Introducing: Jennifer Clearwater, Regional Philanthropy Officer, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jennifer Clearwater recently joined our fund development team in the Wisconsin Region, bringing a range of philanthropic expertise and a true enthusiasm in connecting supporters with the mission of the American Red Cross.

A few weeks in, and she’s already making connections for people displaced by a Milwaukee apartment building fire, along with no shortage of internal training and on-boarding. We recently invited Jennifer to share answers to a few questions at the start of her Red Cross journey.

What drew you to the mission of the Red Cross?

Clearwater: Working for the Red Cross is sincerely a dream come true. Early in my career, when I knew that I was pursuing fundraising as a profession, I had it in my mind that someday I might be experienced enough to work for the American Red Cross, and now here I am!

I believe the Red Cross is the most important nonprofit in our country, and our country’s most important non-governmental partner. It is truly an honor to be on the team and working with the amazingly generous donors and volunteers who truly make all our services possible. 

Do you have a connection with the Red Cross prior to joining our team? (blood donor, military family, etc.)

Clearwater: Well, my favorite color is red, so there’s that … Our family has been blessed to have never been in a position to have needed the services of the Red Cross, but my husband, brother, and extended members of our family and friends are either currently active military or veterans, so the American Red Cross has always been the organization we knew would be there for them if they found themselves needing assistance domestically or internationally.

I also recently donated blood for the first time – the new Blood Donor app is terrific for scheduling appointments and I highly recommend everyone downloading it if you haven’t already. I was a little nervous going in to my first blood donation, but it was an energizing experience and I’ve already used the Blood Donor app again to schedule my next donation. 

What are some professional high points for you so far?

Clearwater: I’ve been blessed to have had opportunities to raise donations for and leave a positive mark on several important Wisconsin institutions, like Polish Fest, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. Working for the American Red Cross is a dream come true for me; quite frankly, this is the most important job I’ve ever had, and I am delighted to be here at this highly critical time in our nation’s history to support the giving that makes Red Cross donors most fulfilled. 

Coming into the organization during this dramatic time, when we’re dealing with the daily effects of COVID-19 as well as disaster upon disaster has been interesting to say the least. Sort of like jumping onto a moving treadmill that’s set for Olympic gold medal sprinter speed while simultaneously drinking from a firehose … but I wouldn’t have it any other way and have already begun connecting with our generous supporters about the tremendous needs of the times. I’m looking forward to helping them and our volunteers and staff partner their resources to deliver critical services to our fellow ‘Sconnies and Americans today and for many years to come.

Outside of your career, what else would you like people to know about you right out the gates?

Clearwater: Rob – my husband of 27 years – and I are blessed with two healthy, smart, loving, and beautiful daughters, Emily and Paige. We all live in picturesque Port Washington, where I am also humbled to be a volunteer political appointee on our city’s Police and Fire Commission. I additionally have the honor of serving as a volunteer board director for Ozaukee County’s Riveredge Nature Center. 

Reach out to Jennifer on ways to put your generosity into action with the Red Cross at Jennifer.Clearwater@redcross.org

‘It’s a changing experience’: how Wisconsin volunteers are helping families decimated by wildfires in Oregon

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Hundreds of American Red Cross disaster teams have been working with families in crisis for months after a wave of hurricanes and wildfires ravaging the United States. Hillary Wanecke, of Delafield, Wisconsin has been involved with the Red Cross in humanitarian relief since Hurricane Katrina. Last week, she returned from a deployment in Oregon, where deadly wildfires decimated communities.

In this brief conversation, Wanecke shared with us the differences of deploying for disaster relief during a pandemic and the ways she was still able to let reeling families know that they weren’t alone in this battle.

You are someone known around southeast Wisconsin for your work helping people after home fires or other local disasters. But you’ve also deployed to do different types of roles in humanitarian relief after large-scale disasters. Tell me a bit about your role after the wildfires in Oregon and where you were.

Hillary Wanecke, left, was part of a team that checked on affected homes and residents after wildfires in Oregon. Photo by Lynette Nyman / American Red Cross

Wanecke: On this deployment I went out in Disaster Assessment … so I went into areas that had been affected by the wildfire – it had been burning for about two weeks. We went through trying to find out which homes were affected and which weren’t and that is used for the recovery process, so that Red Cross and other agencies can help people with the things they need to recover. A lot of the roads for the addresses we had were closed, some of the assessments started virtually, where we mapped out the locations of the houses based on what the Sheriff’s [Department] said. When the streets opened up after a few days, we drove by these addresses and verified. It seemed like there was a wind storm that just kicked up this fire and people had to evacuate within minutes. They just had to leave everything. That was heart-breaking. I was around the town of Blue River [Oregon], population of about 900 on the McKenzie River. It burned to the ground. There wasn’t one building left, commercial or home in that little community.

You have hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland [in this part of Oregon]. These fires started from the lightning and the wind. At the beginning, around the beginning of September, they thought that they had these fires contained. These communities have existed here for hundreds of years, beautiful backdrops of the mountains and filled with these pristine trees. And the wind picked up, the fires kicked up and they just rolled down. … What was amazing was in some places, one house was standing and the next three houses were ashes. It seems like luck of the draw but no matter who you were, if you were in the path of it, you were really in trouble.

What were some of the homeowners you talked with saying about how they escaped, what they went through to get out?

Wanecke: One guy was very prepared, a younger man who had a satellite phone, a generator. He had kind of organized people in his community of McKenzie Ridge, for water and necessities, his own little help center. His house wasn’t burned. He said he went to sleep that night, knowing there was a wind storm [coming]. He was prepared for that but he thought the power might go out. So, what did he do? He turned off his phone to preserve power. And he woke up and the fire saved his house, but it torched the rest of the community. He was like a lot of people, he went to bed and it was fine and then it escalated to … people had to flee with whatever they had on them.

