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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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


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!


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

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