Wisconsin Region spotlight: Q&A with Edita Emini

Every few months, we’re highlighting the incredible work toward the mission of the American Red Cross by one of our colleagues in the Wisconsin Region. Hopefully these short profiles provide a little light of positivity and inspiration across all lines of service in our humanitarian mission.

This latest profile is on Edita Emini, an Aquatics Sales Leader with our Training Services department, who has transitioned her passion for athletics into programs that make our communities healthier and safer. Questions were asked by members of the Region communications team, and edited for style and space.

American Red Cross: Tell us about your professional background and your role at the Red Cross. 

My career started at Carthage College where I was a graduate assistant for the soccer program. Upon completion of my graduate degree I then transitioned into the role of Manager of Athletic Faculties at Carthage College. Prior to the Red Cross, I was with Kiefer Aquatics as an Account Executive. The transition to the Aquatics Division within Red Cross Training Services from Kiefer Aquatics was natural, as I worked in the aquatics industry for four-plus years. 

The mission of the Red Cross connects us to so many people. Can you share an anecdote about someone whose life was affected by your role or work at the Red Cross? 

My father recently experienced cardiac complication. My role with the Red Cross and training within our CPR and AED program helped myself and my family react quickly, which made a big impact in his treatment!

How do you explain what you do to people outside the Red Cross? 

This is a good question! The Red Cross carries such a big brand. When I say I work for the Red Cross the assumption is with disaster or blood services. I explain to family and friends I work for the division that trains individuals and organizations in CPR, First Aid, Lifeguarding, etc. Not many are aware the Training Services Division is within the Red Cross. However, I am proud to say that our Red Cross brand and name is always talked highly upon when asked, where I work or what I do.

What is your hidden talent? Or a hobby you have that people may not know about?

I am a big sports nut! I follow college, NFL, etc.! I played college soccer at Carthage Soccer and grew up around sports my entire life.

What does the Red Cross mean to you?  

The Red Cross to myself and my family represents a brand and company that always does the right thing! This term is often used in our Division – do the right thing – and it has stuck with me. That term can be used in business, but most importantly throughout life. The Red Cross to me represents a company that is there during time of disaster to help and do the right thing; that same term applies to our division of blood services and training services.

What would you say to inspire someone to join the Red Cross – through a training, or as a blood donor, volunteer or supporter? 

The Red Cross is a great place to work and be a part of! Many of times when you bring up the Red Cross, almost immediately you can bring up a conversation and commonality with anyone. The Red Cross is a company that holds great values and ultimately is there to help and meet the need of the community.

New home for the holidays

Story & Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

With less than an hour to safely evacuate their home of fourteen years, Beth and Scott Hastreiter piled what they could into bins and boxes.

It being December, they already had their Christmas tree up, ornaments and lights dangling in the glow of the holiday season. Faced with evacuation of a building under threat of “imminent collapse,” there was a premium on the time allotted to pack the tree and everything else.

So, Beth’s sister swaddled the tree in industrial packing wrap, ornaments, treetopper and all, to move it quickly to their new place in a nearby village.

Beth and Scott Hastreiter pose with their Christmas tree, one of the items they were able to gather from their former home was evacuated under threat of collapse. The Hastreiters credit support from community agencies like the American Red Cross for their quick recovery.

That Christmas tree was standing and twinkling in a living room still in the process of unpacking – the new and welcome anchor after an 18-day journey for the Hastreiters, going from a familiar apartment to emergency evacuation, from two days at a hotel to a week at an American Red Cross shelter.

“Homelessness really can happen to anybody, at any time, for any reason. We are anybody,” said Beth Hastreiter. “It really can happen to anybody. And thank God there are agencies like yours that step in when something like that happens. One day you think things are stable and then literally the ground beneath you is not there any more.”

On Dec. 2, the city called for an evacuation to the four-story residential building near downtown Waukesha. While the building had faced issues in recent months, no one expected to have to leave, especially so suddenly. Many stayed at a hotel for a day or two supported by the local Salvation Army. Then, the American Red Cross opened a shelter at Elmbrook Church, for those who were without places to stay with friends, family or backed by insurance coverage. Along with a shelter occupied by a handful of residents, Red Cross volunteers provided nearly 300 meals and snacks, 31 contacts for health, mental health or spiritual care services.  

Crews work to stabilize a 40-plus-unit building in Waukesha after an evacuation in early December.

Scott Hastreiter, who works days at a local screen-printing shop, said it was a relief to know essentials like meals and a roof over their heads were taken care of at the shelter. He recalled their shared giddiness over finding toothpaste in a Red Cross hygiene kit.

“It was a comfort to be able to go back and … just knowing that we were secure, somewhere for the meantime where we could be OK,” he said.

