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.


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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.

“You can tell that they care”: Greenfield man finds hope in people helping each other under the weight of COVID-19 and an apartment fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jessie Austin saw the smoke pumping out of his Greenfield apartment building, could see the flashing fire truck lights. But his mind was elsewhere.

Austin said he had “déjà vu” to other traumatic events in his life, like a fire during his youth that took a friend’s mother, and his experiences in the Army during the evacuation of Vietnam in the 1970s.

GF fire Jessie Austin chair ONE

Jessie Austin shares from a hotel in Milwaukee, a temporary home as he works on next steps in his recovery with the American Red Cross and others.

With his own apartment and belongings uncertain, under the shared stress of a global pandemic, Austin said he knew the “best way to deal with things was to get them out.” He started talking – with his neighbors on scene, on the phone with his counselor from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and multiple times each day with volunteers from the American Red Cross.

“[T]he volunteers from the Red Cross … they are very committed, compassionate people,” Austin said Thursday from a hotel sheltering operation where he and 10 other residents were staying.

“They don’t do a whole lot of talking; they’re there for support, like a sounding board. It’s … easy conversation because you can tell that they care. That’s the main thing. I’m very appreciative of them.”

In all, 19 people were displaced by the apartment building fire on April 20 and the Red Cross has worked with the residents on resources and recovery plans. In the time of COVID-19, crucial disaster response and recovery work persists – including a higher-than-normal rate of home fires for this time of year – with disaster teams adding extra safety steps along the way like daily health checks, an emphasis on virtual interactions, and masks and gloves whenever out in the field.

GF fire Jessie food Jim Robin Berzowski

American Red Cross volunteers Robin Berzowski, right, and Jim Berzowski, bring ‘room service’ meals to Jessie Austin, who was one of nearly 20 people displaced by a recent fire in Greenfield. The food drop offs are part of additional health and safety steps by disaster workers amid COVID-19.

It was the weight of the pandemic that turned Austin downright philosophical as he shared his story, his soft voice underscoring the importance he finds in keeping up hope and finding a way to help others. In a hat that read “United States of America” and prepping his hot lunch brought by Red Cross volunteers from a local diner, Austin expressed the deeper values he sees amid this unsettled moment.

“This Coronavirus thing, I’m telling people, look at what’s really going on. This thing is causing us to lean on each other and to continue to understand what life is all about. It’s about people helping each other. That’s what counts, that’s what’s important,” he said. “It’s the respect, knowing that you’ve been cared about, knowing that you count, knowing that in the long run, it’s time that is the most precious thing that we have.”

The spirit of people like Austin looking out for each other and sharing what help is available has been evident to Red Cross Disaster Action Team (or DAT) volunteers Jim and Robin Berzowski.

The couple has led food deliveries from generous Milwaukee restaurants like Don’s Diner and Landmark Family Restaurant, to the hotel sheltering the apartment complex residents. The dynamic duo of Jim and Robin – jokingly known as “DATman and Robin” among the Southeast Wisconsin disaster team – said they’ve felt grateful to be able to bring tasty meals to the residents, though the social distancing and other health steps have taken some getting used to.

GF fire COVID April 2020 Jim Robin Berzowski Landmark food pickup

Food pick up on April 23 from a Milwaukee restaurant, with meals destined for residents of a recent apartment building fire, one of many fires during an unusually busy spring.

As they delivered spaghetti dinners to each room at the hotel shelter Thursday, residents like Jessie gave quick updates on talks with their Red Cross caseworkers, and others let Jim and Robin know what they had heard from their neighbors earlier that day.

“We’re helping but they’re helping each other out, too,” Jim Berzowski said.

For more information on the response to COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan – including ways you can get involved – visit this site.

“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.

Partnering in a Disaster Blooms Forth a New Friendship

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

Volunteers from Wisconsin’s Northeast Chapter of the American Red Cross and members from Community Church, out of Fond du Lac, recently came together in gratitude to share in a backyard picnic.

While visiting they began to recount how they had come together to form a very special partnership, both professionally and personally – it had been over five months since they all first met during one of the worst floods in 10 years in Fond du Lac.

Sharon and Lange Community Church Red Cross

Sharon Holt, right, a volunteer with the Red Cross, shares a light moment with Jody Lange, a friend made during their joint response to flooding in Fond du Lac during spring 2019.

“I knew about the Red Cross, I mean … everyone has heard of the Red Cross, but actually seeing them in action opened my eyes. It opened my eyes to the need and importance of volunteers,” shared Jody Lange, a member of the church.

“Our church was one of two shelters the Red Cross operated during that flood [in Fond du Lac]. It was a privilege to serve side by side with their volunteers.”

Responding quickly and effectively to the needs of those affected in a disaster takes planning and work. Few organizations have the depth of experience and knowledge the Red Cross has when it comes to disaster relief efforts.

“The Red Cross maintains a database with appropriate shelter locations, so in the event of a disaster, we can quickly identify those locations that can best serve our needs and those we are assisting,” explained Becky Tiles, Red Cross volunteer and casework lead who was also at the picnic.

“In this case, the Community Church on Steblow Drive in Fond du Lac was perfect. Building these partnerships in the community is important. Everyone benefits, especially when a disaster hits. We can all respond quickly and more efficiently.”


You can be an invaluable resource in your community as a disaster shelter partner. For more information, call and leave a message at (800) 236-8680.


For more than a week, the Red Cross volunteers worked closely with this church community in meeting the needs of dozens of people affected by the flooding. That meant setting up cots for sleeping areas in what was typically an open meeting room, and putting the church’s modern kitchen into action for multiple meals each day for displaced residents. Working together – as disaster volunteers and shelter hosts – the Red Cross and church built deep relationships, as seen in the August afternoon picnic at Red Cross volunteer Sharon Holt’s home in Combined Locks.

Mark Thomas brings turkey gift FDL shelter

Community Church members and Red Cross disaster workers prep a turkey dinner for people displaced by spring 2019 floods. 

“When I saw how they cared for these folks in the shelter, you know … strangers – people they didn’t even know – I knew I wanted to become a Red Cross volunteer,” Lange praised.

Holt, a Red Cross volunteer since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, shared during the picnic: “The volunteers from the church were just wonderful! They each took a personal interest in every one of our shelter residents. They took the time to get to know each person and to listen to their story. They went out of their way to make them feel welcomed and valued. The church volunteers would take them to the showers, to work, to whatever these folks needed. Some of the church members are still helping a few families with long term housing needs.”

Holt then turned to Lange and added, “Jody is amazing!  We call her the ‘Food Queen!’ She kept us all fed with good, home-style cooking, and made us feel like family.” She then looked over at Lange and hugged her, adding, “It was a privilege to work with the church members like Jody, and in the process, I made a new friend!”

Lange’s eyes lit up as she hugged back, “Now that I see what the Red Cross does and how their volunteers are willing to leave their own families and travel here to help others. I want to help in that same way. They care so much and that really touched me. Now I want to become a Red Cross Volunteer!”