Wisconsin Region spotlight: Q&A with Kelly Clark

Every few months, we’re highlighting the incredible work toward the mission of the American Red Cross by one of our colleagues in the Wisconsin Region. Hopefully these short profiles provide a little light of positivity and inspiration across all lines of service in our humanitarian mission.

This latest profile is on Kelly Clark, a Regional Philanthropy Officer on our Fund Development team, her latest role in an impressive range of service to people as a Red Crosser. Questions were asked by members of the Region communications team, and edited for style and space.

American Red Cross: Tell us about your professional background and your role at the Red Cross.

Kelly Clark: I have been a Red Crosser since 2012. I joined the organization as a volunteer in Colorado Springs, Colo. and the Volunteer Services team quickly threw me in to help with planning a disaster training institute. Since then, every time my husband and I moved to a new place with the U.S. Army, I reached out to the local Red Cross office to offer my help. Sometimes in Disaster Services, sometimes in Service to the Armed Forces.

Kelly Clark, left, with volunteers amid an interview with Armed Forces Network while Clark was a Red Cross Field Office Coordinator at a military base in Germany.

When we moved to overseas in 2015, I became the Field Office Coordinator for the American Red Cross office on the USAG Bavaria military base in Vilseck, Germany, and as the only Red Cross employee on the base, I was affectionally known as the “Red Cross lady.” The next step in my Red Cross career was joining the Chicago team as a Disaster Program Manager, covering disaster preparedness and response in five counties including the city of Chicago.

In March, I joined the Wisconsin Region as a Regional Philanthropy Officer for the Southeast Chapter. In this role I will be working with individual, foundation and corporate donors and partners in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin.

Prior to joining the Red Cross, I majored in German and Russian and European Studies for my undergraduate degree at the University of Bath in England, and I am now in the middle of completing my M.S. in Nonprofit Management from Northeastern University, an online course which is based out of Boston.

The mission of the Red Cross connects us to so many people. Can you share an anecdote about someone whose life was affected by your role or work at the Red Cross?

As the Field Officer Coordinator in Germany I was responsible, among other things, for our volunteer program and developing volunteer leadership. The unique nature of living on a military base overseas as a military spouse means there are very few career opportunities available, at least prior to COVID and virtual work becoming more common. One of our volunteers, Sophie, was in the final stages of getting her R.N. license, but needed practical experience in nursing to be able to complete the requirements for her degree. Short of travelling back to the U.S. and being away from her family she wasn’t sure of a feasible solution. In seeing this need, I built a relationship with the military health clinic on base, eventually allowing Sophie – and a number of other nurses-in-training after her – to volunteer as a nurse in the clinic to fulfil her degree requirements.

How do you explain what you do to people outside the Red Cross?

Since the American Red Cross is so well known there is such an overwhelmingly positive response when people find out I work for the organization that it doesn’t warrant a whole lot of explanation. When I do speak about my role, I explain that I work with partners in the Milwaukee area to raise funds so that the Red Cross can achieve its mission in alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies. I think back to my role as a Disaster Program Manager and handing out Client Assistance Cards to clients after a home fire; Disaster Services wouldn’t be able to do its amazing work without the Fund Development team raising the money. Similarly, the Fund Development team wouldn’t exist without Disaster. It is all interlinked. One Red Cross!

What is your hidden talent? Or a hobby you have that people may not know about?

Clark, center, faces a group of trainees at a “Sound the Alarm” smoke alarm installation event in May in Milwaukee.

My hidden talent is that I can speak multiple languages – I grew up speaking English and Dutch and also speak German and Russian (though it’s rather rusty!). A hobby that isn’t necessarily mine, but I indulge in because it’s certainly my husband’s hobby – board games. We probably have 150 different board games in our collection and love to play!

Has anyone in your immediately circle (family or friends) been helped or trained by the Red Cross? If so, how?

Many of my military spouse friends have been trained by the Red Cross through the Preparedness Health and Safety programs, and have become Red Cross volunteers. As part of my role in Germany, I was the local First Aid/CPR/AED instructor, so not only did my close friends get trained in First Aid/CPR/AED, I convinced many of them to train to become instructors of the course, too! This was another great way for military spouses to build skills and keep their resumes active and up to date while they were stationed with their Army spouses abroad.

What does the Red Cross mean to you?

The Red Cross to me means a community of people who want to change peoples’ lives, one disaster response, training class, or smoke alarm install at the time. I didn’t know that when I walked into the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Red Cross in Colorado Springs in 2012 that this would become my lifelong career, but now I couldn’t see it any other way!

What would you say to inspire someone to join the Red Cross – through a training, or as a blood donor, volunteer or supporter?

To inspire someone to join the Red Cross, I would tell them my Red Cross story, and the stories of those individuals and families who I have seen be helped by the Red Cross. From a family who lost their home after a house fire, to elementary school children receiving preparedness education through the Pillowcase Project, and to service members and their families who were reunited after a family emergency … the Red Cross is there for people during some of the hardest moments of their lives.

