“You can come back”: Madison volunteer who rode out hurricanes at Red Cross shelters flies to Texas to help others recover

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Angela Oakley is no stranger to emergency sheltering during a hurricane.

Oakley remembers days as a teenager spent riding out a hurricane in a shelter near her childhood home in South Carolina. In 2018, she travailed flood waters left behind from Hurricane Florence to reconnect with her husband and gather assistance from a shelter site after they “lost everything that [they] had.”

It’s precisely because of those hurricanes that Oakley moved with her family to Madison, Wisc. last year. And it’s her fortitude and compassion from those hurricanes that found her on a flight first-thing Wednesday morning – this time, as a mass care and sheltering volunteer with the American Red Cross.

Angela Oakley at airport Hurricane Laura

Angela Oakley readies for her flight in Madison to Texas for her first deployment, to help people affected by Hurricane Laura.

“I’m proof that there is still life after disasters. You can come back,” Oakley said.

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, Oakley joined three other volunteers from Wisconsin converging on Texas and the Gulf Coast ahead of landfall by Hurricane Laura. It was Oakley’s first in-person disaster deployment, work she said she’s “drawn to,” given her personal background mixed and her past 10 months of Red Cross preparations.

“I know I’m going to do something I’m trained for, I know I’m with an organization that has done this a million times,” she said. “And you’ve got to have some faith, because I know the people there are going to need the help. So that’s where I need to be.”

Click here for the latest from the American Red Cross on resources, assistance and ways you can help with Hurricane Laura.

In February 2019, she moved with family to the Midwest, into a home that includes her husband, teenage daughter and pets in Madison. By that fall, she had signed up as a Red Cross volunteer, like the ones she remembered after Hurricane Hugo, along with Florence and others. Initial volunteer roles involved client casework on the disaster team and welcoming donors at blood collection site in her new hometown.

Then, last month, she was deployed virtually, in Texas, as it turns out, to get families back up on their feet after Hurricane Hanna drenched parts of the state. Oakley said she was prepared for the role of providing assistance and working with people through the day-to-day challenges from protracted flooding. She wasn’t quite ready for the appreciation people shared back with her.

“To see that fear, that anxiety, that uncertainty turn around, and then you can see hope build … and then you get thanks, gratitude. I was in tears, it was so rewarding,” she said Tuesday evening.

Wisconsin volunteers were among approximately 2,000 Red Cross disaster team members on the ground or assisting remotely as Hurricane Laura approached. In the week leading up to landfall, the Red Cross was busy arranging supplies, sheltering needs and more for people affected by Laura, which had strengthened to a Category 4 hurricane by Wednesday afternoon.

You can support our response and relief for people affected by this hurricane and other disasters in two ways. First – we are always looking for talented, compassionate people to volunteer, both in person and virtually, in myriad ways. Find a volunteer opportunity that fits your passion and lifestyle today at redcross.org/volunteer. Second – the mass movement of humanitarian help and the people who provide it happens because of the generosity of people like you. Your donations make this assistance possible for people in crisis. On behalf of everyone helped during Hurricane Laura and other disasters this year, thank you for your kind gift.

Grateful for support after apartment fire and more, a Burlington mother is determined to “succeed”

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Heather Wilke admits she’s had to “fight like hell” during points of her life. Whether it was lousy jobs years ago or a patch without steady housing after her time in the Army, the Burlington mother hasn’t always had it easy.

But with some support and her daughters by her side, she’s determined to “succeed” and make a life of helping others – even after last week’s apartment building fire that displaced her family and their pets from their home.

Kayla Heather Loretta Wilke with Louie Burlington DR Aug 2020

Heather Wilke, center, with her daughters Kayla, left, and Loretta, plus their dog, Louie, all at a Burlington hotel provided by the Red Cross after an apartment building fire last week.

That support of late has come in part from the American Red Cross, as Wilke and her daughters Kayla, 15, and Loretta, 12, plus their rambunctious dog, Louie, join 24 other people sheltering at a Burlington hotel.

As the Wilke family came down to grab lunch on Wednesday, Heather shared her backstory and how she plans to help veterans or victims of domestic violence after her upcoming final year at UW-Parkside. And she expressed gratitude for everyone who has helped her and her family after last Thursday’s fire that has kept them from their home.