Coincidentally, the church that opened its doors was the same attended by the Hastreiters, a sign of sorts, Beth felt. While staying at the shelter, the couple walked across the Brookfield church campus to attend services and to lead their weekly Sunday school duties with toddlers.

While recovery from an evacuation or disaster often receives less outside attention than the initial shock of the incident, it can often take up much more of the physical and mental bandwidth. At first, Beth felt overwhelmed by all the recovery steps and costs jotted down in front of her on tablet paper. Red Cross volunteers talked through achievable daily steps in their recovery plan, what they could handle today, tomorrow and further down the road. Later, the Red Cross and Waukesha County partner agencies opened a multi-agency resource center for a one-stop shop with assistance and guidance.

“Every day [Red Cross volunteers] were helping me with what I needed to do to make forward progress. I could have never accomplished the amount of stuff that had to get done any other way,” she said.

The Hastreiters share their experiences and get advice from Red Cross volunteers Hillary Wanecke, left, and John Hughes at a shelter established at Elmbrook Church following a building evacuation in Waukesha.

Less than three weeks later, the Hastreiters have shifted from uncertainty to their own new place in Mukwonago. The recovery remains a daily process for the couple, together since 2000, as with many others no longer allowed to return to the Waukesha condo building. At the Hastreiter’s new apartment, a doormat calls this their “happy place” as candles waft a coziness through the air. The Christmas tree is beaming; the rest of the furniture will find its place in due time.

Beth summarized the last few weeks with perspective and gratitude befitting of the holiday season: “This feels more like home every day and it feels like our life is improving every day. At least going forward, we have stability and that started with being at the shelter and having people to walk us through a plan. We couldn’t have done that on our own.”

Your support makes the mission of the Red Cross possible. Thank you for considering a gift so that relief can get to people in need as quickly as possible.

Stanley community response after tornado “restores your faith in humanity”

Days after a tornado hit Stanley, Wisconsin, the clean up and power restoration efforts continued.

Story & Photos by Dan Schillinger, American Red Cross

“This is what neighbors do.” 

That was Jeff Sauer’s reaction to the outpouring of help that flooded into his hometown of Stanley, Wisconsin, population 3,608, in the aftermath of a very rare December tornado. Hundreds of people from all over western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota came to the town to help clean up, feed displaced residents and restore some sense of normalcy.

The American Red Cross was part of those efforts, supporting a shelter for residents displaced or dealing with power outages, one of a handful of disaster relief operations around Wisconsin this week following a round of powerful winds and sporadic tornadoes. Sauer came from nearby Thorp and spent two days driving around Stanley, stopping to help residents clear downed trees and pick up debris.

One of the homes walloped by an EF2 tornado that touched down in Stanley, among a handful that touched down in Wisconsin in mid-December.

Red Cross volunteers Mike and Cathy Stevens came from New Richmond to help. Mike spent part of Friday doing assessments of the approximately 10 homes heavily damaged from the storms. Meanwhile Cathy, worked at a local shelter, helping to feed people. 

“It restores your faith in humanity,” said Cathy Stevens, a retired nurse, as she looked out on a roomful of volunteers. 

Mike and Cathy joined the Red Cross as volunteers four years ago, after Mike retired from a construction business he owned for over 40 years. He described the response to the disaster as “unbelievable.” Like many others, Mike says he joined the Red Cross as a way of giving back to his community. He says it’s been a rewarding experience.

Edit Krueger, left, a resident of Stanley, was grateful for the outpouring of support for her and her hometown by people like Red Cross volunteer Cathy Stevens.

Edie Krueger has worked as a teacher in Stanley for over 40 years. She says the damage to her town “shook me to my core.” She saw people coming to the shelter with tears in their eyes. But she’s also seen the strength of her neighbors, as they work to clean up the damage and put the town back on its feet in time for Christmas. 

The city of Stanley set up a shelter for residents late Wednesday night at a community center in Chapman Park and Red Cross volunteers helped operate the shelter in the subsequent days. Outside of the handful of residents who stayed at the shelter, meals were served – including 300 for residents on Thursday alone – and on Saturday numerous service and government agencies gathered to provide assistance, resources and referrals to residents affected by this freak storm. 

Red Cross volunteer Mike Stevens serves meals at a community center-turned-shelter after the December storm.

Red Cross volunteer Dave Nelson said he and his colleagues will remain as long as it takes to help residents in Stanley get back up on their feet. Like the others, Nelson has been struck by the willingness of complete strangers to come together to help each other in the wake of the disaster.

You can join our Disaster Action Team volunteers in community relief responses just like this one. Find out more and sign up at redcross.org/DAT.

In a time for traditions, De Pere teacher gives blood

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Natalie Buhl is a frequent blood donor approaching her 57th blood donation. When she was young, she vividly recalls attending her father’s blood donation appointments and the pride she felt knowing he was helping to save lives.