Hundreds of Wisconsin residents safer after “Sound the Alarm” installation events 

Story & photos by Laura McGuire and Justin Kern, American Red Cross 

Spring once again meant community safety along with the flowers and showers in Wisconsin. 

The American Red Cross “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” home fire safety campaign returned to various cities over the course of three weeks, including an emphasis in Wisconsin on residents in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Sun Prairie and La Crosse. In a matter of a few hours during select days in May, approximately 300 homes in our state received free smoke alarms, fire escape plans and peace of mind against home fires, the most common disaster people face.  

Wisconsin Region CEO Mark Thomas, at right with megaphone, rallies crowds before the Milwaukee day of home fire safety on May 21, 2022.

Red Cross responses to residential fires have increased over the past two years, with thousands of families in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan displaced or worse. Since 2014, the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign, which includes the spring “Sound the Alarm” events, has documented more than 1,270 lives saved, including families in Janesville and Oshkosh.  

After two years without the full force of the signature Red Cross home fire safety campaign in communities due to the COVID pandemic, there was a sense of gratitude – in being proactive, giving back and joining together.  

“This is a big deal to me,” said Cristina Castillo, who lives with her five family members in their home on Milwaukee’s South Side, where Red Cross volunteers installed multiple alarms and talked through a home fire escape plan. “Thank you for being here and thank you for coming into our home.”  

‘How could I say no to free smoke alarms?’ 

In Wisconsin, home fire safety days began with events in Sun Prairie and La Crosse in the same week.

Over the course of two days, Red Cross volunteers, partners and firefighters brought more than 118 alarms plus escape plans and resources to people at more than 50 homes.  

As the Red Cross volunteer and partner fire safety teams visited Dianne Ames’s home in Sun Prairie, one could not help but notice the Green Bay Packers signage on the walls. But the reason for the visit was not to cheer on the team, but to install smoke alarms, review fire safety tips, create a home escape plan and make her home safer, and of course, keep those Packers items safe as well.   

Crystal and Dianne Ames talk through their fire safety plan with Natalie Courtier, Sun Prairie F.D.

When visiting her local community center earlier this year, Ames was greeted by a Red Cross employee sharing the importance of working smoke alarms and the resources available from this program.  

“How could I say no to free smoke alarms?,” said Dianne Ames about why she decided to sign up for the fire safety visit. “Thank you, this is a great program, and I am happy to get new smoke alarms to keep my house safe.”  

Ames’s is grateful for the program and has taken advantage of free smoke alarms in the past. About eight years ago, the Sun Prairie Fire Department had a safety initiative and installed her previous smoke alarms, which were soon to expire. 

“Many people don’t know that smoke alarms need to be replaced every ten years,” said Natalie Courtier, Community Risk Reduction Officer, Sun Prairie Fire Department, who joined the installation team at Ames’s home. “The batteries in the new smoke alarms we are putting in today will not need to be replaced – they are guaranteed to last for 10 years, but we do encourage you to test them once a month to make sure they are working properly.”  

Within 30 minutes, two new smoke alarms were installed and tested in Ames’s home. Meanwhile, other members of the installation team sat with Ames in her kitchen to review safety tips and create a home fire escape plan for her family.   

“I am blessed with what I have been given and I like meeting new people and helping out where I can,” said Jean Aden, QBE employee and volunteer with this installation team alongside co-workers Greg Puloo.

The volunteer installation team walked out of Ames’s house with a sense of pride knowing they helped to make her home safer and that her beloved Green Bay Packer signage would be safe, too.    

‘A lot more secure’ 

The Cream City has the highest number of fire responses and need in the state, but COVID has kept Red Cross teams and partners from holding wide-scale preparedness events since spring 2019. After a rally for about 100 volunteers, staff and partners at Milwaukee Fire Department Station 12, fire safety teams fanned out predominately on Milwaukee’s South Side, an area of heightened responses. By around lunchtime, teams had visited 162 homes, installing 400 free smoke alarms.  

Cristina Castillo, standing, talks through a plan for her family to safely escape a home fire with Red Cross volunteer Melissa Centgraf during a visit in Milwaukee.

Red Cross volunteers Scott Laurent, Melissa Centgraf and Jeffrey Schouten made about 10 stops on their fire safety appointments in the Lincoln Village neighborhood.  

Cristina and Jesus Castillo lost loved ones in Michigan after a home fire. As teams were installing alarms two doors down at their sister’s home, they realized these same resources could be vital for their home, which includes their mother, their two children and a grandchild. The Castillos invited Laurent, Centgraf and Schouten in, where they installed a handful of alarms and drew out a fire escape plan for the three-story home.  

