“I’m just thankful we’re safe”: Sun Prairie rallies around neighbors, shelter after tragic explosion

by Justin Kern, communications officer, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

The morning after an explosion up the street from her apartment, Patricia Friese paced the basketball court at the Sun Prairie High School, where she and her son waited for updates on their homes and city at a Red Cross shelter.

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Snacks and conversation at a Red Cross shelter in the Sun Prairie H.S. gymnasium, the morning after a tragic explosion.

Patricia’s phone had died and she knew family members would be worried. The sassy, silver-haired longtime Sun Prairie resident had the clothes on her back and no idea what might be left of her apartment, much less her cell phone charger. Turns out, volunteer Judy Giacomino had brought along a “handy dandy charger” that fit Patricia’s phone, enabling her to make a round of calls to family that ended with a similar sentiment: “I’m just thankful we’re safe.”

Patricia and David Friese were two of dozens of Sun Prairie residents evacuated and displaced by an explosion attributed to a ruptured natural gas line downtown on July 10. Within hours, quaint and quiet downtown Sun Prairie had been pulled into the national spotlight with shattered storefront windows, smoldering homes and businesses, and public mourning for a community paragon. The explosion claimed the life of Cory Barr, a father, volunteer fire captain and business owner, and injured two other firefighters. (More on supporting Barr’s family here; and one of the injured firefighters here.)

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Volunteer Judy Giacomino, left, talks with a local family who visited the Red Cross shelter with gifts of children’s books & toys.

Sections of downtown remained cordoned off for days as emergency officials took stock of the threats and damage. Sun Prairie High School graciously opened its doors to the community as the host of a Red Cross reception center that developed into a shelter by Tuesday night. Through Friday afternoon, when the last family was transitioned to temporary lodging elsewhere, the Red Cross shelter at Sun Prairie H.S. served 75 clients impacted by the explosion, including dozens of cots for sleep/rest, just shy of 600 meals and 1,387 snacks served, as well as connections to comfort kits, and health and mental health services. As shelter operations wrapped up that Friday, Red Cross and a handful of community partners organized a multi-agency resource center (MARC) to help streamline additional recovery efforts for residents.

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David Friese said he “didn’t know what we were coming home to” after a blast near his downtown apartment.

Among those at the shelter early Wednesday was David Friese, who has lived a floor away from his mother, Patricia, in the same downtown apartment building for the past seven years. David said the two of them and a friend were in Oneida when, unbeknownst to them, the explosion took place. Then, while his phone was still powered, he heard the news from his daughter and the family immediately made the two-hour drive back to Sun Prairie to an unknown situation.

“We didn’t know what we were coming home to, what we were … going to see. My daughter texted, she said, ‘Go to the high school, go to the Red Cross,’” he said.

Credit is due to the substantial and fast help rallied by community organizations and members around those impacted amid sad, uncertain circumstances. Local nonprofit Sunshine Place provided numerous meals and the Bank of Sun Prairie set up a disaster relief fund. Other remarkable partners at the shelter or MARC included Sun Prairie School District, Dane County Emergency Management, Lions Club, Knights of Columbus, United Way, Salvation Army, Chase Lumber, Culver’s, Walmart, American Family Insurance, Mayor Paul Esser’s office, and local fire and law enforcement. That just touches on the every-day expressions of kindness from neighbors who stopped by the shelter to ask how to volunteer, to drop-off a case of water or children’s books, or to offer their therapy dogs.

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Joyce Dingman, left, and Barbara Huber, right, talk with a resident who was inspired to sign up as a fellow volunteer.

Back at the shelter on the first morning after the explosion, two Red Cross volunteers from Dane County with differing experience levels worked the entrance table. Joyce Dingman, at her first shelter, and Barbara Huber, a 15-year volunteer with multiple regional and national deployments, had fielded a morning of clients in need, media with requests and community members looking to give. During a lull over lunch, Dingman and Huber shared perspectives on the shelter.

“You think of the people that first night. But other people come in, they need assistance and they haven’t seen anyone yet,” Dingman remarked. “It’s great to be here [for them].”

Huber said that no two shelters are alike. Each night she’s volunteered at a Red Cross shelter, Huber said she comes home with thoughts on what went well and what could’ve been done differently. Above all, she shared with Dingman, volunteers and staff come together to provide a refuge for those in need, far and wide.