When Buhl became old enough to donate blood, she made for her first blood donation appointment and has been donating blood regularly ever since.

She is also a teacher at West De Pere High School and wants to be an inspiration to her students the way her father inspired her to give blood so many years ago.

“I’ve been blessed with good health all my life,” said Buhl. “I donate blood for those who have not been so fortunate. It’s a little thing I can do that means a lot to someone in need. We are role models for the next generation of blood donors.”

More than 160 community members typically roll up their sleeve to give at the annual Green Bay Winter Holiday Blood Drive. The Red Cross is thanking those who come to give Dec. 23 at St. John the Baptist School and Dec. 27 at the Ashwaubenon Community Center with an exclusive Red Cross long-sleeved T-shirt, while supplies last.

Appointments are encouraged; visit RedCrossBlood.org to make your appointment at one of these or other festive drives over the holidays.

“We would never be able to host such a successful drive without the incredible support of the community,” said Steve Hansen, Executive Director for the Northeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross. “Year after year, the community steps up to the call for blood donations which go toward helping to save lives. We are grateful for those who respond to the constant need for blood donations at such a critical time of the year.”

2021 in Review: International Symbols of Care During a Year that Defied Expectations

By Mark Thomas, Regional CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive Director

As I pulled off the interstate and onto a two-lane road lined with the cedar trees and bogs of “Cranberry Country,” I was quickly shifted out of agricultural Wisconsin and into the major global issues that had brought me here.

In front of my American Red Cross vehicle were charter buses filled with evacuees from Afghanistan temporarily calling Fort McCoy home. An historical response, in a year already packed with them. With all the planning calls, news stories and more swirling around, I saw that first of what would be many buses of people escaping a war zone and I thought, “We’re here. This is real.”

Allie Kress, a Red Cross volunteer from Milwaukee, made paper airplanes with children from Afghanistan during her deployment at Fort McCoy. Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross

For thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan under dire and uncertain circumstances, our Red Cross teams from Wisconsin and across the country provided an invaluable welcome alongside our military partners at Fort McCoy.

Two anecdotes on international symbols are among those I find myself returning to and sharing with others. The first came shortly into my initial visit. It was a rainy day but at one point the sun peaked through the clouds. No sooner than that, two kids, about six- or seven-years old, came running out into the green space between many of the residential buildings housing evacuees. With big smiles on their faces, you’d be forgiven for briefly forgetting all that they had been through to get to the U.S. When they saw me and a few other Red Crossers, we shared recognition through waving and fist bumps. Simply two children expressing that fundamental joy carried by children all around the world.

The second anecdote comes from my second visit, a few weeks on with the entire operation running like a fine-tuned watch to meet the needs of more than 13,000 people as of late-September. At one of our Client Care Centers, a teenage boy began talking about his harrowing experiences. Then, he pointed at our logo, and said that he had heard about the Red Cross while living in Afghanistan, though he hadn’t been involved in their services. However, he said that after his experiences with the Red Cross in Wisconsin, he “promised” he would join us as a volunteer – and he went on to repeat that promise. In this teenager’s time of extreme need, he was already focused on how he could give back. Our impact in a few weeks had made him want to share with others, which made me all the more proud that we could one day do so wearing the same emblem of the Red Cross. 

These moments at Fort McCoy were among many that defied our expectations, and also affirmed the capabilities and compassion that have established the Red Cross as a fundamental presence in American life over the past 140 years. With your support and volunteerism, we’ve had plenty of those signature moments in 2021. As recognition of your belief in the Red Cross, I wanted to spend a little time as the year wraps up reflecting on our action and achievements, as has become of a bit of a tradition during my now-three full years leading the Wisconsin Region.

But before I get into my list, please know that I want to hear from you – on volunteer possibilities, blood drive host sites, heart-warming stories of community support. Share your passion and story. Let me know how we can work together to make our communities stronger, healthier and more collaborative. Email me at mark.thomas3@redcross.org.

January

Crystal Irvine, left, and Leslie Luther deployed to Wisconsin to help with a surge in apartment fires in early January 2021.

Home fire highs: every winter we see an increase in home fires. But the number and severity of fires to start this year – and the ample response from our disaster teams – was extraordinary. In one, 24-hour period at the end of January, more than 500 people were displaced by apartments fires, in Janesville, Beaver Dam and two in Milwaukee. We led the nation in sheltering operations from these fires, part of a three-year high in fire responses in Wisconsin. With our disaster teams and support from great leaders like Chief Aaron Lipski, whom I’m also proud to call one of our board members, we were able to help get neighbors like James Fair back up on their feet.

Touchdown on blood collections: through an ever-shifting pandemic, our blood collections teams worked with donors to meet the constant need for blood. Plus, an ongoing partnership with the NFL enabled us to offer giveaways like Super Bowl tickets to those generous donors during National Blood Donor Month. 

