‘Red Cross came to the rescue’: after massive apartment fire, Milwaukee woman joins as a disaster volunteer

By Katie Baneck, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

House fires occur in the winter more than any other season. This can be attributed to heating equipment, especially in Wisconsin, among other factors. The American Red Cross utilizes Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteers to help families affected by emergency situations, such as house fires. DAT volunteers assist those affected by providing resource information, financial assistance, emotional support, and whatever else may be needed after their tragic event

Shortly after experiencing her own tragedy, Martha Preston became a DAT volunteer herself. In January 2021, Martha arrived at her Burnham Park apartment to find that it was no longer a home. A fire within the complex just after midnight displaced more than 100 residents and took one life.

The morning after a deadly fire that displaced dozens from an apartment building in Milwaukee’s Burnham Park neighborhood.

Martha recalls the Milwaukee County Transit buses parked nearby as warming shelters for the building’s residents as firefighters battled the four-story building blaze. Then, the volunteers arrived.

“The Red Cross came to the rescue,” she remembered of the scene that day.

The Red Cross provided shelter for Martha and dozens of those who were displaced, in a 24-hour span that also saw other large apartment fires in Milwaukee, Janesville and Beaver Dam. At one point soon after these fires, the Red Cross in Wisconsin led the nation with the number of people supported in disaster sheltering, even surpassing the largest cities in the U.S., and areas ravaged by natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.

It was the kind actions of the Red Cross volunteers that responded to this event that inspired Martha to join the cause herself. Now as a DAT volunteer, Martha is the first person many come in contact with after their emergency. She provides water, hygiene kits, stuffed animals for children, and many other things that help these families begin to recuperate after tragedy. Martha has fond memories of her first time responding as a DAT volunteer.

Martha Preston

“It is so rewarding to be able to help out people on probably the worst day of their life, and get them on their way to recovery,” Preston said.

In addition to her participation with the Red Cross, Martha also volunteers with anti-human trafficking organizations. When she is not busy volunteering, Martha enjoys spending time with her husband and their three cats.

The winter of 2021 saw a recent high in the number of home fires and number of people in need of humanitarian relief from the Red Cross. That trend has continued with nearly three fires per day to start 2022 – with people like Martha there to help people in the response and recovery.

For information on how to become a DAT volunteer visit this link. To search for other volunteer positions and opportunities, go here.

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