“It’s amazing how fast it comes together and we’re able to do all we can,” she said.

Fast, thorough responses to unexpected disasters like these are possible because of support and volunteering from people like you. Here are ways you can get involved in the Red Cross mission to help those in crisis. 

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After “unfathomable” tragedy, Portage residents get back on their feet

by Justin Kern, communications officer, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

Before the fatal fire, before the downtown vigil and before the shelter, Paul Platt and dozens of other residents of an historic apartment building in Portage were having a typical Sunday morning.

For Paul, that meant a morning off from work spent watching YouTube videos in his pajamas.

Then – the smoke alarms.

“The alarms were cutting through the videos and I went out [into the hallway] to see what was going on. That’s when I could smell smoke,” Platt said.

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An entrance to Portage Presbyterian Church, where a Red Cross shelter was established for the days following an apartment building fire.

He grabbed a handful of essentials from his nightstand and sprinted out of the building. He called the next few hours “chaotic.” The fire displaced in upwards of 75 people, from more than 50 units at the building known local as The Ram, a notable former hotel in downtown Portage. It also resulted in the fatality of a child who lived in the building, part of a family that many of the residents knew well.

Platt and dozens of other people were assisted by Red Cross with food, recovery resources, mental health services and shelter over the next few days.

While comfortable and fed, Paul said he had a “restless” first night at the shelter, located at nearby Portage Presbyterian Church. He mulled the previously “unfathomable” feelings and experiences that his neighbors were going through. Looking inward, he considered how he had made it through a tough year, one that he felt he had come through with a new steady job and a nice apartment downtown.

“Man, no, this can’t be happening. I just got back on my feet,” he said.

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Red Cross volunteers Diana O’Neill, center, and Dave Sharpe share a light moment during a shelter shift.

Red Cross joined a community effort to help Platt and all the people impacted, including the family going through the “unfathomable” fatality. During the second afternoon at the shelter, a handful of Red Cross volunteers were helping with meals, connections to new clothes and just being there to listen to people. On the day shift, expert disaster volunteer Dave Sharpe sorted out registration and casework, while another disaster volunteer pro Diana O’Neill relayed resources and information to clients from other local agencies.

Carol Manolis, of Packwaukee, spent a portion of her volunteer afternoon Monday talking with Lisa McKee, and her three-month old granddaughter, Korra. In that conversation, Carol took the opportunity to hold sleeping Korra, clad in pink, giving a deserved break for grandma and mom, also at the shelter.

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Red Cross volunteer Carol Manolis takes a turn feeding and rocking three-month old Korra, the granddaughter of Lisa McKee, left.

Lisa asked Carol about tasks and time involved with volunteering to establish and run a shelter. Carol bounced as she responded, and, with a look down at placid Korra, said “this makes it worthwhile.”

The Red Cross shelter at the church closed on Wednesday, with most residents able to return to their apartments, and others put up in temporary lodging elsewhere in the city. Dozens of meals and snacks were served, and Red Cross will continue to connect residents with resources and needs as they continue their path to full recovery.

Along with Portage Presbyterian Church, other community partners included Riverhaven, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Divine Savior Healthcare Inc. medical staff, St. Vincent de Paul, and the Portage Fire and Police Departments. Many thoughtful residents have also expressed their generosity to these residents in need.

Click here for ways you can support those in need of disaster assistance in Portage and across Wisconsin.

From witness to volunteer: the expansive work of dedicated mental health volunteer Naomi Berkowitz

by Michele Maki, Public Affairs volunteer, American Red Cross

naomi berkowitzIn the 17 years since a deadly tornado jolted her psyche, Naomi Berkowitz has dedicated herself to the mental well-being of others experiencing tragedy as an American Red Cross mental health volunteer.

It all started when Naomi and her family were driving to Minnesota. Suddenly, the traffic stalled, and she noticed there was no oncoming traffic. As they were detoured, the family passed downed trees, debris and a Red Cross emergency vehicle. It was June 18, 2001, and a tornado had just ripped through Siren, Wisconsin, leveling much of the village and killing three people.

“We had no idea there had been a tornado outbreak that day. There was no siren and we had no warning.” Berkowitz remembered.

The images couldn’t be erased from Berkowitz’s mind, and when she returned to her home near Milwaukee, she drove to the chapter office of the American Red Cross and signed up as a volunteer.