“All the representatives from the Red Cross have been very helpful and very kind,” Wilke said.

“I make sure to thank them for taking the time out of their schedules. It’s a big thing they’re doing, coming here two times a day at least and helping us all out. It’s an honorable thing to do.”

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 13, a fire in a Burlington apartment complex put out more than 50 people from dozens of units. About half of those residents have been housed in emergency lodging at a hotel by the Red Cross, as restoration efforts continue at the apartment complex. Recovery work with residents on next steps continues, including help from agencies in Racine County like Southern Lakes Area Love Inc.


Your generosity powers the humanitarian work of the Red Cross. Please consider a gift to help families in need with emergency food, shelter, health resources and compassion.


On the day-to-day side of things, disaster volunteers with the Southeast Chapter of the Red Cross have provided twice-daily meal deliveries to the hotel, including a tasty recent dinner donated by Napoli Restaurant and Pizzeria. On Tuesday, volunteers Cindy and Pat Cain made a very Wisconsin type of meal delivery, packing lunches into the storage compartments of their three-wheel Harley Davidson.

Kevin Connell lunch delivery Burlington DR Aug 2020

Red Cross volunteer Kevin Connell loads up lunches for delivery to 24 residents of a Burlington apartment building presently staying at a hotel after a fire.

The next day, it was Kevin Connell, loading up his truck with individually packaged submarine sandwiches and water from a nearby grocery store, then bringing meals into the hotel via the luggage cart. Families trickled in around noon, and Kevin asked them and hotel staff about their days, light-hearted small talk. Connell said he’s had a few conversations with his daughter recently about his drive to volunteer with the Red Cross, and the range of people he’s met in the past year on the disaster team. Spending the extra time in the hotel lobby to greet people displaced by this fire during lunch – even if it is a few feet apart with a mask on – makes for important interpersonal connections in a trying time, Connell said.

“If I can be here, this is where I want to be,” he said.

Connell and others have been there for Wilke and the residents of this Burlington residential building. Before lunch on Wednesday, Wilke shared that it’s not the first time she’s had help from the Red Cross.

Wilke enlisted in the Army not too long after watching the World Trade Center towers fall on television. Before she left for boot camp, she held out hope that her grandmother, ill with emphysema, would be well enough so they could spend time together before Wilke’s next assignment. Unfortunately, while in basic training, she got a “Red Cross message” that her grandmother had passed away. Wilke was extremely appreciative for that assistance in being able to attend her grandmother’s funeral. She even recalled a humorous moment as that message was initially delivered to her by a tough-as-nails commanding officer.

“My drill sergeant called on me and said, ‘Private! I don’t care what you do, but do not cry.’ I instantly started crying because I knew what was going to happen … He was amazing, but he couldn’t console, he was my drill sergeant.”

Your generosity makes sure people receive the help they need from the Red Cross, whether in military service or in times of disaster. Thank you for considering a gift to the Red Cross to help people in need.

COVID-19: Red Cross Offers Virtual Care for Families Who Have Lost Loved Ones

Virtual Family Assistance Center provides resources to those struggling with loss and grief due to the pandemic

MILWAUKEE, Wisc., June 23, 2020 — The American Red Cross of Wisconsin is launching a Virtual Family Assistance Center to support families struggling with loss and grief due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

VFAC ARC WisconsinPeople can visit the Virtual Family Assistance Center online here to access a support hub with special virtual programs, information, referrals and services to support families in need. The hub will also connect people to other community resources provided by non-profit and government partners. People without internet access can call 833-492-0094 for help.

“Our goal is to provide connections to resources for Wisconsin families personally affected by COVID-19, especially due to the loss of a loved one,” said Mark Thomas, American Red Cross Regional CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive. “We want affected families to know that the Red Cross and our partners are here to provide compassion and support as they grieve.”

Many families have experienced a disrupted bereavement and grief process due to restrictions related to COVID-19. To help, the Red Cross has set up a virtual team of specially trained mental health, spiritual care and health services volunteers who are:

  • Connecting with families over the phone to offer condolences, support and access to resources that may be available
  • Providing support for virtual memorial services for families, including connecting with local faith-based community partners
  • Hosting online classes to foster resilience and facilitate coping skills
  • Sharing information and referrals to state and local agencies as well as other community organizations including legal resources for estate, custody, immigration or other issues

All Family Assistance Center support will be provided virtually and is confidential and free.

