“It’s been a rough year”: Compassion and help for residents besieged by storms

Stories and photo by Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

Rhonda Pfaff hadn’t finished cleaning out her home, garage and yard from the first flood when the nearby Baraboo River started to rise again.

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Rhonda Pfaff shares an embrace with Cindy Brown, Red Cross volunteer.

By the time a second August flood submerged her neighborhood in Elroy, Pfaff wondered if the deluge and damage weren’t “the last straw” for her home and others on the street, some already cordoned off with caution tape. Pfaff had moved to the home formerly owned by her great-aunt to care for her beloved father, Gaylord (“I was his shadow”). He passed away in March and much of the rehab work they did – wood work, flooring, landscaping – were left awash and stripped from their single-story, cream colored ranch-style home.

“It’s been a rough year,” Pfaff said, soon after a hug with Red Cross volunteer Cindy Brown. “All we have left from the basement are some dishes. You know what? We’re alive. We have our health.”

Pfaff reflected on the destruction in her small Wisconsin town and others across the state hit with record rainfalls, overburdened rivers and more than a dozen tornadoes from mid-August to early September. Red Cross volunteers Cindy Brown and Fayth Harrison went door to door on September 6th in Elroy, its small-town Americana now buttressed with entire living rooms, bedrooms, vehicles and basement possessions on the front curb for disposal.

Harrison and Brown brought Pfaff Red Cross assistance and information on various recovery resources. To Pfaff’s relief, they also brought open hearts.

“You have brightened my day. I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” Pfaff said.

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The scene on one Elroy, Wisconsin street in early September.

As grim as the scene in her neighborhood, Pfaff was appreciative that her family was unharmed and had a place to go, in her former home across town. Pfaff’s ex-husband and his family came by to clear out trash and debris. She teased her son, who had been living at her house along with his fiancée, that he was excused from yard maintenance after flood waters carried a metal yard roller hundreds of yards from their property into a marsh.

Pfaff held remarkable humor and warmth as she talked with Red Cross disaster workers, even while she pointed to the high-water mark on the outside of the home that lined up well into her living room.

“I have to laugh because if I cry I’ll fill up that river so damn fast,” Pfaff said.

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Reedsburg, another hard hit town, continues to deal with standing water from August storms.

Including their time with Pfaff, Brown and Harrison made the rounds with multiple families Thursday in Elroy. Days into a deployment in their own state, the two volunteers they were flagged down on this day by one person in a passing truck, alerted to another person in need of assistance who was working the lunch shift at her downtown diner. Hundreds of residents across the state have received assistance, clean-up supplies, meals and more from Red Cross during response and recovery, now at more than three weeks.

Red Cross continues to reach out to residents across the state in need after these devastating late summer storms, tornadoes and floods. To connect with Red Cross recovery resources, call 888-700-7051 and leave your information. A disaster recovery specialist will call you back as soon as possible.

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From an ATV in a soybean field to a Red Cross shelter: one woman’s rescue story during record-breaking storms

by Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

At first, Janice Huizenga thought she was hunkering down for another summer evening thunderstorm. Janice said she would occasionally peek out of the window of her home in Alto, in Fond du Lac County, on Tuesday as the wind whipped up and the rain started to fall.

Then, a sense of chaos, as the 84-year old saw downed trees, followed by concern, as the power went out at her house and throughout the neighborhood. Janice needed power for medical supplies and to keep an emergency bracelet charged.

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Janice Huizenga, left, shares her rescue story with Red Cross volunteers, including MaryKay Bishop.

With the storm raging around her home – the same storm that dropped more than a dozen tornadoes and flooded numerous rivers across the state – Janice’s adult children, all without power for the night, located a Red Cross shelter with power and notified local fire officials about their mother’s situation and location. Meanwhile, Janice said tornado sirens blared for a third time that night, something she said she’s never heard.

Janice’s home was now surrounded by broken trees, live wires and rain-soaked earth, so firefighters drove an ATV through a soybean field to reach her backyard. Then, she was brought along a meandering path of barely passable roads to a Red Cross shelter at Brandon High School, one town over.

“I was shocked when the tree was down [in my yard] and the roots were out,” said Janice on Wednesday, next to her cot at the shelter. “Then I saw the power line in the tree and wires pulled out of my house. Then, telephone posts were down and you never see that. Down the street, there were more posts down.”

Janice was one of dozens of people to spend a night or more at eight shelters that have been set up since August 20 by the Red Cross as part of monumental storms that have overflowed rivers and damaged homes and property from Prairie du Chien and La Crosse eastward to Coon Valley, Madison, Waupun and Cedarburg. One fatality has been reported so far in association with the storms, which have included record rainfall, numerous tornadoes and emergency declarations.