Berkowitz worked professionally as a mental health therapist and it wasn’t long before she discovered that those skills were needed in the volunteer realm, too.

“Before this event in Siren, I had heard about the Red Cross. But, I didn’t realize the extraordinary lengths the Red Cross goes through to support those affected by disasters. I really, really had no idea.”

Berkowitz found out that there are many kinds of disasters and traumatic events the Red Cross will be called upon to respond and assist. These range from natural disasters like a flood or tornado, to events that require mass evacuations like an industrial explosion. It may also include mass casualty events like a mass shooting or transportation disaster.

downloadMay is national Mental Health Awareness Month, and Naomi’s skills and compassion provide a vital resource to innumerable local and national people affected by traumatic events, said Christie Catlin, Disaster Recovery Manager, American Red Cross of Wisconsin.

“There are so many aspects to recovery for the people served by the Red Cross. Naomi and her colleagues on the Disaster Mental Health team can be an amazing resource for clients who may be carrying incredible pain or stress,” Catlin said. “She’s also become a great voice and resource for her fellow volunteers on the frontlines, who are also dealing with these disasters. I’m proud to have Naomi on our team.”

Naomi Berkowitz has moved up the volunteer ranks to become the Disaster Mental Health Wisconsin Region Program Lead. She’s also been on numerous deployments across the U.S. Most recently, she was deployed for Hurricane Harvey in Texas and again for the deadly California wildfires and subsequent mudslides.

“We meet with those who have survived unthinkable trauma,” she said. “They’ve lost their home, possessions, and sometimes neighbors and loved ones. Our disaster mental health teams listen, without judgment, and offer emotional support and tools to help them with stress management, coping skills, and if appropriate, referrals to local resources.”  

Berkowitz added: “And always, all of our Red Cross services are confidential and free. These are trained mental health professionals and there is never any charge for Red Cross assistance. This is made possible by our generous donors.”

Berkowitz and her colleagues know that part of the recovery process for those affected by trauma, is navigating the triggers that can ambush a survivor after the event.

“Anniversaries can be very difficult. But if the individual prepares and understands this, they can be ready for all those feelings and memories that spring up,” she said. “We try to help prepare them and give them those tools for coping with it.”

Berkowitz explained further, with an example: “A couple of years ago there was a big condo fire. The main building was totally destroyed, and although the surrounding buildings were relatively undamaged, the residents that had been evacuated were still quite traumatized. They were really struggling. It had hit them: This could have been me!”

So, Berkowitz, gathered the Red Cross Disaster Action Team that had responded to the fire and some of the firefighters to meet with the residents. In this way, they had an opportunity to talk out and vent their experience and their fears. This was an important step for these residents in their journey to recovery.

The disaster mental health volunteers also help prepare communities for traumatic events. “Coping in Today’s World” is a program they offer to community leaders and groups.

“Programs like this can give a community some simple tools for handling stress and develop coping skills. It’s not therapy, but these are important support tools.” Berkowitz explained.

But, with multiple deployments each year to disasters like Hurricane Harvey, how do the Red Cross volunteers, themselves, cope with all the suffering they see?

Berkowitz explained: “We want to take good care of those kind hearts! During the deployments, we walk around, visit and remind our volunteers of the same things we tell our clients: be sure to drink your water and stay hydrated. Get appropriate rest, and eat healthy. Take a break and take a walk. And, if you’re feeling like you need some support, we’re here for you.

“After our volunteers return home, we follow up with a post-deployment follow up phone call just to check in on them. They’ve served long, long hours and been apart from family for weeks.  Coming back to ‘the world’ can be difficult. We want to support our volunteers in every way we can.”

Volunteers like Naomi Berkowitz continue to reach out to assist all in need: from a home fire to wildfire, from school shooting to train derailment, from volunteer to community group, the mental health volunteers from the American Red Cross are ready 24/7 to serve and assist. For more information on how you can help be more prepared or to become a Red Cross volunteer, visit here.  

“There are so many ways to help”: Erin Martin jumps into disaster volunteer roles

by Antonia Towns, Red Cross volunteer

When a tornado blew through the town of Chili, Erin Martin swirled into action.

A firefighter and longtime Wisconsin resident, Erin helped to coordinate a community clean-up effort for the town, about 20 minutes west of Marshfield. A few years later and after the birth of a child, Erin remained inspired by the disaster response experience, and signed up as a volunteer with the Red Cross.