February

Ice storms down South: Wisconsin Red Crossers went to one of the last places you’d expect an ice storm – the State of Texas. No matter the challenge, these disaster volunteers raced to the front lines for hundreds of deployments to meet the needs, which in 2021 also meant flooding in Washington, wildfires in California, tornadoes in Kentucky and the effects of a hurricane felt as far north as New Jersey.

March

2021 Heroes Breakfast: our annual community hero and fundraiser event recognized the finest acts of courage and humanitarianism in northwest Wisconsin. You can get inspired by those honorees with video stories posted here and you can nominate someone for our 2022 event through this link. It’ll also be a great chance to get to know our newest Executive Director, Mary Jane “MJ” Thomsen.

April

Volunteer appreciation, front (yard) and center: With social interactions greatly reduced during COVID, our Volunteer Services team brought engagement and recruitment “to the streets.” Red Cross volunteers planted yard signs pronouncing their dedication and inviting others to join throughout Wisconsin and the U.P., beginning during Volunteer Appreciation Month. (P.S. Did you know that more than 90% of what the Red Cross does is led by volunteers? Click here to join us.)

May

2021 Brave Hearts: our signature community recognition and support event was held virtually for a second year, though without missing any of the inspiration and pizzazz. I’m eager to return to an in-person gala in 2022, as well as other great events in our Southwest and Northeast Chapters. As for Brave Hearts this coming year, I’m inviting you to nominate your community heroes from southeast Wisconsin here.

Rita Thompson, left, talks through an escape plan for her and her pets from her La Crosse home during a preparedness visit with volunteers Peter Knapik, center, and Jay Tucker. Photo by Riley Neper / American Red Cross

Sound the Alarm returns: our preparedness teams collaborated with the La Crosse Fire Department for the return of the “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” home fire safety program. Dozens of residents received new smoke alarms and talked through home fire escape plans, for the first time since 2019. Who knew that chirp from working smoke alarms could sound so sweet?! It all has us even more excited for more community home fire safety programs in the coming year.

June

Making waves: with careful steps, our swim courses returned to many pools, and we worked with partners to address lifeguard shortages seen across the country. As this Wisconsin Dells life-saving lifeguard can attest, the need for swim safety is ever present.

Rebecca Neumann stands in front of the damage to her home from a tornado in Oconomowoc. Photo by Laura McGuire / American Red Cross

July

Stormy weather: it seemed thunderstorms, tornadoes and destructive winds hit the Midwest about every week through the summer. Wisconsin disaster teams set up shelters and met residents at the scene in so many of these instances, like with the Zastrow family in Oconomowoc.

Milwaukee Bucks are world champs: I know it’s not exactly in our service area, but wasn’t it a nice jolt of positivity for so many of us to be able to root on the hometown team as they took the title? Bucks in six!

August

Repatriation of Afghanistan evacuees: from Kabul and Germany to Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey and Texas, tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan were supported by the Red Cross in the early months of their evacuation. While our commitment has wrapped up in Wisconsin, Red Cross teams continue help behind the scenes to support service members and veterans, and to connect evacuees with agencies taking on the next steps of this migration.

September

Demarus Torrence and his family held a drive at his high school to raise awareness on the importance of blood donations on those afflicted with sickle cell disease. Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross

Blood supply diversity and tackling sickle cell: it was exciting to hear new steps by the Red Cross in strengthening the blood supply with more donor diversity. Demarus, a teen from Milwaukee, knows the pain of sickle cell, and the value in having better matches when he receives blood transfusions. It’s encouraging to act on something that we can directly improve in Wisconsin and across the country. Join me as a blood donor and become part of a positive solution.

Help after Hurricane Ida: not only did numerous volunteers head to Louisiana and the East Coast after Hurricane Ida, but hundreds of you shared your generosity with people affected by this ravaging storm. WISN in Milwaukee generously partnered with the Red Cross for a multi-day telethon that brought your support directly to so many people who lost their homes and livelihoods. On behalf of those in need – thank you once again for your support.

October

Tiffany Circle accolades: our women leaders community at the Red Cross, Tiffany Circle, includes so many esteemed members from Wisconsin. And one of those members, Sara Horein, is now the national group’s Co-Chair – during their October conference, you may have heard her presenting, or flashing her Clara Barton-on-a-stick – joining fellow Wisconsinite Marti Ziegelbauer on the National Council. Thank you to all our Tiffany Circle members!

November

Service to the Armed Forces volunteer Wayne McDonald shares resources with a veteran and their spouse on Veteran’s Day at an event in Wausau. Photo by Beckie Gaskill / American Red Cross

Supporting our veterans: our Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) volunteers and staff were able to mark Veteran’s Day in a special way, by sharing resources and programming with former service members and their families at an event in Wausau. In addition, our SAF program leader, Michelle Matuszak, gave a first-person account of how important it was to participate in another veteran recognition that included her father, who served in the Vietnam War.