You’re just thinking that this fire is still going. If the winds changed, if the forecast changed, it wasn’t good.

What were some of the resources you and your Red Cross teams were able to bring people.

In the town of Blue River, Ore., Wanecke, left, and fellow disaster volunteers gathered information used to provide financial and other assistance to hundreds of families who lost everything to wildfires. Photo by Lynette Nyman / American Red Cross

Wanecke: We’ve got this great technology and we were able to go around, find addresses, locate people who had been affected. Then, we were able to share with victims where they could get help. In the aftermath, they left so quickly, they may have been staying in cars, staying with relatives. They were shell-shocked. We were able to connect with people to get them into hotels from the Red Cross, to get them registered that they were affected by this so that they could start a case with us [for potential financial assistance], with FEMA, other agencies. After the initial days, we were doing “hot shot” calls, for people seeking help. We’d get a call from someone who evacuated who’d say, “My house, I’m not sure if it was affected, it’s at this address.” People couldn’t go back in to their communities. And if we hadn’t identified it previously, we’d go out to see the status of the house.

Now, we’re talking with people who are existing volunteers and recruit new volunteers to help with these wildfires and other disasters going on, either in person or virtually. What would you say to someone about the personal reward you find in deploying like this, even with all the considerations?

Wanecke: I was nervous about going out, during the pandemic. But you’re very well covered. The Red Cross has a lot of good training, specialty training related to COVID-19 … We’ve changed procedures during this. We’ve all gotten very good at [Microsoft] Teams and we’re using other technology more smartly. But we pivot where we have to. Some of the cell towers burned so we were doing work back on pen and paper.

It’s a changing experience. The Red Cross sees a need and it finds a way to fill it. If we can’t serve people out of Cambros, those big, red meal containers, we’ll find a way of packaging those meals and getting them to the people. If we can’t have a large congregate shelter in the basement of a church with 200 people, then we’re going to find a hotel and run it like a shelter, to get the people housed and fed. It’s a little different, you’re not hugging people. But you’re still getting information out to people and there are a lot of people who need this help, between the fires, the storms down South, the home fires locally. It’s a mess out there. But we’ve made it work.

Was there a moment you had with someone from Oregon, affected by these wildfires?

Wanecke: This one couple … she had just gotten out of the hospital and was sitting on her walker while her husband took a sieve through the ashes of their trailer home.

We found out from them that they had evacuated and this was their first time back to their trailer, which was in ash. And they had been sleeping in a tent. She was just out of the hospital … [from] a back surgery. When you think it can’t get any worse …

We let them know that they didn’t have to sleep in a tent. We got them in touch with the Red Cross in Eugene [Oregon] and found a hotel room for them and food was being delivered. … [W]hen you’re knocked on your tail with a disaster like that, sometimes common sense can go out the window. You are so overwhelmed. We were able to tell this couple that they didn’t have to do this by themselves.

You can join volunteers like Hillary in a number of roles that help people in need. Find roles for today’s disasters at redcross.org/VolunteerToday

‘We need some good in the world’: American Red Cross Club leader dedicates days to public service

By Rachel Helgeson, American Red Cross

While it seems the whole world is experiencing many “no’s” in this time of job loss, social distancing, and civil and political unrest, one young woman decided to give a resounding ‘yes’ to the public service.

Carly Langkamp, a 22-year-old Darlington, Wisc. native, dedicated herself once again to upholding two new volunteer roles with the American Red Cross immediately after graduating from University of Wisconsin – Madison in May.

Carly Langkamp, right, talks with prospective Red Cross volunteers and club members at a 2019 event on UW-Madison campus.

She had already volunteered years and hundreds of hours to the Red Cross Club at her college, even sitting as the Vice President of the group.

As a college freshman, Carly first said “yes” to the Red Cross Club and stuck with it because of those she was surrounded by, although there were only three individuals in the fundraising committee where she first volunteered.

“There was something about the Red Cross, I vibed with the other people there,” Carly said. “I really like the people.”

But now, even amidst a pandemic, a new position in the business world, and an upcoming move to Chicago, nothing could keep Carly away from volunteering for the Wisconsin Red Cross.

“We need some good in the world, especially now. If people have time why not? I would want someone to do the same for me that I am doing for other people,” she said.

Carly sees the value in giving her time as a Volunteer Recognition Lead and a Youth Engagement Lead, where she is able to work virtually to uplift, support, and acknowledge adult and student volunteers around the state.

As a Volunteer Recognition Lead, Carly works with Jocelyn Berkhahn, the Wisconsin Region Volunteer Engagement Specialist, to coordinate birthday wishes for volunteers and answers questions.

Langkamp, left of T-shirt in front row, poses with their Madison Red Cross Club in 2019.

In her Youth Engagement Lead position, Carly oversees five college Red Cross Clubs, just like the one she was in at UW-Madison, and three high school clubs.

“There are two new clubs pending which is pretty cool,” Carly said. “I send youth Happy Birthday’s and get them registered and if they have questions I help. With this virtual environment we’re trying to brainstorm activities to participate.”

Although her work and volunteer lifestyle is keeping her busy, Carly keeps in mind why she does what she does.

“What I get from it is enjoyment, I am glad that I am able to help Jocelyn out,” she said. “I don’t see myself stopping volunteering, unless work keeps me from giving as much as I would want. Even if that would happen, I’d still try to find a way to help out.”

Find out more about Red Cross Club opportunities at your school. Email Jocelyn to get involved and make a difference in our world.