“There’s a huge need for it in Clark County. It’s been good,” said Erin, one of the volunteers we’re highlighting during National Volunteer Appreciation Week.

With 22 years of experience working for the fire department, 19 of those years as a firefighter, Erin brings a unique set of skills that are beneficial to her volunteer position on the Disaster Action Team (D.A.T.) with the Red Cross. Along with her skills and experience, Erin carries plenty of compassion.

“I’ve seen people after a house fire and they just have a sense of hopelessness with no clue of how to rebuild. I can point them in the right direction and understand what they went through,” she said.

She recalled a time when she responded to a house fire where the family had been split up.

“After I gave them their card and told them what to do next, the wife started crying. We gave them some direction,” Erin said, adding, “You’re one of the first people that tells the victims that they’re going to be OK.”

Brian Cockerham, Red Cross North Central Chapter disaster program manager, called Erin an “invaluable volunteer” for her steadfast presence in Clark County.

“Erin is a not only an amazing Red Cross volunteer but is a great community member and a real asset to people around her,” Cockerham said.

Although firefighters often partner with Red Cross staff and volunteers, Erin said she didn’t know the extent of Red Cross offerings and programs until she joined D.A.T. For instance, training to provide emotional support to people who have suffered from a residential fire let her know that “there are so many ways to help.”

And with her holistic emergency background – for which she was awarded a Hometown Hero honor from the North Central Chapter of the Red Cross – comes a well-rounded view of the impact during emergencies.

“I’ve seen people during the events, and with the Red Cross, now I see them after, in recovery,” she said. “I’ve seen the full circle now.”

For more information on the ways you can help your community and our state, visit redcross.org/volunteer.

A reflection and personal story to support her native Puerto Rico by Wisconsin volunteer, Julianna Kimpton who packed her backpack and flew to her island after Hurricane Maria.

September 20, 2017. All media say that my island is dark. My Boriken will never be the same. My search for the voice of my people began.

October 21, 2017. At approximately 1:38 pm local time an American Airlines airplane landed in San Juan with me as a passenger, at that moment is when I really understood what silence means. There were no cheers or songs, only teary eyes because we have witnessed from the sky the destruction Maria caused. Then it hit me, this was just the beginning.

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As a volunteer for the American Red Cross, I was assigned to Reunification. (Helping those affected to communicate with loved ones, it is the search and rescue unit of the Red Cross) What I never imagined was that it would be me who would meet a new reality, a new story and reunite with the Boricua that has been asleep inside me since I left the island in December 2001.

I’ve spent the last 21 days with my family, we do not carry the same last name or DNA but we share the “plantain stain” on the forehead. We carry the warrior air of our Taino Indians, carry the flag and raised fists shouting “I shall not quit.”

My island will never be the same. It will take generations before our Yunque recovers, take years before the streets are once again free of debris, months until every household has water and electricity, but what you can already feel and hear in the air is Faith.

Kimpton Photo - Carrying Supplies I have met with thousands of people in these three weeks. Every day, I go out to distribute water and supplies to groups of 300 to 600 people. I visit the elderly in their homes and take items to people with disabilities. I embraced, I prayed, laughed and cried with more people than I can count. I held the hand of elderly people in beds of which they will never rise again. I’ve met families who had lost contact and I’ve heard people talk about what Maria “stole”. But from everything I’ve have seen and heard, something that everyone has in common, regardless of age or situation, destruction or pain is Hope.

This hurricane took ceilings, houses and unfortunately took lives. But for those who are still here the hurricane could not steal their fighting spirit – that Boricua heat. The same spirit that leads us to feed the neighbors when in our own home we have barely enough to eat. That spirit of family, I traveled to places where there was nothing and still people came out of their homes with “a cold coke” or “a glass of water with ice cubes.” (Trust me, here the ice is more valuable than gold) and always the “I owe” with promises of “pateles” and rice with pigeon peas cooked on the fire.

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My people, our island will never be the same, but the #puertoricoselevanta is law. People are ready to rebuild, they are ready to put Maria as part of the story in a social studies book with the word “Survivor” next to it. Boriken is being renovated. Children are flying kites today, the projects are full with cleaning crews consisting of people who live there. Crime has decreased and people are on the street helping others.

I write this at 4:12 am local time. In less than two hours, I will leave wearing my red vest and go to work. I have written this with the music of the Coqui orchestra as inspiration. Hoping to give at least a small window to the Boricua dream.