Three Red Cross shelters remained open as of August 31 and recovery efforts like clean-up kit distribution and sandbagging were in place as the state braced for more rains in the forecast through Labor Day weekend. (For updates on shelters, dial 2-1-1 or follow the Wisconsin Red Cross Facebook and Twitter pages.)

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A cornfield ravaged by August storms outside of Waupun, Wisconsin.

Back in Brandon, Janice recounted her scary evening with Red Cross volunteers, included MaryKay Bishop. The two bonded during the morning with stories of the storm, but also of family. After one night at the shelter – one of the few places with power anywhere close to her home – Janice had connected with her daughter who had planned to navigate roads still under the aftermath of the storms to take in her mother until power and safety were restored in Alto.

Janice was grateful for the night at the shelter, in the basketball court of Brandon H.S. She had slept some and talked with volunteers about plans for a group lunch.

Pondering the power of the devastating storms across Wisconsin, and of the wide-ranging recovery to come for herself and thousands of other residents, Janice said she felt humbled by a higher power at play.

“Man thinks they can do a lot, but nobody can do what God did with this wind,” she said.

To offer your support to people like Janice impacted by the Wisconsin storms and floods, click here to find out how to volunteer, donate or give blood.

“I’ve Never Been So Scared”: Early Reflections on Dane County Flooding

Story by Michele Maki, American Red Cross; Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

“Now I know what it’s like to be in a hurricane.”

Ashley Repp from Mazomanie, Wisconsin, recounted her harrowing rescue while visiting her neighbor in the local Red Cross shelter at Mazomanie Elementary School.

 

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A mother and daughter watch flood waters consume streets near their home on Tuesday in Mazomanie.

“I was absolutely terrified. The water was rushing in so fast!,” Repp shared.

Repp and her neighbors were rescued early Tuesday morning when heavy rains sent a flash flood crashing through her town of Mazomanie, and the surrounding communities of Cross Plains and parts of the Madison area.

“The rains started Monday, but by early Tuesday, I saw the streets starting to flood. I came outside about 5:30 in the morning and the waters were already rising. I looked across the street to the apartment building that sits a bit lower and saw the bottom floors under water.”

Ashley stopped momentarily to share the pictures she took. The sight showed a small town under a deluge. A record-breaking rainfall on Sunday and Monday swelled rivers, overran into backyards, submerged cars, basements, businesses.

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Red Cross volunteer Cindy Brown, right, assists a client at a shelter at Madison West H.S. on Friday morning. 

Red Cross opened shelters in Mazomanie (314 Anne St.) and Madison (at West H.S., 30 Ash St.), as well as Cross Plains (at Glacier Creek Middle School, since closed). Other resources include mobile and fixed distribution of clean-up kits across Dane County, and, with dozens of community partners and government agencies, multi-agency resource centers in Mazomanie (on Friday, 314 Anne St.) and Middleton (on Saturday at Blackhawk Church, 9620 Brader Way). (Additional updates are available here from Dane County Emergency Management.)

Back at the shelter in Mazomanie, Ashley continued her story. She said that within 20 mins, her stairwell was flooding. “Water came rushing in, and the fire department came by and told us to grab our stuff and get out. I don’t even remember much, except that the water was rushing in so fast-it was hard to stand and keep my balance. I’ve never been so scared in my life!”

The rescue workers assisted Ashley and her neighbors into rafts and then steadied it by walking it through the flood waters, and up to the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) building.

“Folks from all over our community were there to give us clothing and dry out what we had been wearing, which was soaked.”

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On Thursday, a family in Mazomanie cleans up from initial flooding and places sandbags outside their house for the possibility of more water.

When asked how long all this took, Ashley’s face become very somber: “You know … I have no idea. Time just ran into itself … I have no idea at all.  It was about 7 that night before we got settled in. I thought it must be later than that, but … I don’t know.”

Her voice trailed off, she paused and then turned and said, “I’m just so thankful we all got out. Everyone here, the community, the Red Cross, everyone helped us feel safe. Folks offered clothes, food … the whole community pulled together to help all of us.”

When asked whether she would be staying here, at the Red Cross shelter, Ashley replied, “No, I’m lucky. I have a place to stay, but my neighbor doesn’t, so I’m glad you’re here to help her, I was worried.”

Ashley had come by the shelter to check in on her neighbor: “She’s being well cared for, thank you. Thank you, Mazomanie and thank you, Red Cross!”

Follow American Red Cross of Wisconsin on Twitter and Facebook for breaking updates on shelters and other resources. For access to resources for this ongoing flooding situation, dial 2-1-1.

“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. 

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.