For media contact: Aubrey Dodd, communications volunteer, American Red Cross, aubrey.mke@gmail.com

‘The only person she could turn to right now was the Red Cross’: a disaster volunteer shares anecdotes of service during COVID-19

Transcription & Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

We recently talked with Southeast Wisconsin Chapter disaster action team volunteer Paul Beinecke for a video project that covered the added challenges and rewards in work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not every portion of Paul’s touching input was included in the video, but all of it was moving.

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American Red Cross volunteer Paul Beinecke talks with a resident displaced by an apartment fire in winter 2019 on the East Side of Milwaukee.

Below, we pulled a few additional takeaways and anecdotes from Paul, in the hopes that you’ll get yet another glimmer of the stories and heart that drive our thousands of volunteers here in Wisconsin.

On some of the emotional challenges in providing care amid COVID-19:

“One of the things I’ve noticed … during the COVID environment is that we’re all experiencing different forms of isolation and stress. And yet, when we meet these individuals, it comes down to a human element. We’re on the same page. We see things through their eyes, that we might not normally see, experiences with individuals of diverse backgrounds.


Your gift, no matter the size, is doubled through June 24. Click here to double your support.


On keeping up support for people displaced by disaster during a pandemic:

“We haven’t changed what we deliver to clients. The method of delivery has changed a little bit. We still deliver disaster mental health services, we still supply disaster health services, we supply lodging, when necessary, we supply food and feeding when necessary.

One change is that we screen our volunteers and we screen our clients [for symptoms of COVID-19]. We practice social distancing. It’s been actually going over very easily, both with our volunteers and with our clients. The clients don’t get upset when we talk about COVID screening, when we practice social distancing. In many cases, they ask us to (socially distance) before we even ask them to. So, it’s been a good experience. (Volunteering with) the Red Cross has always been a good experience for me. It’s hard to help people and not feel good about it.

On being a parent and grandparent, then seeing people with their own children affected by home fires:

“When I was working with a young mother … being a grandfather (myself) and having a couple of young grandchildren right now, it was hard for me to imagine, seeing a young woman, a single mother, with a one-month old and having to deal with the loss of everything in her household.

The only person she could turn to right now was the Red Cross. The Red Cross was there for her. That makes you feel good.

GF fire COVID April 2020 Jim Robin Berzowski food arrange

Robin Berzowski, foreground, arranges food deliveries for people affected by a fire in Greenfield in spring 2020 with her husband and fellow volunteer, Jim.

On the empathy of his disaster volunteer colleague, Robin, while fighting back tears:

“So Robin (Berzowski) is one of our volunteers who is on the disaster team with me. … You know, we all talk about ‘clients.’ That’s what we’re trained to do and that’s how we talk about it. We refer to everybody as a client.

Robin refers to everybody by their first name. … It’s tearful for me, I don’t know why. (Paul, fighting back tears:) She just has empathy that is just unbelievable.

She goes out onto a scene, like an apartment fire, where there’s 20 people. [In our casework] we refer to the client by number. Robin refers to clients by name, every single one of them.

I’ve been to a couple of the larger fires after Robin has been with them. And all of them ask me where Robin is. Robin has brought flowers to people [to Dolores, an octogenarian living alone and displaced from a fire over Easter]. She knows everyone by name.”

Your generosity supports the food and resources brought to people recovering from fires, floods and other catastrophes. That generosity is doubled for a short-time; if you give by June 24, a support is matching all gifts to the American Red Cross of Wisconsin. Thank you for considering a gift that doubles your impact.

Special thanks to Lance and the team at Plum Media for capturing Paul’s story as part of their powerful videos that led our 2020 Brave Hearts event.

‘The kindness in your voice makes a difference’: over the phone from Wisconsin to Michigan, volunteers talk about virtual deployments

Story By Angela Glowacki / Photos by Perry Rech, American Red Cross

Despite a global pandemic, our Red Crossers are still connecting with and assisting those in need from large-scale disasters through virtual deployments.

Liz Marsh and Barbara Gugel are two dedicated Wisconsin Region volunteers who have been virtually deployed in response to the central Michigan flooding that occurred in May.