“Now we have … a plan, like if you hear an alarm going off and how to get out of rooms on this side of the house or that side of the house,” said Cristina Castillo, later adding, “I feel a lot more secure. It’s been in the back of my mind but sometimes you just get so busy … I’m extremely happy you all are here.” 

‘Good and helpful reminders’ 

John Wright said he really didn’t know where all of the smoke alarms were located throughout his two-story, finished-basement home in Fond du Lac.  

“Have at it,” Wright said while inviting a three-person installation team to check out alarm needs in the home, one of nearly 100 scheduled over two days in the city. 

Calie Tasch, Community Risk Reduction Specialist, Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue, was the self-described “drill-master” and talked through existing alarms and possible replacements with Red Cross disaster volunteer and intern Laura Knops. Ultimately, two, new alarms were installed near a furnace and a wood-working area.  

Calie Tasch, Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue, and Laura Knops install alarms during a stop amid two days of fire safety in Fond du Lac.

At the same time, Sara Dorow, Red Cross Disaster Program Recovery Manager, joined Wright on a kitchen island to talk over cooking tips, an escape map of the home and additional awareness around the common local threat of tornadoes. Wright signed up for the alarms through the local Aging and Disability Resource Center, a partner in outreach for many of the appointments on this day  in Fond du Lac.  

“All of these are good and helpful reminders,” Wright said.  

This home fire safety push is possible because of numerous supporters and partners in our communities. Our spring 2022 partners include: Milwaukee Fire Department, La Crosse Fire Department, Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue, Sun Prairie Fire Department, United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, Forest County Potawatomi Foundation, Generac, Nicholas Family Foundation, Great Rivers United Way, Brewers Community Foundation, Festival Foods, Mercury Marine, QBE, Aurora Advocate Health, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Aging and Disability Resource Center of Fond du Lac County, City of Fond du Lac Senior Center, Sunshine Place, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of Milwaukee, Colonial Club, Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa, Milwaukee Tool, El Rey and Pete’s Fruit Market.  

You can still bring these free fire safety resources from the Red Cross and our partners to your home and family. Sign up at redcross.org/WIsmokealarms or (888) 376-4056.  

Dynamic mother-daughter donor duo

By Tom Ruse, American Red Cross

Susan and Kristin Brown – mother and daughter, respectively – have been donating blood together for years. At a recent drive held at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), this dynamic family duo shared their bond and Mother’s Day spirit that continues to bring them back to make life-saving donations.

Susan has been donating for more than 50 years. She explained how it all started: “The first donation was when I was in the school of nursing at UW-Madison. My boyfriend at the time (now husband) was an avid donor. That had a positive impact on my decision to donate.”  

Kristin first began donating at age 17. “I wanted to participate because I knew that my dad was an avid blood donor and felt this was a simple way to give back and follow in his footsteps.”  

Kristin, right, and Susan Brown have a close-knot family that enjoys sharing in all things Wisconsin together, including sporting events, trying new food and cocktail creations. “Really anything we can celebrate as a reason to get together, we will!” That includes donating blood; in total, Susan has donated 25 pints and Kristin has donated 19 pints.

Besides Kristin, Susan has two other daughters, Erin and Sara and son, David. For the last several years, Susan and Kristin have donated together when WARF holds a drive (Kristin serves as Facilities Services Manager at WARF). Returning to the same site provides consistent mother-daughter time, not to mention a regular reminder of the need.  

 “It really provides a unique opportunity for us spend time together while helping support such an important cause. We often promote our involvement in hopes others will join us,” said Kristin.

Susan has seen the other side of giving blood, too.

“My husband has had a few open-heart surgeries that required blood transfusions, which made me realize the importance of giving back. There is always a need for donations, because of adverse weather events, other disasters, recent COVID-related issues.”

Kristin concured, “Having family members who have needed a donation has heightened my awareness of what I can do now for someone else. I’m thankful that WARF is so supportive of our work drives. I find great value in participating in a work-sponsored event that also has universal community impact”.

There are many memorable experiences Susan and Kristin have had because of donating.

“Prior to donating with WARF, I donated at a Christmas Eve drive,” Kristin recalled. “It was snowy, but it was important for me to show up and support. There was a real sense of community and festive spirit that day. It felt great to go into the holiday with a ‘giving back’ mindset.”

“I donated on my birthday once,” added Susan. “It made the birthday cake taste that much sweeter!”

Susan and Kristin are eager to encourage others who have never donated to give it a try.

“It is such a selfless act that doesn’t require a lot of time,” Susan emphasized. “You immediately feel this sense of giving back, that you really helped someone in need. Then, when you receive the email notification letting you know where your blood was sent to help someone in need, it provides a greater awareness of the impact one donation can have.  It really helps you feel more connected to the process.”

“Think about paying it forward,” Kristin continued, “And while no one wants to dwell on this possibility, there may be a time in the future when you or a loved one needs a donation.”

Consider the rewarding experience of helping by donating platelets, plasma or blood.  Visit redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS today to find current donor drives in your area.