Robotic pets provide ‘unique’ support for Wisconsin and Michigan veterans

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Veterans have had challenges with loneliness and isolation exacerbated by the constraints and safety restrictions set in place by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One creative solution? Meet Princess, the robotic cat.

Since spring 2020, the Wisconsin Region of the American Red Cross has supplied approximately 17 robotic cats and dogs to facilities that house and care for veterans, including at the Oscar G. Johnson V.A. in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and the Tomah V.A. Medical Center and the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King in Waupaca.

Veteran Susan Vich poses with her fuzzy friend, a robotic pet supplied by the American Red Cross, from her home at the Oscar G. Johnson V.A. in Iron Mountain, Mich. Submitted photo

Heather LaPalm, a Recreation Therapy Assistant at the V.A. in Iron Mountain, has been part of the team to find a match for veterans who may want to take in one of the robotic pets.

“People can’t get out. They feel down and it was a pick-me-up for certain veterans,” LaPalm said. “It really fits for certain people, if they need something to fill that void. It’s been really hard for them, not being able to see other people [during COVID] … so these pets have been important for them.”

The battery-powered pets have soft fur and are programmed for a series of responses, like purring when they are petted or meowing in response to conversation. They’re also light-sensitive – so as not to disrupt sleep – and don’t come with those inevitable living pet needs for meals or house training.

While there is no confusing these tiny robots for their real-life counterparts, they provide a caring touchpoint for veterans at the facility, who have been separated from many of their typical social and personal interactions during the pandemic.

Sometimes they serve as conversation starters, on pets people had in their youth, or can be used to soften the move out of a facility by a friend, as was the case of one recent female veteran who took in a robotic cat for companionship. LaPalm recalls how one veteran, missing his own family’s pets, not to mention his family, found a light-hearted connection with his robotic cat, which he named Princess.

Jack Pemble, a Vietnam War veteran, pets his robotic cat on his bed at the Iron Mountain V.A. Submitted photo

“A lot of them are feeling very lonely. They can’t see their pets or their family. He said, ‘Sometimes I talk to the cat and the cat meows back at me. They’re like a real cat.’ He laughs and smiles when he talks about his cat,” said LaPalm.

Michelle Matuszak, Regional Program Manager, Service to the Armed Forces, shares the difficulty in finding valuable ways to support veterans when they’ve been isolated and unable to host events, including the typical visits and activities with Red Cross volunteers and staff. While the robotic pet program may be a bit unusual, she said feedback from staff V.A.s and veterans homes shows an innovative spirit in providing all that is possible for those who served in the military.

“It’s reassuring that this is something that is benefitting the veterans as well as the staff. It’s been heart-breaking to hear over the past year with COVID, [how] everything is shut down,” Matuszak said. “Figuring out how we can [still] connect with the veterans, connect with the staff, and to hear that the veterans really are building relationships with these robotic pets, it is unique.”

As the pandemic subsides brings the hope that more in-person and typical events and activities would return. But LaPalm and Matuszak both said the battery-powered pups and kitties should stick around after the pandemic because of their proven boost to veterans facing loneliness or isolation.

“There is always the need for social and emotional support. It’s robotic, but it gives you attention back, it gives you an interaction,” LaPalm said. “It’s a key piece of their needs.”

Your support of our Service to the Armed Forces mission makes programs like this possible. Click here for more ways we support veterans, service members and their families and to find out how you can get involved.

On Red Cross’ 140th, a Washburn donor reflects on pins and friendly competition

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Today, May 21, 2021, the American Red Cross marks its 140th anniversary. During that remarkable and wide-reaching history that started with Clara Barton in 1881, people have come up with all manners of appreciation and distinction with their involvement.

For Jeffrey Johnson, of Washburn, his life-saving involvement includes a bit of family and a bit of history.

Jeffrey Johnson, avid American Red Cross blood donor and pin collector.

In 2001 Johnson began donating blood and giving consistently. Between his generous donations and his late father’s donations, the family has surpassed the 16-gallon milestone by simply demonstrating the act of kindness.

