A call to quell the chaos

By Kay Weeden, American Red Cross

For what felt like the first time all day, Maria Hernandez could breathe.

The American Red Cross staffer on the other end of the phone with Maria would take care of immediate arrangements for her to speak with her husband Johnathan, who was stationed with the U.S. Army at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri. Maria was relieved to know the call from the Army base was coming any minute. At least she could hear his voice and the couple could start to make sense of the overnight fire that had displaced everyone in their Janesville apartment building. The first thing she said – “I’m OK, we are all OK.”

Maria Hernandez, in a selfie, called the calls set up between her and her husband stationed at an Army base a “blessing.”

“This has been a blessing for us when you suddenly lose all you have,” Maria said of the quick connection to her husband at a military base. 

Through the connected Red Cross work in disaster relief and Service to the Armed Forces, Jonathan was able to call home and set up a call schedule for the next few days. In addition, Maria and Jonathan received financial assistance offered specifically for military members on active duty. 

“The Red Cross is making it happen,” she recalled.

On that first phone call with Jonathan, Maria recounted the events of earlier that early spring morning, before dawn at their home. She was awoken by unruly stomping and muffled voices of the children and parents from the upstairs apartment. Moments later, knocking on a first-floor window. This was unusual at 4 a.m. on a Sunday. Then, jarring fist pounding on her apartment door and someone yelling “Salga! Get out!”

Startled, Maria jumped out of bed and flipped on the light. Thick smoke was billowing under the door, beginning to fill her bedroom. It was clear – their apartment building was on fire.

Maria threw on some clothes, grabbed her phone and keys, and ran outside. She found a frantic scene in the parking lot – people crying and yelling out for each other, huddled against the cold as residents continued to pour out of the building. A crowd started to gather nearby and Maria rushed over. She soon found herself cradling the baby of a family escaping their apartment one by one from the second-story window into the waiting arms of their neighbors below. At that point, the Janesville Fire Department arrived and moved the families well away from the building.  

That was the chaotic scene early Sunday morning, March 28 at Parkview Manor Apartments, a 38-unit building in Janesville where Maria and her husband, Jonathan, have lived for three years. For the past month, however, Jonathan has been stationed in Missouri, completing the 20-week basic training for the U.S. Army Military Police Program. Maria, a full-time dental hygienist student who also works full time, had gone to bed exhausted on Saturday night, expecting to sleep in a little before Sunday church services. 

“I never, ever thought I’d ever be in a situation like this,” she said. “I wished Jonathan was there. He probably would have remembered to grab shoes!”

By 6 a.m., it was evident that they would not be allowed to return to the building, so she called her father-in-law and headed to his home. The Red Cross was on the scene that same morning, attending to the needs of more than two-dozen displaced residents, providing food, temporary housing arrangements plus health and mental health resources. After about 10 days, partners from the City of Janesville and Echo took the lead on temporary housing, while Red Cross continued to help connect the dots with the range of resources needed for those displaced to find more stable footing.

Maria remarked that on the number of things that go out of line after a disaster, how long it can take to get back to normal. Some things will never be the same; sadly, the fire and subsequent heavy smoke damage also took the life of their pet parakeet, a pet Jonathan had a special connection to for years. Maria is presently staying with family, though plans to move into a new apartment with Jonathan once he returns from military training in summer. Through the chaos, Maria is grateful for the connection provided by the Red Cross to her beloved husband, so that they could more quickly get their lives back on track, together.

“They are helping him on his end and me on mine,” she said.

Are you a service member or member of a military family? The power of the American Red Cross Hero Care Network is never more than a click away. Download our free Hero Care App from your app store or by clicking here.

First-time donor in Hudson gives blood amid pandemic

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

During COVID-19, life’s emergencies didn’t stop – and neither did the work of the American Red Cross. The need for blood is constant and throughout the pandemic, the Red Cross is grateful for generous blood donors who take time to donate lifesaving blood.

Nic Peterson, from Hudson, is a first-time blood donor and recently began to donate blood.

“I was always curious about donating blood and made up about every excuse possible. I was too busy, it wasn’t convenient enough, I was a little nervous, is it going to hurt, will I faint like my Mom does, etc.,” said Nic Peterson. “Selfishly, when I learned that the Red Cross tests for COVID antibodies, I admittedly was simply curious if I ever had COVID and it made me take the leap!”

Here’s a guide on what to expect as a first-time blood donor. Ready to make an impact? Make an appointment at RedCrossBlood.org.

In June 2020, the Red Cross began testing blood, platelet and plasma donations for COVID-19 antibodies to help provide donors insight into whether they may have been exposed to coronavirus during this ongoing pandemic.

Since Peterson’s initial donation, he now tries to donate blood as much as he can at the Red Cross blood drive held at the American Legion in New Richmond.

“The people working are awesome. I am a big introvert and a little shy. The staff is so welcoming and made me feel informed and comfortable. Plus, it hurts less than getting a shot, which I have no idea how that could be,” said Peterson.

