When Bill Hanley first got the idea to tap downtown St. Paul's 10,000 residents to give blood, the idea was to try to help fill a sizable gap after employers ceased blood drives amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than four years — and nearly 2,000 units of blood — later, Hanley and hundreds of other folks who call downtown home have found something even better: Community.

"People have really come together over this," Hanley said Thursday, during his group's 50th consecutive monthly blood drive. He has an email list of 450 mostly downtown residents to call upon. "I have been fascinated by the idea of downtown as a new neighborhood."

If the Skyway Blood Drive folks have banded together over (sanguine) pints to create community, they have made St. Paul's Union Depot their community center. With the exception of the group's first blood drive, Union Depot has hosted every third Thursday of the month since.

Kerry Cipra has been helping pull this together nearly as long as Hanley. In fact, the former American Red Cross blood drive manager has been a partner in organizing everything from donor schedules to approaching sponsors who provide incentives to new donors. The St. Paul Saints, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Padelford Riverboats are just a few of the businesses that donate tickets and other goodies to get folks to part with their blood.

Cipra and her husband Barry, who split their time at residences in downtown St. Paul and in Northfield, estimate they've each donated about 10 gallons in their lifetimes.

"We had relied very heavily on corporate sponsors, churches and other organizations for years," Cipra said. "And all of those people were suddenly not there anymore. So it was Bill's idea to ask what was needed. But we also wanted to build a sense of community downtown... where people could say, 'This is my town. We need to step up.'"

Julie Jaszkowiak has given blood since 1985, and pretty much every few months since the Skyway Blood Drive folks first got organized. No one has to convince her of the ongoing need for blood.

"I've had friends that have had illnesses like cancer who need blood transfusions," Jaszkowiak said. "And then just especially in the summer, there's accidents, people traveling. My mom had surgery recently. So donating is really important to me."

Also, as a downtown resident, the blood drive has helped downtown feel more woven into a community, she said.

"Activities like the Twin Cities Jazz Fest and this, where you can come and participate at Union Depot, give us a chance to get out and be together."

Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown on the St. Paul City Council, called the blood drive "a wonderful way to build community."

Hanley, Cipra and more than 120 of the group's core volunteers did more than replenish dwindling blood supplies, Noecker said. They helped downtown residents find a way out of isolation after the pandemic sent most of the area's workers home.

"It's just really beautiful to see," she said.

Often, she said, downtown residents can feel less connected to their neighbors than in a traditional neighborhood. There, a couple folks chatting over a fence or gathering at a block party are longtime traditions for getting to know each other.

The downtown landscape, with its high-rise apartments and silent sidewalks after dark, can keep residents from venturing out of their condos and apartments. The monthly blood drive, Noecker said, "has become that neighborhood event for some people," she said.

Jesse Mollner is commander of the St. Paul Police Department's Special Operations Unit. The unit works with special events, monitors protests and civil unrest and secures large-scale events. "And we give blood," he said. It's important that the residents see police in their neighborhood as neighbors and not just cops, Mollner said.

To that end, the Skyway Blood Drive "is a terrific event," he said.

While the volunteers at the most recent drive were getting ready to receive a certificate of praise from the Red Cross, Hanley was also enduring a bit of ribbing. The retired Twin Cities Public Television executive, who lives in a condo near downtown's Mears Park, has an odd distinction.

None of the nearly 2,000 units of blood donated by the group Hanley has organized belonged to him.

He has never given blood.

"I guess I don't like needles," he said.

The Red Cross folks, it appears, are happy to give him a pass.

Correction: Previous versions of this story misstated the timeframe for Barry and Kerry Cipra's blood donation totals.