The Johnson family knows friendly competition is a good thing especially when it involves a greater good.

“My father was a regular donor and has donated at least 88 times and has 11 pins,” said Johnson. “I just donated my 40th pint and just received my fifth pin. I don’t believe I can surpass my father’s record, but I will try.”

The Red Cross pin culture dates as far back as the early 1900s. The organization bestowed pins on financial donors as a token of appreciation, nurses for their service – even giving pins for people who completed Red Cross water safety classes. The tradition continues today, with people earning pins for years of service, important projects, noteworthy achievements, national large-scale disaster deployments and blood donations.

The average whole blood donation is about one pint of blood, and eight pints equals a gallon. For every gallon of blood donated, a donor is awarded a pin from the Red Cross.

Johnson admires his family collection of Red Cross blood donor pins and looks forward to collecting more. He gives blood as often as he can at the various Red Cross blood drives in Ashland and Washburn.

The blood donor recognition pins pile up for every life-saving benchmark by Johnson.

“I admire by father’s commitment to donate blood and thought the pins were special, but now I realize they helped sparked my passion to donate,” said Johnson. “I am motivated to donate because it seems to be such a simple way to help other who are in need.”

To encourage others who may be hesitant to donate Johnson says, “Hydrate and eat a good meal prior to donating. Relax, it usually goes very well and the benefits it provides to others are well worth 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. Make your appointment at

Lifeguard receives a “billion-star rating”, national honors for saving child’s life

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

On Aug. 27, 2020, Jayden Taylor was lifeguarding at a pool at Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells when she saw a child go under water. That’s when her instincts and American Red Cross training kicked in.

The young child was a tired swimmer who ventured out too far in the pool and was overcome by a wave. Jayden rushed into the water, rescued the child and returned the child to her parents mere moments after the whole incident started.

Jayden Taylor from her lifeguard post in Wisconsin Dells.

“I didn’t see myself in the moment, the only vision I had was to help the child,” said Jayden. “Thanks to the training I received as a lifeguard, my quick actions and adrenaline kicked in. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It shows your skills and trainings are always with you and you never know when you might need them.”  

This was the first water rescue for Jayden, who still works at the Wilderness and looks forward to seeing the child again in the future. The pool rescue has been followed by recognition on two fronts.

Madelyn Lorentz from her home, safe after a swimming scare.

About a month after the incident, Jayden received a thank-you note from the child, who gave her “a billion-star rating” for saving her life. And on May 20, Jayden was presented with the Lifesaving Award for Professional Responders, a national recognition from the Red Cross that includes a certificate and citation for her pool heroics. This is one of the highest awards given by the American Red Cross to an individual who saves or sustains a life by using skills and knowledge learned in a Red Cross Training Services course. This action exemplifies the highest degree of concern of one human being for another who is in distress.

Shortly after Jayden’s rescue, nine-year-old, Madelyn Lorentz wrote a thank you to Jayden for saving her life and sent it to the Wilderness. In the note she gave Jayden a “billion star” rating. The thoughtful note sparked the interest of the aquatics director who shared the letter with the Red Cross. The Red Cross conducts the resort’s lifeguard training.

Madelyn’s thank-you note to Jayden.

Kyle Kriegl, Executive Director, Southwest Wisconsin Chapter of the Red Cross, said he believes Jayden’s actions can compel others to take swim safety training and to become lifeguards.

“We are proud to honor Jayden for her courageous actions,” Kriegl said. “We hope that her story will inspire others to learn these lifesaving skills. We need more heroes in the community who are trained and ready to jump into action.”

Watch a video of Jayden sharing more on her heroic water rescue here.

It only takes a moment. A child or weak swimmer can drown in the time it takes to reply to a text or apply sunscreen. Death and injury from drownings happen every day. The Red Cross believes that by working together to improve water competency – which includes swimming skills, water smarts and helping others – will make water activities safe and fun.

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.

Red Cross blood drive held in memory of Betty “Bingo” McMillin

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

The community is invited to give blood in memory of Betty “Bingo” McMillin at a special American Red Cross blood drive Saturday, May 22 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at De Forest Public Library, 203 Library St. 