Now that they’ve been helping our neighbors in Michigan for the past few weeks, we asked them to share their experiences with virtual deployments, how it compares to other in-person work with the American Red Cross and the takeaways they’ve heard from people on the ground in Michigan.

ARC-Michigan.DR377-20.060

Flood damage in what remains of downtown Sanford, Mich., following the draining of both the Wixom Lake and Sanford Lake impoundments along the Titabawassee River. 

Liz Marsh

Liz started her journey with the Red Cross three years ago after deciding that she wanted to do something for her community. She has been virtually deployed five times – assisting in the recovery process of disasters from tornadoes in Texas and Illinois to flooding in Wisconsin. In addition to being a dedicated volunteer, Liz is a mother of five who lives in northeast Wisconsin.

“I wanted to see a change in my community … and there was no Red Cross [volunteers at the time in Shawano County] … so I wanted to do something for our community to help”, Liz said.

Interestingly, Liz has only ever been virtually deployed to disasters. When asked how it feels to still be able to do her work despite current circumstances, she replied that it is fulfilling to know that she is able to be a resource for people in need.

Liz’s Michigan experience

Liz has been working in the Midland area of Michigan and has been working with many senior clients, where she addresses some added difficulty for them due to COVID-19. She expressed how it has been challenging for seniors in particular due to their increased risks from potentially contracting the virus.

One of the people Liz has worked with during her virtual deployment to Michigan is a veteran who suffered from a stroke back in November. Two days after he was released from the hospital, the flood occurred, damaging his and his wife’s home. A stroke, a pandemic, the flood and then the added stress of paying for all related home repairs and hospital bills. Liz has been working with this couple throughout her time being virtually deployed – she was even promoted to supervisor –assisting them with finding resources and providing support.

“I can relate to the mass devastation of not knowing the next turn and needing the extra help and … [I get] the ability to be a killer resource and figure out the problem and solve it so they can move on to recovery,” she said.

ARC-Michigan.DR377-20.054 (1)

Michigan volunteer American Red Cross Disaster Assessment Team members on a deserted and closed state road in Edenville, Mich., immediately downstream from the failed Edenville Dam.

Barbara Gugel

Barbara joined the Red Cross as a volunteer one and a half years ago, thanks to her neighbor who got her interested in volunteering with the organization. Her volunteer work with the Red Cross includes experience in sheltering, feeding, casework, driving emergency vehicles, as well as being a Disaster Action Team supervisor for Columbia and Dane Counties.

When the flooding in Michigan occurred, Barbara began calling those affected by the flood, helping them find temporary housing and addressing their needs. In the first two days of her virtual deployment, Barbara had contacted 32 people and opened 12 cases all from her home in Lodi, Wisconsin.

Barbara’s Michigan experience

Barbara is working with people located upriver, in the counties of Gladwin and Beaverton of Michigan. One family that Barbara has connected with is a family of four, plus the mother’s elderly father in law who has physical limitations. They have been staying in a hotel during these past couple of days. Barbara has been staying in touch with this family frequently during her time virtually deployed, providing them not only with support, but also a listening ear.

Not all of Barbara’s clients are sheltered in hotels. She mentioned that some of her clients were renting campers, or borrowing them from friends. Campgrounds around the area have opened up for these clients to give them a place to stay. In some cases, if a client’s property is safe enough, the camper is parked on the property so that the family can still be near their home.

“You’re still helping to alleviate human suffering,” Barbara said. “The kindness in your voice makes a difference.”

Virtual or not, you can still make a difference

Thanks to volunteers like Liz and Barbara, the Red Cross has been able to assist many people affected by the flooding. Despite the deployments being virtual, our volunteers are still able to be there for their clients and get them the help they need. Beyond that, they are able to be a much needed listener and a (socially distanced) shoulder to lean on. Here are two ways you can help this mission continue, virtual or in-person:

Home Fires Displace High Numbers of Wisconsinites in April

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. (May 1, 2020) – Home fire numbers remain high for this time of year, with 284 people displaced from 56 home fires in Wisconsin during the month of April, according to response statistics from the American Red Cross.

As the number of people displaced by fires remains high, Red Cross leaders are urging families to use extra time at home to practice preparedness and to be diligent with frequent sources of home fires such as cooking.

Greenfield Loomis apt fire April 2020 boards trash

A fire in Greenfield displaced nearly 20 residents, part of the ongoing rash of home fires in April 2020.