Please do not be discouraged. Yes, it’s true the hurricane has destroyed thousands of homes, uprooted trees and claimed lives. It has given back what we had forgotten for a time — Puerto Ricans are one. We are family. We fight amongst ourselves but if a stranger comes to bother one of us we defend our own “uñas y dientes”. It has given us humility. It reminded us what our parents told us a chancletazo limpio, “be kind, be a good person  and certainly no me abochornes”.

I leave you to sleep for a little while, but not before thanking you for your support. I hope my message proves what my heart screams, we are one. We are family and my people please know Puerto Rico is getting “make over” when we finish will be “de show”.

Kimpton Photo - Day Off God bless you.

Julianna Kimpton

AmeriCorps Volunteers Answer the Call in Houston

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Story and Photo by Chris Genin, American Red Cross volunteer

From left to right: Jeremy Holm, Alex Unger, Juliana Stahle, Scott Sobocinski, Joshua Haisch, Emma Harvey

Unless you’ve resided or worked in an American Red Cross shelter, it’s difficult to get a sense of what goes on to ensure the comfort and safety of people who have come to the shelter for help. Volunteers work around the clock to maintain a positive environment and guarantee people’s needs are met. This is a huge job and the Red Cross often works with partner agencies in the shelter so that things run smoothly.

Alex Unger, an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Core (NCCC) team leader, is one such volunteer who represents a partner agency and is working side-by-side with Red Cross volunteers to efficiently run one of the remaining Red Cross shelters at Houston’s Greenspoint Mall.

AmeriCorps is a team-based national community service program run by the federal government and Alex and his team operate under the NCCC. Teams are usually comprised of eight to 12 people who travel around the country building homes, responding to disasters, working with kids and performing energy and environmental conservation work. They operate under 10-month commitments and typically focus on one region unless a disaster strikes. The AmeriCorps campus in Baltimore sent 12 teams to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Prior to deploying to Houston, Alex’s team was in Idaho aiding relief efforts during the Hanover Wildfire.

Alex’s team of 11 AmeriCorps members helped spearhead the shelter set up and had the big task of unloading and organizing 16 trucks packed full of resident’s’ personal belongs. Most Greenspoint Mall residents moved there from another shelter and a system had to be implemented to make sure personal belongings went with them. Alex’s team sorted totes and boxes and created a system for where their belongings went.

Nearly 500 people descended on the shelter, some traveling with 10 massive boxes and others bringing one small tote, Alex’s team organized these things in an orderly manner, while at the same time remaining readily available to help in other areas. No matter the quantity of what came with a resident, Alex handled all belongings with care, keeping in mind that what they were unloading could be all the material things that remained for some people.

Thirteen AmeriCorps team members are still supporting Red Cross shelter operations. These volunteers help manage laundry service, sorting and distributing donated items, serving meals, unloading deliveries and maintaining general cleanliness. All of this is done in support of the 400 residents who call this shelter home nearly seven weeks after Hurricane Harvey.

Alex, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin, joined AmeriCorps because he wanted to experience this unique way of life and to develop his leadership ability. He and his team are going to continue their work in Houston until they graduate their service year on November 15.

A lot of the people are really appreciative of the work that we’re doing here,” Alex said. “Whether it’s serving meals or passing out clothes, a lot of people basically have nothing. It’s humbling to be a part of it all, to sit with someone and hear their story. It’s great to see people getting back on their feet.”

Words of Hope & Support from our Volunteers!

Written By: Deanna Culver, Red Cross Volunteer, 09/12/2017

I am a Red Cross Volunteer
Volunteering is what we do
Today, tomorrow, and the next day too
Helping people on their recovery begins with steps
Together we’ll work on cleaning up the confusion and mess
Eager to assist and ready at a moment’s notice
Helping people and meeting new friends is an added bonus
Volunteering is given from within our hearts
Today, and tomorrow right from the start
Resources and guidance a soft loving gesture in a time of need
To help get people back on their feet
Disasters happen day and night
Red Cross volunteers lead the way with a shining light
Eyes of care watching over you
Smiles to brighten your hearts that turned heavily blue
Rather on the phone or in a shelter
We’re here to help you fill alittle better
Listening, sharing, and caring to help guide you
Nothing is to tough for us to help you through
For helping people far from home and near
I am a Red Cross Volunteer