Betty was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which immature blood cells located in the bone marrow fail to mature into healthy blood cells. In addition, Betty developed hemolytic anemia, a blood disorder in which red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be made.

Betty “Bingo” McMillin

Individually these conditions require a patient to receive a significant amount of blood products. Having these two conditions simultaneously required Betty to receive weekly blood transfusions. Thanks to generous blood donors, blood was available to help Betty maintain her life and allowed her to spend an extra year with her family. Betty passed away March 2020.  

“Due to a blood shortage, there were many times when my mom would wait hours for her blood to be delivered,” said, Jamie McMillin, Betty’s daughter. Because her mother’s hemoglobin levels were low, Betty lacked energy and felt horrible. “I knew she was suffering, and she never complained. She was just happy to get the blood because she knew the next day, she would be able to walk again, be with her friends and be at home with her dog, Teddy.”

“I want to honor my mother by having this blood drive,” said McMillin. “I would like to see the entire community come together to support others in need by giving blood. I think we need to make high school students aware that they are able to help, especially young donors that may have not donated before, with great hopes that they continue to donate blood throughout their lives.” 

This blood drive is being sponsored by the Sun Prairie Storm swim team and it is anticipated to collect 44 lifesaving donations to help patients in need.

Donated blood may be used to help accident victims, surgery patients, organ transplant patients, and those receiving treatment for leukemia, cancer or sickle cell disease. There is no substitute for donated blood products.

Every day, the Red Cross must collect more than 13,000 blood donations to meet the needs of hospital patients across the country. Blood donors of all types are needed. Those with types O, A negative and B negative blood are encouraged to make a Power Red donation at this blood drive. Power Red donors give a concentrated dose of red blood cells during a single donation, allowing them to maximize their impact. Make an appointment at

Former airman from Spooner continues to aim high by donating lifesaving blood

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Armed Forces Day is a federal holiday observed annually on the third Saturday of May. It is a day dedicated to honoring men and women who currently serve in the United States’ armed forces. In support of this day, the American Red Cross pays tribute to James Bishop, from Spooner, a former airman who started giving blood in the 1970s.

Bishop got directly involved in the need for blood when a commanding officer underwent surgery at their base.

“In 1972 at Great Falls, Montana, Malmstrom Air Force Base, the ‘Sarge’, a great guy, was having open heart surgery,” said Bishop.

“We got word that donating blood would defray the cost of his surgery and would generally help him. We were told our blood would replace any of the units he used. About 20 of us piled into cars and went downtown to the blood donation center.”

The “Sarge” eventually recovered thanks to the blood products available and he returned to duty. “After donating, we all felt pretty good about it.”

Bishop donated over two gallons of blood over his four-year tour and continues to donate today at the Red Cross Community Blood Drive in Spooner.

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.

To encourage others who may be hesitant to donate Bishop says, “Your selfless giving makes you one of the noble many. I say continue the course. Do something outside of your comfort zone and give of yourself.”

In addition to providing biomedical services, the Red Cross proudly serves our nation’s military personnel and their families, including active duty, National Guard and Reserve, as well as veterans. For more than 135 years, the Red Cross has provided critical assistance to military families – beginning with our founder, Clara Barton, on Civil War battlefields. Recognizing service members and veterans is ingrained in the foundation of the Red Cross, on Armed Forces Day and throughout the year.

The Red Cross supports military members from the moment they enlist to the moment they separate from the service – and beyond. We offer critical assistance and resources to service members, veterans and their families globally 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In 2020 alone, Wisconsin Region Red Cross staff and dozens of volunteers provided case services for 3,669 military personnel and their family.

Blood and platelet donors of all types are needed this month to help ensure blood products are available for patients now and into summer. In thanks for making it a summer full of life, those who come to give May 1-15 will receive a $5 Gift Card by email. Those who make it in to donate in May will also automatically be entered for a chance to win a travel trailer camper that sleeps five, powered by Suburban Propane.* Additional details are available at

‘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:

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

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.