December

Hurt and healing in Waukesha: our volunteers opened a shelter after the evacuation of a 45-unit residential building. The building is three blocks away from the site of an absolutely tragic and deadly incident during a holiday parade about a week beforehand. Our teams were deeply saddened that one of our own dedicated volunteers, Tammy Durand, was among those who lost their lives. Between the parade and this evacuation, we stand with Waukesha through the healing ahead. 

No two years are the same. But over the past 140 years, the American Red Cross has consistently been here for people in need in our country, after everything from a return from the frontlines of war or a sudden choking incident, to recovery support after a home fire or the ample availability of blood during cancer treatments. I’m proud to partner with all of you to keep moving forward in 2022 on this legacy of humanitarianism in our communities.

Receiving blood is receiving life – local mom receives precious gift over the holidays

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

The American Red Cross’ 2021 holiday message – “Give With Meaning” – resonates with the sentiments that Tracy Rose from Madison celebrates each day.

Four years ago during the holidays, Rose experienced pregnancy complications with her second child. She was diagnosed with placenta previa which threatened both her and her baby’s life. In order for both of them to survive she required a blood transfusion.  

Ten hours and two pints of blood later, Rose and her baby’s condition significantly improved. Several weeks later, Rose went on to deliver a healthy baby girl, that they named Maya.

Tracy Rose, right, poses for a family photo with, from left, her husband Chris Teetaert, Maya, Oliver and their dog Rayden. Rose is grateful for blood donations that helped her family through a pregnancy complications.

“I was very hesitant at first (to receive blood) as I have always been a person to donate blood, not get blood,” said Rose. “Without this blood transfusion, I would have perished, and my baby’s life would have been compromised, too. When the final drops were in, I remember taking a deep sigh of relief. I cannot thank donors across the world more for this gift of life.”

Currently, Rose is not eligible to donate blood. However, she encourages others to “Give With Meaning” by coordinating Red Cross blood drives twice a year at Millapore Sigma, where she is employed.

“I am so glad the Red Cross is here for people in times of need,” said Rose. “Thank you for saving my life, my baby’s life, and my family’s life.”

The Red Cross of Wisconsin region provides numerous opportunities for eligible blood donors to give blood this holiday season. That includes four signature drives, each with holiday flair and giveaways:

  • The 36th annual Madison Holiday Blood Drive, Dec. 23 from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Exhibition Hall in the Alliant Energy Center, 1919 Alliant Energy Center Way, Madison.
  • The Green Bay Holiday Blood Drive, Dec. 23, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. John the Baptist School, 2561 Glendale Ave., Green Bay and Dec. 27 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Ashwaubenon Community Center, 900 Anderson Drive, Ashwaubenon.
  • The Chippewa Valley Holiday Blood Drive, Dec. 22 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Red Cross Northwest Chapter, 3728 Spooner Ave., Altoona.
  • Milwaukee Day of Donations Blood Drive, Dec. 29 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Tripoli Shrine Center, 3000 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee.
  • The La Crosse Holiday Drive will be held over two days, on Dec. 8, from noon to 6 p.m. at Pearl Street Brewery, 1401 St. Andrew St., and Dec. 9, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Radisson Hotel, 200 Second St.

Appointments are strongly encouraged. Walk-ins will be taken as space allows.

You can “Give With Meaning” this holiday season. Schedule an appointment to donate blood at an upcoming blood drive by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767). You can also find ways to make a financial donation or join us as a volunteer at RedCross.org.

Service to veterans comes full circle with father’s Honor Flight

By Michelle Matuszak, American Red Cross

Ron Matuszak, left, and his daughter Michelle Matuszak, at the airport in Appleton ahead of his first-ever veterans Honor Flight in September.

Since June 2018, I have spent countless mornings brewing coffee and gathering supplies for troop sendoff ceremonies and welcome home celebrations. As the Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) Regional Manager at the American Red Cross, it is my honor and privilege to serve veterans, military and their families at these powerful and important events.

However, on a recent, mid-September morning, it was my turn to send off someone dear to me – my father, Ronald Matuszak. A Vietnam War Veteran, he was bound for Washington, D.C. with the Old Glory Honor Flight out of Appleton.

I was excited for him on this special day, especially knowing that I’d see him again in just a few hours. It was an amazing opportunity for him and his fellow veterans to share memories and reflect on their time in the service among the awe-inspiring monuments. And it brought home once again that unique position I am so proud to hold, as someone who serves veterans every day – including my own dad.

From 1967-70, my father served in the United States Army as part of the 551st Light Maintenance Company under the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment stationed in Xuân Lộc, Vietnam. His main role was vehicle mechanic but he also drove in convoys. Upon his return home to the Green Bay area to work and raise our family, my father rarely talked about his military service. I’ve come to learn this is common, especially for those who served in Vietnam. Most of the pictures or anecdotes I’d hear came up actually from my maternal grandmother, who was active as a Gold Star Mother in military memorial services in our community.