To encourage others who may be hesitant to donate Peterson says, “Just try it one time. You don’t need to make the decision if this is something you are going to do forever. Give it a shot, see how you feel, and then decide if it is something you want to do moving forward. Even if you decide after one time that it isn’t for you, it still is a great feeling to know you helped someone that really needed it.”

Every two seconds in the United States blood is needed to respond to patient emergencies, including accident and burn victims, heart surgery and organ transplant patients, and those receiving treatment for leukemia, cancer or sickle cell disease. The Red Cross must collect nearly 13,000 blood and more than 2,600 platelet donations every day for the patients at about 2,500 hospitals nationwide.

Peterson is an advocate for the Red Cross mission.

“When I think of the Red Cross, I do think of all of the great things they do such as helping in support and recovery during natural disasters, helping a family after their house burnt, or supplying blood to hospitals across the country. Now, what pulls at my heart strings the most is donating blood. When someone needs it, I have realized there is only one way to get it and that is by someone taking the time out of their day to donate it for others.”

“People, when they see the Red Cross, they feel comforted”: A Conversation on the Power of Volunteering with Red Crossers Curtis & Bette Hossman

Interview and story by Michael Tenamore, American Red Cross

“The fabric of our nation is strengthened by the service of its volunteers. When we stand side-by-side to help others, our differences fade away, and we learn that Americans have more in common than we realize.” Barbara Stewart

Curtis and Bette Hossman, two American Red Cross volunteers, have stood side-by-side through it all.

From Lodi and Madison to Birmingham and Long Island, their dedication to volunteering is nothing short of amazing. At the Red Cross, they’ve done everything from humanitarian relief after cataclysmic natural disasters and interacting with service member families facing life-or-death medical procedures, to welcoming donors at blood drives and bringing mental well-being resources to veterans who are incarcerated.

After 50 years of experience as volunteers and during National Volunteer Week 2021, we wanted to learn some of their secrets and inspiration, so we hopped on a call together to see how it all started. (This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)

When did you start volunteering?

Curtis Hossman leads a Service to the Armed Forces wellness workshop in 2019 to a group in Milwaukee. Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross

Bette Hossman: “Oh, my gosh, I probably started volunteering … well, we were in high school, [so] probably over 50 years ago. I think we had a birthday party, and we bought gifts for kids at a red Kabbalistic [gathering] here in Madison.”

Curtis Hossman: “That’s what we did for our birthdays when we were teenagers.”

Along with volunteering for the Red Cross and at their church in Lodi, Curtis and Bette have started volunteering through “Reach Out” food deliveries during the pandemic. They were also giving “Wellness on Wednesday” presentations in their community center. And for more than a decade, Curtis has been on the executive board for Habitat for Humanity. He’s helped establish a local endowment foundation for other charities. In the past, they’ve also volunteered at the children’s hospital, schools and AmeriCorps.

What are the memorable national deployments you’ve been involved with through the Red Cross?

Bette: “The first one you went on was a real eye-opener. We walked into this huge building that looked like a warehouse and all the stations set up for different things that I wouldn’t think of.”

“You need telecommunications, you need transportation, you need housing, you need mass care, and you need people to distribute food. It was like, ‘Holy cow!’ [There’s] a little city under this roof lobby operation that you weren’t expecting.”

Curtis: “I really liked my one in New York [for Super Storm Sandy] the most. I went out to Long Island, and there was nobody else there because there was no transportation. I was the only Red Cross person there [to begin with].”

“But then we started to get some community people involved, and then after two or three days, it started rolling. But it was kind of fun to be on the ground floor and try to figure out where to stay.”

At the V.A. Hospital in Madison, Curtis and Bette stand side-by-side with the veteran patients and their families. They have been volunteers for over four years at the V.A., where they meet and talk with individuals who require an organ transplant. It’s not what comes to most mind’s when they hear of a volunteer.

Curtis: “It was an injustice to see these people that served our country struggling more than others.”

The couple blurs the lines of what “volunteering” is. They inspire others to make the change that needs to be made. What do you call a person who spends their lifetime seeking out the bad, helping strangers who are struggling the most, and standing side by side with them?

Why do you do it?

Curtis: “You know, whenever you reach out and help somebody else, you are enhancing your own soul. It’s almost an act of selfishness, but it’s in the Socratic kind of notion that doing good for others enhances you, and it makes the world a better place for everybody.”

Bette: “People when they see the Red Cross, they feel comforted. They see someone who wishes to help them.”

Curtis and Bette show what it means to be a volunteer. Volunteering is more than an act, and it’s what we all need – during trauma, during grief, or during a global pandemic – and we owe all volunteers thanks for being a reminder of what we can all become.

Find a volunteer role that fits your passion and schedule. Start your journey at redcross.org/volunteer.

Honoring heroes in southeastern Wisconsin: announcing the winners, tickets and auction items for the 2021 Brave Hearts gala

MILWAUKEE, Wis., April 12, 2021 – After a challenging year like few others, it’s important to recognize the everyday heroes and leaders in our community. The 2021 Brave Hearts gala is proud to present some of those local heroes as part of an invaluable fundraiser for the American Red Cross.