“Our dedication to helping people during times of disaster has not relented during this pandemic. In fact, we are seeing home fire numbers at an unusually high rate for this time of year,” said Mark Thomas, Region CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive, American Red Cross. “We’re strongly encouraging families to talk about their home fire escape plan, to check their smoke alarms and to keep an eye on cooking while in the kitchen. These are critical steps to make sure we’re safer at home in every way possible.”

April fire figures included two large-scale apartment building fires, in Madison (65 people) and Greenfield (19 people). That’s on top of March Red Cross response numbers – when “safer at home” orders went into place across Wisconsin – which saw more than 250 people displaced from 79 home fires. For certain, firefighters and first responders around the state have dealt with even more fire calls in their heroic daily course of work.

The rate of home fires is higher than normal for this time of year, and more typical with what Red Cross teams respond to during the busy start to winter. Along with home fires over the past nine weeks, our disaster teams also responded to assist with evacuations from flooding in Brown County, to feed first responders at a grain mill explosion in Chippewa County, and to people displaced by a building collapse in Racine and a transportation incident in Milwaukee.


For additional info on the Red Cross response amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including ways you can get involved, click here.


Our top priority is protecting the people we serve and our volunteers, so we have adopted new guidelines and tactics as we continue to support our communities. All volunteer responders and clients are asked health screening questions prior to meeting at a disaster scene. We also have the technology in place to issue immediate disaster assistance on a virtual basis. We have implemented steps to keep clients and volunteers safe from close contact, while at the same time providing financial assistance for items such as food, clothing, shelter and medications. The Red Cross also offers mental health support in beginning the long-term recovery process.

We continue to work closely with public health officials to deliver our mission where and when it’s safe to do so. This work includes additional support and partnerships through the state Emergency Operations Center to address the needs of people during this evolving emergency.

Superior Nock MKE fire April 2020

Residential fires like this one in Milwaukee displaced more than 275 residents from their homes in April, an unusually high number during spring.

Stay Safe and Help #EndHomeFires

The Red Cross is asking everyone to take simple steps to reduce the risk of a fire in your home and to help save lives. While many are home from work and school with their families, now is the perfect time to talk about home fire safety and practice your home fire escape plan.

  • Make sure everyone in the family knows how to get out of every room and how to get out of the home in two minutes or less.
  • Teach children the sound of a smoke alarm when you practice your home fire escape plan.
  • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance away from your home, such as a neighbor’s home or a tree in the front yard, so everyone knows where to meet.
  • Cooking fires are the top cause of home fires. Here is a list of cooking safety tips.
  • For resources and safety tips, download the free American Red Cross Emergency App from your app store.

You can support this ongoing mission for our neighbors in need by joining as a volunteer or by making a donation at redcross.org.

“A disaster on top of a disaster”: home fires bring additional challenges amid COVID-19

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Escorted by firefighters back into his apartment to grab what he could – essential papers, a son’s beloved blanket – Seth Hellenbrand looked to the sky, visible through a new, charred hole where the apartment ceiling should’ve been.

Muir Field Road fire Madison April 2020

The American Red Cross helped dozens of families on April 18 after a fire ravaged an apartment complex on Muir Field Road in Madison. Photo by Tom Mooney / Red Cross

Hellenbrand said he very briefly reflected on the last few “complicated” weeks for he and his family – the stay-at-home orders, a layoff from a food service sales job, general uncertainty with COVID-19. Add to that the new challenges his family faced, after a fire tore through their apartment complex in Madison, displacing more than 60 people total. What does “safer at home” mean when home is unknown?

“It’s a disaster on top of a disaster,” Hellenbrand said, in a phone call Sunday from a hotel provided to his family by the American Red Cross. “In this disaster, the Red Cross was there for us … It’s been one of the weirdest times of my entire life.”

On Saturday, April 18, the Madison Fire Department quickly responded to a blaze at a 24-unit apartment complex on the southwest side of the city. All of the approximately 65 residents were at least temporarily displaced. The Red Cross set up sheltering through rooms, meals and basic needs at a local hotel, where more than half of those displaced have spent the past few days.