But when the opportunity for this honor flight came up, my dad became very eager to join. In one way, this flight opened him up to talking more about his service. He was excited for this present-day link to his service. He also teased me that I had “connections” and should be able to get him on a flight ASAP. After COVID put a pause on flights, we were able to reserve his seat for the flight a few weeks ago.

On the flight itself, he was able to bond with other veterans, from Vietnam and other wars and branches. In the nation’s Capitol, my father was able to spend important time reflecting and sharing stories at sites such as the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and Arlington Cemetery. The Old Glory Honor Flight team provided him with such good care and memorabilia, like a framed headshot and picture of their group from that day. (He hung it up at his house – and promised me he didn’t have to remove or cover up any of our other family pictures to find space!)

Ron Matuszak at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the Old Glory Honor Flight. Ron was one of dozens of Wisconsin veterans who went on the one-day trip.

The part of the trip he can’t stop talking about came near the end, on the return flight after what was no doubt a long and emotional day. The Honor Flight team announced “mail call,” and shared with each veteran on board a packet of letters. For my dad, that included 15 or so letters and drawings from our family. He didn’t see that coming and it added a nice personal touch as myself and my family gave him the welcome home that he didn’t get coming back from Vietnam in 1970. (And this welcome home included a big hug from me.) 

Family relations aside, the sacrifice and service of our nation’s veterans is always present to me from my role at the Red Cross. Whether it is helping secure emergency lodging for a veteran and their family or donating much needed items to our four VA Medical Centers and three State Veterans Homes, the Red Cross is committed to working alongside the armed forces.

When the SAF team provides Get to Know Us Before You Need Us briefings at premobilization events, it’s rewarding to be able to truly share with members of the military, veterans, and their families that the Red Cross is behind them every step of the way. From Emergency Communications to Reconnection Workshops, we provide quality services to all who serve and served. I know our loyal SAF volunteers and staff are eager for a full return to these programs and all of these veteran and military sendoffs as we hopefully turn the corner on the pandemic.  

As my dad returned from his round-trip, one-day immersive reflection on his military service, I have also come full circle with my father and my profession. Like I wrote my father in his “mail call” letter, I’m grateful he was able to take this flight and I am so proud of him for his service to our country.

You can find programs and resources for veterans, service members and military families. You can also join our Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) volunteers. Click here to get involved in Red Cross support of veterans, service members and military families.

Toddler’s family inspired to give back: “Donating blood truly saves lives”

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Violet Prust is a happy and energetic four-year-old.

In April 2020, she was diagnosed with lymphocytic leukemia. Throughout her treatments she has received many blood transfusions.

“The most recent blood transfusion was one of the scariest,” said Korbyn Prust, Violet’s mother. “We would have definitely lost her had it not been for blood donors. Donating blood truly saves lives.”

Violet is doing well and is in the maintenance phase of her treatment. However, in the near future, there is a possibility she will require more transfusions.

After seeing Violet’s need for blood products, the family wants to give back and ensure other families have blood available to them when it’s needed.

The Prust family will host a Red Cross blood drive in honor of Violet on Wednesday, Nov. 17 from noon to 5 p.m. at the Watertown Senior Citizens Center, 514 S. First St. in Watertown. The public is invited to make an appointment for this blood drive in honor of Violet to keep the blood inventory stable for all those who rely on blood transfusions.

Donating blood with the Red Cross is a simple act of kindness you can do in about an hour and can help patients like Violet.

Make an appointment to give blood or platelets by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

Wisconsin Region spotlight: Q&A with Jenny Legaspi

Every few months, we’re highlighting the incredible work toward the mission of the American Red Cross by one of our colleagues in the Wisconsin Region. Hopefully these short profiles provide a little light of positivity and inspiration across all lines of service in our humanitarian mission.

This latest profile is on Jenny Legaspi, a Disaster Program Manager based in Altoona with a drive that has brought her to humanitarian missions across the U.S. during the past 15 years. Questions were asked by members of the Region communications team, and edited for style and space.

American Red Cross: Tell us a little about your professional background and your role at the Red Cross, including some roles you’ve held during disasters.

Jenny Legaspi: I was introduced to the American Red Cross when a local disaster volunteer came and spoke to my class when I was a student at UW-Oshkosh. I decided to apply for an internship with the Red Cross and was fortunate to get connected to the Red Cross Outagamie Chapter in Appleton. I learned so much about the Red Cross and became very interested in pursuing a career in Disaster Services. After completing my 250-hour internship, my next Red Cross journey was an AmeriCorps member with the Red Cross West Bend Chapter in West Bend for one-and-a-half years. I supported the disaster preparedness program and became a DAT (Disaster Action Team) and national disaster responder. 