The 2021 Brave Hearts gala will take place virtually, from 6-7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 13. Click here to register (You can also share this link: https://BraveHearts.givesmart.com)

The annual event is led by the Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the Red Cross and celebrates local people who were involved in selfless acts of courage and kindness during the past year. Our 2021 heroes are:

  • Nolan Kasten, Will Kasten, Carson Stingle and Dan Studer (Washington County) – award: Adult Good Samaritans
  • Jack Adams (Walworth County) – award: Youth Good Samaritan
  • Caitlin Cullen (Milwaukee County) – award: Community Heroes
  • Charlene Jensen (Walworth County) – award: From the Heart Hero
  • Christina Porter (Waukesha County) – award: Emergency Response Hero
  • Dennis Marifke (Milwaukee County) – award: Military Hero
  • Addilyn Holland (Kenosha County) – award: Hero of the Year

The online award gala also includes a silent auction that launches May 10. Special prizes will only be available for bidding during the gala on May 13, including a Watt Brothers Football Set, containing an autographed football from J.J., T.J. and Derek Watt, donated generously by American Family Insurance.

This year’s sponsors include Nicholas Company, Kohl’s, Northwestern Mutual, Johnson Controls, Molson Coors, A.O. Smith, West Bend Mutual Insurance Company, Halo, S.C. Johnson, Snap-On, We Energies and Rockwell Automation.

The gala and silent auction serve as a fundraiser for humanitarian relief programs and more provided by the Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross, which serves Dodge, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha counties. To reserve your seat for this virtual event and participate in the silent auction, please visit https://BraveHearts.givesmart.com.

For event details and ticketing, contact sasha.parsons@redcross.org. For media or general Red Cross questions, contact justin.kern@redcross.org.  

Brown Deer man who escaped apartment fire: “When the Red Cross is here, the magic happens”

Story and Photo By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Now a week after escaping a multi-family fire in suburban Milwaukee that left him initially “with only the clothes on my back,” Bradley Epstein took a moment to reflect on the disaster and share his gratitude for those who continue to provide relief.

On April 1, residents were seen hanging outside the windows at a Brown Deer condominium complex, trying to escape from a multi-family fire started on the first floor of a 30-unit building. Epstein is a local musician in the area and brother of Howie Epstein, late bass guitarist with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. When Epstein woke that Thursday morning, he expected it to be a typical day but quickly realized it was far from ordinary.

Bradley Epstein, a week after a fire displaced him and more than 20 other people from a multi-unit residential building in suburban Milwaukee. The musician helped people escape the blaze and called Red Crossers now helping him “saviors.”

“I smelled smoke, entered the hallway and was greeted with even more intense smoke,” said Epstein. “A vacant unit in the building was on fire. The main entrance contained a large amount of smoke making everyone think we were trapped. I heard a lady yelling for help and found her further down the hall and helped her out of the building. I am not a hero. I was just doing what needed to be done.”

Epstein continued, “I saw other residents helping each other find other exits to use since they could only see smoke at the main entrance, some residents were hanging out their windows crying for help. I also noticed very few fire alarms beeping during the commotion. However, the fire department was great at responding to everyone.”

“We were all dazed and confused. My head was spinning. It was a 32-degree morning and I was out of my home with only the clothes on my back and no shoes,” replied Epstein.

Epstein called friends who drove him to a local hotel. Hotel personnel notified him the American Red Cross was there to provide support at the hotel. When hearing that the Red Cross was on site Epstein replied, “When the Red Cross is here, the magic happens.”

The Red Cross has ensured those displaced have had a warm place to stay at a local hotel, as well as food and health, mental health and spiritual care services. They’ve also begun with Epstein and others on the next steps in their recovery, like identifying longer-term housing options. In the first week of response to this fire, the Red Cross has provided more than 300 meals, 69 health/mental health services and daily temporary lodging for more than 20 people.

“From the start of the fire, I recognized the works of the Red Cross – I saw warm buses helping those standing in the cold, hotel sheltering being given to myself and others, meals, snacks, and water were being provided, and I am happy to say I receive a money card to help with incidentals since I have nothing,” said Epstein. 

His belief in the work of the Red Cross has been strengthened by seeing staff and volunteers in action. “I am so grateful for what the Red Cross is doing for me, they are my savior, they are kind, sincere and make me feel comfortable. As soon as I am able, I would like to pay my efforts forward and volunteer with the Red Cross,” said Epstein.

To quote a lyric by Tom Petty, the artist who played for decades with Bradley Epstein’s brother, Howie: “Some days are diamonds. Some days are rocks. Some doors are open. Some roads are blocked.” Epstein can relate his multi-family fire experience to the lyrics of this song, for the day was a rock and the roads were blocked. But thanks to the efforts of the Red Cross he can hopefully look forward to the days ahead when more doors are open and more days are diamonds.  

As part of our “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” campaign beginning April 8, the Wisconsin Region of the Red Cross is encouraging people to sign up for free fire safety resources for their families and homes. Sign up today at redcross.org/WIsmokealarms or call 877-618-6628.