, we’re doing quite well. But if there’s a need in another state, we will help support that state as well. All the blood that we collect here in Montana will find a home in an arm that needs it.”

Ochsner said the Cat-Griz Blood Battle targets first-time donors during a part of the year where donations often decrease, though the need for blood persists year-round.

“We tend to see a decrease in blood donations as we get into the holiday season as people get busy, but there’s still a constant demand for blood,” Ochsner said, “It’s so important that we get new people to realize how important blood donation is, and college students provide a great opportunity to turn a first-time donor maybe into a lifetime donor.”

Abbagail Hyde, a UM student majoring in pre-med, made her first donation at a Nov. 5 blood drive in the pharmacy school. She said her hematology course inspired her to donate and help hospitals in need.

“I will definitely donate again,” Hyde said. “I think it’s important when becoming a part of the medical field, and I just want to help whoever I can.”

Chelyn Rice, a phlebotomist and the leader of the Nov. 5 blood drive, has been working with the Red Cross for two years and donating blood since she graduated high school. Rice said the Red Cross aimed for 24 donations at the first drive, but added they would probably not achieve their goal for the first day.

“We’ve had a few no-shows, but we’re very happy to be here,” Rice said. “America is critically short on blood right now, and colleges have diversified populations with many different blood types, so it’s important that students donate. Once you get past that first time, it’s really not that bad.”

UM will host four more blood collection sites before the Brawl of the Wild game, and the food drive has locations across town for food donations and accepts cash donations online. Details on how to sign up to donate blood are on the American Red Cross of Montana Facebook Page, and the event calendar and location list for the food drive are on the Missoula Food Bank website.

“In the past 10 years alone, we have collected more than 1,760 units of lifesaving blood at Cat-Griz Blood Battle drives,” Ochsner said. “Nationwide, blood donations at high school and college drives account for as much as 20% of donations during the school year. University blood drives play a critical role in ensuring an adequate community blood supply.”