Jenny Legaspi dons a throwback Red Cross nursing outfit during a staff event.

My first opportunity to serve in a national Disaster Relief Operations (DRO) came in September 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. I spent three weeks in Lafayette, La. helping in a shelter that housed over 10,000 evacuees doing sheltering, feeding and casework. But just a couple of days before my deployment, I was interviewed for the Disaster Services Director position in the Red Cross Marathon County Chapter in Wausau. Sometime around the second week of my deployment, the Executive Director from Marathon County Chapter called and offered me the position! I still joke that I accepted the job because I was so tired and did realize what I was committing to. I also thought to myself that there had to be a reason that the call came through my cell phone when we were having so many difficulties with cell service in the area. So, in October 2005 after I came back from my deployment, I relocated to Wausau and spent three years with the Marathon County Chapter. In September 2008, I was offered a Disaster Services Director position at the Northwest Wisconsin Chapter office in Altoona. Since then, Eau Claire has been my home.

Since joining the Red Cross, I have been involved in several disaster relief operations (DRO) in Wisconsin, including some of the most devastating floods that affect the state in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Barron and Rusk Counties … were hit by a tornado May 2017 that is recorded to be the longest tornado that stayed on the ground in the state.

Some of the Relief Operations I’ve supported outside of Wisconsin include 2014 spring flooding in Illinois, California 2017 wildfires, Iowa tornadoes in 2018, Hurricane Lane & wildfires in Hawaii in 2018, Hurricane Florence in 2018 & Hurricane Dorian 2029 in North Carolina, and, last year, the major dam break in Michigan and wildfires in Oregon.

Positions I get assigned to during DROs are DRO Director, District Director, Government or Community Partner Liaison, or a Staff Advocate. I’ve also worked as a shelter worker, caseworker and disaster assessment team member during past operations. 

Each disaster response and deployment are unique. You learn and grow from each experience and from the people we work with. 

The mission of the Red Cross connects us to so many people. Can you share an anecdote about someone whose life was affected by your role or work at the Red Cross?

When I was in Lafayette during Hurricane Katrina working as a Red Cross caseworker, I assisted a mother with her Red Cross case. She told me that her and her son were separated when they had to evacuate their home in New Orleans. Her son left to help his girlfriend’s mom who was home-bound. She did not expect that their home was going to be impacted and that he was not going be able to return home. She had not been able to reach her son since the day she left home. Unfortunately, her cell phone along with all her belongs she had with her got wet when she had to evacuate so her phone was no longer working.

The day I was leaving, she came and looked for me to tell me she just picked-up her Red Cross client assistance card … and was on her way to get that new cell phone. We helped her during that time of need, but I never got the chance to find out what happened next. I left shortly after we spoke since those of us who are able to go back home were told we had to fly home since Hurricane Rita is making landfall. To this day, I still get a little emotional when I tell their story. I think about her and her son and wonder what happened next. 

Legaspi, middle, brainstorms service needs with colleagues during the recent Red Cross humanitarian response to thousands of evacuees with Afghanistan temporarily housed at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin.

How do you explain what you do to people outside the Red Cross?

The Red Cross Disaster Cycle Services is like a giant puzzle. It has many pieces, but we need each one complete the picture. We have disaster workforce who provide essential services to disaster victims (food, safe place to stay, comfort, care, recovery support), Red Cross liaisons who work with community partners during planning, response, and recovery, we train and prepare disaster volunteers to be ready to mobilize, we provide information to the public of Red Cross response and donation needs, and we also work internally with other team members within Red Cross. Each piece is different but they all fit together. When the puzzle if complete, you see the full picture of Red Cross Disaster Relief Operations.

What is your hidden talent? Or a hobby you have that people may not know about?

I enjoy cooking. I learned my Filipino cooking skills from my grandma and aunts. I picked-up American cooking skills from when I worked at a senior living apartment kitchen as a waitstaff and cook for six years. When we moved to the US in 1992, I did not know how to cook American food. Even when we made spaghetti, it was Filipino style. [Laughs]

Has anyone in your immediately circle (family or friends) been helped by the Red Cross? If so, how?

Before I started with the Red Cross, my aunt and uncle had a house fire and I remember seeing Red Cross volunteers arriving at their house to offer assistance. The fire department had called them to offer assistance. Luckily, the fire was contained in the laundry room and was put out very quickly. My aunt and uncle had lots of family in the area who were able to assist them, so they decided to decline Red Cross assistance. But it was very nice to see that if they did need help, Red Cross was there.

What does the Red Cross mean to you?  