Our disaster teams continue to help people in need amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support makes this help possible. Click here to support Red Cross disaster relief


It was one of a spate of fires that have lingered since the winter busy home fire season. Since the beginning of March, when many protective and health measures to deal with COVID-19 kicked in across the country, home fires have unfortunately continued at a steady and higher-than-normal clip. In Wisconsin, approximately 350 people have been displaced by home fires since the first week of March through April 19, with local Red Cross volunteers helping at more than two home fires a day.

And responding to neighbors in need has involved extra health measures and ingenuity to make sure our disaster response mission doesn’t miss a beat. At the fire in Madison, for instance, most residents were able to connect with Red Cross relief volunteers first over the phone to gauge their needs, rather than in person. At the hotel, volunteers and residents went through basic health screenings, meals have been done on a per-family basis rather than buffet style, and masks went on with disaster team vests.

Seth and Rachel Hellenbrand, their son Andy, and their Chihuahua terrier mix, Tango, had lived in their Madison apartment for about three years. On his own family’s experience following the fire, Seth said seeing the sky through their former ceiling was “a pretty tough moment.” After the fire was out, they were able to grab essential papers from a fire safe and other sentimental items, like Andy’s beloved blanket. A handful of masks Rachel had from her job at a local hospital probably didn’t make it through the fire.

Muir Field Road fire Madison April 2020 FOUR

Red Cross volunteer Jay Tucker, left, and COO Tom Mooney arrange a generous food delivery from River Food Pantry. Photo by Burlie Williams / Red Cross

On Sunday, Seth and Rachel had just returned from a trip to a nearby Goodwill that opened its doors for a few hours to small, socially distanced groups of residents to pick up clothes and other everyday needs. Along with recovery work , Red Cross teams were working on replacement eyewear for Seth. The kitchen in their hotel had food from local food pantries and restaurants.

Seth said the help from those at and after the fire has worked to buoy his family’s spirits, even with so much unknown.

“To have the Red Cross there to help take those tasks off our hands, that has been appreciated,” he said.

The Red Cross is grateful to our volunteer disaster teams, the shelter hotel and the many partners who have stepped up to directly help these residents, such as River Food Pantry, Second Harvest, Madison F.D., Public Health Madison & Dane County, Goodwill, Epic Systems, Hy-Vee and local Buffalo Wild Wings and Olive Garden locations.

You can bring support to the ongoing disaster needs of our teams helping people throughout this pandemic. Turn your generosity into action at redcross.org/donate.

260 People Received Red Cross Assistance After Home Fires, Other Disasters in March

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. (April 2, 2020) — Even during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, emergencies don’t stop and neither does the work of the American Red Cross. Every day, local volunteers are still providing care and comfort after disasters, such as home fires.

In the month of March, Red Cross disaster workers in Wisconsin responded to 81 incidents, providing assistance to 260 people all across Wisconsin (see map). Volunteers primarily helped families after home fires (79 incidents), with the addition of health measures and virtual work to keep this important support moving ahead for people in crisis.March 2020 fires WI ARC

“Our responses remained higher than average in March. As the realities of COVID-19 hit our state and nation, our disaster teams worked with public health officials, took on new training and added health and distancing measures to keep this work moving ahead, safely,” said Justin Kern, Communications Officer for the Wisconsin Region of the Red Cross. “We’re urging everyone to take steps while you’re observing stay-at-home measures to minimize the risk of fires in your own home.”

Along with the 79 fires in March – more than two per day, which is above our typical state average – Red Cross disaster teams also responded to help people at a building collapse in Racine and a transportation incident in Milwaukee.


You can support this ongoing mission for our neighbors in need by joining as a volunteer or by making a donation at redcross.org.


Our top priority is protecting the people we serve and our volunteers, so we have adopted new guidelines and tactics as we continue to support our communities. All volunteer responders and clients are asked health screening questions prior to meeting at a disaster scene. We also have the technology in place to issue immediate disaster assistance on a virtual basis. We have implemented steps to keep clients and volunteers safe from close contact, while at the same time providing financial assistance for items such as food, clothing, shelter and medications. The Red Cross also offers mental health support in beginning the long-term recovery process.

Dave and Kevin deliver to ISO Milwaukee FIVE

American Red Cross disaster volunteers Dave Flowers, left, and Kevin Connell don protective face shields and gloves as they deliver hygiene supplies to a shelter run by the National Guard in Milwaukee. (Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross)

We continue to work closely with public health officials to deliver our mission where and when it’s safe to do so. This work includes additional support and partnerships through the state Emergency Operations Center to address the needs of people during this evolving emergency.

