‘Protected’ and ‘safe’: sense of security after La Crosse home fire preparedness visits

By Justin Kern and Riley Neper, American Red Cross

Rita Thompson had questions on how to keep her home, herself and her cats safe in case of a fire at their modular home.

From the back deck of her La Crosse home, Rita asked American Red Cross volunteers Peter Knapik and Jay Tucker about proper use of a space heater, the best way to escape especially with her use of a cane, and dangers from different types of cooking apparatus. Meanwhile, firefighters from the La Crosse Fire Department replaced two smoke alarms, all as part of a day of home fire preparedness in La Crosse.

“I just thought it was important to protect my property and I wasn’t really sure if my smoke alarms were up-to-date. [Now] I feel more protected,” Thompson said after the visit and installations.

Rita Thompson, left, talks her through a fire escape plan for her home with American Red Cross volunteers Peter Knapik, center, and Jay Tucker.

Thompson’s home was one of approximately 100 homes safer over the past week, including a big push on May 8th with numerous home visits and an education station at Copeland Park in La Crosse. La Crosse was a signature city in Wisconsin to participate in the national “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” home fire preparedness campaign. In 2020, similar events were put on pause, but extra health and safety measures by the Red Cross and partners in 2021, along with improvements in the outlook of the COVID pandemic, meant a return to a modified version of the home fire safety initiative. Statewide, Red Cross volunteers have also been able to empower numerous residents this spring with home fire education through virtual one-on-one conversations.

You can still sign up for virtual home fire preparedness resources and, where and when possible, in the installation of free smoke alarms by fire department partners. Click here or call 877-618-6628.

Erin Baschaw met Red Crossers at Copeland Park, picking up materials like a home fire safety checklist from volunteer Michelle McKinley. Baschaw took advantage of the preparedness materials as “peace of mind” – her daughter just moved into her own place for the first time, so Baschaw was interested in sharing the lessons and materials.

Sandy Seachrest, left, said she signed up for “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” for the “safety” it provided. Here, Red Cross volunteer Jay Tucker walks Sandy through a home fire safety checklist.

La Crosse home-owner Sandy Seachrest met volunteers Tucker and Knapik on her front stoop during the home fire safety education portion of her visit Saturday. Wearing masks and spaced apart six feet, she heard how to map out two ways out of each room in her house from the Red Cross volunteers. Firefighters replaced alarms in her home, for free, and gave her advice on a replacement fire extinguisher, after she revealed the only one in her home “had probably been in my house since we moved in in 1984.”

Seachrest was exuberant on the preparedness visit and boiled it all down to one word: “safe.”

“It’s safety, I feel more safe,” she said.

Along with the La Crosse Fire Department, the May 8th event was supported by the Great Rivers United Way. Across the Wisconsin Region, home fire preparedness partners include Johnson Controls and West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. Find and share this free home fire preparedness resource: redcross.org/WIsmokealarms

The last one out

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Currently staying at a hotel serving as an American Red Cross shelter, Yessenia Calderon said she missed early warning signs that her apartment building had been on fire.

Yessenia has asthma and other breathing issues, plus she and her partner Israel weren’t too familiar with their Milwaukee building yet, having moved in just two weeks prior. When alarms began to blare and then a plume of smoke met her at the door on the morning of April 27, she made a panicked phone call for help.

“I called the maintenance manager and said, ‘Hey, I think there’s a fire in the building’ and he was like, ‘The building is burning down, get out!’”

Yessenia, left, and Israel Calderon hold close as they share their story of escape and recovery after a fire at their apartment building in Milwaukee.

Some way, Yessenia knew she had to escape. Through the smoky calamity, she called out when she heard who turned out to be a firefighter.

“I was scared. I’m 46 and I felt like I was 5,” she said, still visibly shaken by the trauma. “‘Hold my hand, I’m scared, I’m scared,’ I said [to the firefighter] and he held my hand and took me down the stairs.”

The fire displaced dozens of people from 28 occupied units of the apartment building in Milwaukee’s Merrill Park neighborhood, blocks from the Red Cross Southeast Wisconsin Chapter headquarters. Red Cross teams have provided sheltering in a local hotel including daily meals for approximately 40 people since the day of the fire. Yessenia said the support from a Red Cross volunteer caseworker and mental health expert have helped her stand tall through the tragedy.

“The Red Cross has been an angel in the skies, basically. They’ve provided us with a home, with food every day … things that, on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard for us to do. The Red Cross has really made it possible,” she said.

Every day, in the Near West Side and throughout Wisconsin, the American Red Cross is there for our neighbors in need. Your support makes our work possible

The couple grew up in The Bronx and recently resettled together in Milwaukee. In mid-April, Israel used most of his first check from a new job on the rent and security deposit for their new place. Yessenia said it has been trying to deal with their now-former property manager and an outstanding security deposit, on top of nailing down a new place with all those added costs and hurdles. The couple hasn’t been able to extensively access their old apartment, with the Goodwill providing clothing including replacement steel-toed boots required by Israel’s employer. It’s tough to even call the power company to switch over her account – “I don’t want to deal with [the fire] again” – and called the recovery more difficult than the escape from the fire.

The affected building in Milwaukee. The Calderons had an apartment a few units from the suspected source of the April 27th blaze.

As the Red Cross works with the Calderons and other displaced residents through the next steps in their recovery plans, Yessenia said she still worries about the frenetic state of it all.

“It’s frustrating … everything is in the air,” she said.

Amid the struggles and bad luck, the couple reminded each other to be grateful. On the morning of the fire, Israel had left the apartment to pick up food. He said he had an ominous feeling as he saw emergency vehicles speeding past him and black smoke in the sky dead-ahead, increasingly clear that they were all centered on his new home – and uncertain what that meant for the woman he loves.

“When I got there, I see the commotion and I start screaming for her. I was about to go in the building, but these fire men said no,” Israel recalled. “She was the last one out. She was lucky.”

Oconto Falls mother donates for the love of her son

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

This Mother’s Day, Elizabeth Valentine-Adler from Oconto Falls celebrates life thanks to the gift of blood donations.

In 2014, Valentine-Adler experienced childbirth complications with her third son, Sam, and lost a significant amount of blood, requiring a blood transfusion.

“I had just had my third baby and had two other little boys at home that needed me to recover, come home, love and take care of them,” said Valentine-Adler.

“I couldn’t believe how incredibly weak and awful I felt before the transfusion when all I wanted was to be cuddling and bonding with my new baby. I am so thankful for the generosity of blood donors who allowed me to get better. Your commitment and willingness to take the time is lifesaving.”    

Elizabeth Valentine-Adler with her son, Sam.

Prior to needing blood Valentine-Adler said she never thought of those on the receiving end. Halfway through her transfusion she said she felt like a brand-new person.

“I told myself at some point down the road, I would give blood as a way of giving back,” said Valentine-Adler.

You can make a life-saving gift as a blood donor. Make an appointment at an upcoming drive near you at RedCrossBlood.org.

Now, seven years later she is donating blood for others and is encouraging other people to think of those who may need blood. When asked why she donates she replied, “Sam is my reason why!

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.

On upcoming drive in northeast Wisconsin has a bonus gift for mothers who donate. The Green Bay Packers Give Back Community Blood Drive is Monday, May 3 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Tuesday, May 4 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Lambeau Field in the Johnsonville Tailgate Village, located in the east parking lot outside the American Family Insurance Gate. All presenting donors can enter into a raffle for a chance to win great prizes from the Packers and receive a free giveaway item, while supplies last. In celebration of Mother’s Day, all mothers who present to donate will also receive a single flower from Flowerama, while supplies last.