Working in Disaster Cycle Services is unpredictable at times and could be stressful. But when a disaster client thanks you or give you a hug for helping them … a volunteer tells you they appreciate being part of our team and thanks you for calling them to help … and when you hear a partner praise the Red Cross … you get that combination of happy/satisfying/excited/fulfilling feeling that picks you up and motivates you to keep going and keep trying to do your best because you are making a difference. 

What would you say to inspire someone to join the Red Cross as a blood donor, volunteer or supporter?

My Red Cross journey started with one person, the disaster volunteer who came and spoke to my class. What she talked about sparked enough interested in me to check on the Red Cross. I started as an intern, became a disaster volunteer and now I’m a 15-year employee. 

I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to talk to someone from the Red Cross when they have the opportunity and get a glimpse of what it means to be a volunteer, blood donor or a financial donor – and the hundreds of thousands of lives touched by the Red Cross each day. The reports, statistics, posts, articles about the Red Cross work will bring it to a personal level when you hear from someone who has received assistance from Red Cross and from those who made it happen. You will realize that if you want to help, you can do that in many ways in the Red Cross.

Lifesaving skills at Columbus school contribute to extraordinary outcome, national recognition

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Karin Westlake, Janet Pacala and Kelly Towne helped save a life by using their American Red Cross training in First Aid, CPR and AED. For their heroic and lifesaving actions, on Sept. 16 they received the American Red Cross Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action.  

Kyle Kriegl, Executive Director, Southwest Wisconsin Chapter of the Red Cross, presented the certificates during a recent virtual board meeting.

“The Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action is given to individuals, like Karin, Janet and Kelly who step up in an emergency situation and help save or sustain a life,” said Kriegl. “These individuals exemplify the mission of the Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies and are to be commended for their willingness to help another in distress.”

Kelly Towne, Janet Pacala and Karin Westlake pose with their national life-saving recognitions from the American Red Cross.

On March 1, 2020, Westlake, and Pacala, members of the Building Emergency Response Team at Columbus Elementary School, heard a colleague call for help. When they arrived on site, they found the victim unconscious and unresponsive. That’s when their training and instincts set in.

You can be trained in CPR, First Aid, lifeguarding and other life-saving skills. Sign up here for virtual and in-person lessons from the American Red Cross.

Pacala called 911 and requested the school’s automated external defibrillator (AED). Westlake began cardiopulmonary compressions and they both continued to perform compressions and rescue breaths on their colleague until Towne, a Columbus Police Officer, arrived on the scene. Towne immediately accessed the situation and performed cardiopulmonary compressions. EMT’s arrived shortly thereafter and took the lead on care. 

Thanks to the efforts and skills of three courageous women, the survivor has recovered and is doing well. This was the first save for all three women.

Columbus School District Superintendent, Annette Deuman, nominated the women for the award. She is proud of their efforts and encourages all staff to have lifesaving skills. “I couldn’t be prouder of these ladies,” said Deuman. “They did everything beautifully and performed their lifesaving skills correctly and accurately leading to a fantastic outcome.” Deuman, too, has a connection with the Red Cross as a frequent blood donor and has nominated others in her career for Red Cross Lifesaving Awards. 

Westlake resides in Columbus and works in the Columbus school district, where she holds the position of Dean of Students/Assistant Principal at Columbus Elementary School. Her position requires her to be First Aid, CPR and AED certified and she encourages everyone to get certified. “You never know when you’ll need to use these skills,” said Westlake. “I never thought I’d have to use the skills I learned, but I am so proud that I had them, and I was able to help save a life.”

Pacala resides in Beaver Dam and for the last 16 years has worked at Columbus Elementary School as an Educational Support Professional. Even though her position does not require her to be First Aid, CPR and AED certified, she holds the credentials. “You never know when a friend, family member or stranger will be in an emergency situation,” said Pacala. “If you see someone in need, you need to be prepared to jump in and help.” Janet has seen the mission of the Red Cross in action throughout her life – as a blood recipient she is grateful for blood donors and when flooding hit the Columbus community years back, her parents were aided in evacuation efforts by the Red Cross. 

Towne resides in Columbus and for the last 17 years, has worked at the Columbus Police Department as an officer. Her position required her to be First Aid, CPR and AED certified. She believes that Westlake and Pacala’s immediate actions with starting CPR compressions contributed to a successful outcome. “As a police officer, I am trained and know it’s always good to have a plan and be prepared,” said Towne. “I wish more people would be CPR certified and not be scared to use the skills.”

The survivor, who asked to remain anonymous, is coincidentally First Aid, CPR and AED certified. “I would have never thought I would have been the one receiving CPR, I think it is so important for everyone to know CPR skills as you never know when you will need to help another person. I am so grateful for Karin, Janet and Kelly for knowing what to do and for saving my life. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”

Red Cross training gives people the knowledge and skills to act in an emergency and save a life. A variety of online, blended (online and in-person skills session) and classroom courses are available at redcross.org/takeaclass.