Stay Safe and Help #EndHomeFires

The Red Cross is asking everyone to take simple steps to reduce the risk of a fire in your home and to help save lives. While many are home from work and school with their families, now is the perfect time to talk about home fire safety and practice your home fire escape plan.

  • Make sure everyone in the family knows how to get out of every room and how to get out of the home in two minutes or less.
  • Teach children the sound of a smoke alarm when you practice your home fire escape plan.
  • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance away from your home, such as a neighbor’s home or a tree in the front yard, so everyone knows where to meet.
  • Visit org/homefires for additional free resources and safety tips.

For additional COVID-19 (a.k.a. Coronavirus) safety tips and resources, click here.

‘People will get it done’: Q&A with Dave Nelson, government operations volunteer working on Coronavirus response

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

With any large-scale disaster, there is a significant amount of work behind the scenes to set up food, shelter, assistance and more on the ground. Rarely has that “behind-the-scenes” effort been more vital than during the present COVID-19 pandemic. By its nature, this health emergency has resulted in isolation, social distancing and other remote efforts. This is where the strategy, networking and smarts of American Red Cross volunteers like Dave Nelson make a huge impact. From a post at the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison, as well as virtually, Nelson has led the Red Cross response to the Coronavirus emergency.

Nelson started at the Red Cross about eight years ago, including stints as a disaster action team volunteer and board president with the Northwest Wisconsin Chapter. Nelson, a retired finance officer for hospital systems who lives in Eau Claire with his wife, shares details on this unique Red Cross volunteer role – and one-of-a-kind disaster response.

Dave Nelson headshot

Dave Nelson

For starters, how do you kind of describe your volunteer role to friends or people on the street?

“I say that, ‘If we do our job here [in the Emergency Operations Center], that’s how we coordinate where to set up shelters, where our partners could use our assistance, and where people are most in need.”

What are some of the duties as a Government Operations volunteer?

“Where we usually work is in the E.O.C. [Emergency Operations Center]. That could be with the state, county or municipality. We coordinate the emergency response with all of the local authorities, including, like here with the state Department of Health Services, the National Guard, FEMA … all those types of agencies so there is a coordinated effort by all entities to provide the response needs in the places that it is most needed. … For Red Crossers, this role used to be called ‘Government Liaison.’”


Volunteers make the mission of the American Red Cross come to life. Find volunteer opportunities that fit your interests at redcross.org/volunteer.


Had you done this role before the Coronavirus response?

“First time I did this was during the Bad River Floods in 2016. For Hurricane Florence, I was the government operations [lead] in South Carolina for 15 counties in that response. I was at the Camp Fire in Paradise, California and last summer I was with the state of Oklahoma for flooding.”

Compare and contrast for us, the differences and similarities with a natural disaster like a hurricane in your role, and what’s happening with your role during this COVID-19 response.

Vol Dave Nelson at State EOC 3-16-20

Dave Nelson, at right in hat, on the first day at the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison.

“What is similar: I’m working with the federal, state and local authorities in the E.O.C. We also coordinate a lot with V.O.A.D. [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters] groups, too, to help find other resources where we all have a gap to fill. The players from the agency standpoint are pretty much the same. In hurricanes, for instance, the majority of our work is … supplies, feeding and sheltering of people. What makes this one very different is that we’re not doing any sheltering. We have special rules because we’re dealing with a pandemic, which is something not many of us have worked with before. The coordination becomes different. The state and counties are working on isolation shelters, more of a medical shelter and different from congregate shelters … Using Red Cross and FEMA resources, we helped put together a shelter operating manual with DHS so that they can operate and better understand the processes involved in operating shelters. DHS is taking the lead and we’re assisting, providing guidance, supplies and resources. They’re the health experts. It may seem small to anyone outside but it’s really under a whole different set of rules to ensure infection does not spread and medical needs are met.”

I’ve been at E.O.C.s in the past in Madison and this one was definitely different from day one. Can you share the differences from the perspective of where and how you’re working?

“We walk through medical screenings before we can even get into the [E.O.C.] building. We’ve been working, spaced apart somewhat … and we are now dispersing into what we call ‘Virtual E.O.C.’, using web access, phones, email. That is important [based on gathering guidelines], but we’ll be doing a lot more calling, relying on technology much more. People will get it done. These people in the E.O.C., they work hard and they take tasks seriously. Whatever needs to get done, gets done. And that’s the fun part, really, solving problems and executing the plan.”

A couple of weeks into this pandemic, what have been some of the early successes?

“Some of the blood drive need and safety information, getting that language passed along to help the state and governor’s office to support the need for blood drives and collection. The other big one for me was, on day two, getting involved with the isolation sheltering task force. I was able to find policy and standards manuals and intake forms as a start, based on Red Cross, FEMA things I know about sheltering, and contacts I had from other states already going these response issues in heavily impacted areas in California, where they’re a little ahead of Wisconsin in dealing with the COVID-19 response. Our team was able to then bring in a shelter expert, Barbara Gugel, to work full-time with the Isolation Task Force to develop and put that isolation sheltering process into place. It’s where your networking and working well with new people, treating each other well, really comes into play.”

This is a pretty unique role with the Red Cross. What qualities would you say help to have for someone who may want to get involved like you in government operations?

“You have to be even tempered. Don’t take anything personally, there is so much going on and people can get stressed, people are tired. If you can handle the pressure of working 12-to-15 hours a day and coordinate with numerous types of people, [those are] the skills you really need. Even if it’s a role that comes up once or twice a year, don’t get frustrated with that. At the end of the day, we’re here to help people the best we can. We play a very important role, and our government partners, our nonprofit partners, they all know that.”

You can make an impact in your community as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Find volunteer opportunities that fit your passion at redcross.org/volunteer

Volunteer profile: wanderlust fuels Wood County resident’s Red Cross service

By Stephanie Burton, American Red Cross

When Diane Scheunemann retired from her 41-year career as a parts inventory specialist for a large heavy truck dealership in Marshfield, she didn’t know what she would do with her time. Pickle ball, curling and softball were a start. But she knew she needed something more.

That’s when she turned to the American Red Cross.

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Diane Scheunemann waits in a convoy of Red Cross emergency response vehicles ready to bring food and other items to families in need after Hurricane Michael. (Submitted photo)

“I asked myself what I like to do,” the long-time Wood County resident said. “I like to volunteer and travel. And, the Red offers both of those opportunities.”

Scheunemann contacted her local chapter and began taking in-person and online courses. Soon, she was preparing for her first deployment working as a pre-disaster mega shelter volunteer in anticipation of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Scheunemann and other Red Cross volunteers staffed a school-based shelter that was locked down while one of the worst hurricanes to hit Miami in decades stalled over the area.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she admitted. “I was in awe of what had to be done.”


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What had to be done, Scheunemann soon learned, ranged from driving an emergency response vehicle to sorting through thousands of donations the Red Cross receives after disaster strikes.

A self-described introvert, Scheunemann quickly learned how to best use her skills to make a maximum impact. Her wanderlust led her next to provide aid during and after the 2017 Sonoma County Wildfires. This time, her efforts were focused on canteening, preparing food at mealtimes, loading trucks and cleaning.

“It’s a devastating thing to see these houses and vineyards burned to the ground,” she said. But, she takes comfort in knowing that she can provide so much help during times of such life-altering devastation.

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Scheunemann, center, poses during a break from work helping families impacted by wildfires in California in 2019. (Submitted photo)

Scheunemann also traveled to serve those impacted by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., and to the widespread Paradise Fire in Butte County, Calif.

Scheunemann credits her husband for making her deployments possible. He maintains the home and takes care of their dog while she’s away for each two-week deployment.

Her volunteer experience isn’t limited to deployments. In fact, her Red Cross colleagues describe Scheunemann as a jack-of-all trades. She has also responded to a number of local fires that have displaced families.

When asked about what’s touched her most about her time as a Red Cross volunteer, Scheunemann pointed to the generosity she saw in others, not herself. She recalled a local fire she responded to where, among those affected, were three young children, including a colicky baby. A fire chief also at the scene joined their work to help the family find shelter plus medicine for the baby.

You can put your compassion and talents to use as a volunteer with our disaster action teams. We are always looking for people to join our teams, starting with local homes fires and floods, and, with training and interest, deployed out to national catastrophes. Click here to start your volunteer journey.