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.

Portage shelter Presbyterian church May 2018

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.

Diana and David Portage shelter May 2018

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.

Carol Korra Lisa Portage fire shelter May 2018

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.

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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.

In First Aid, Jeanne Charnon is a Top Volunteer

by Antonia Towns, Red Cross volunteer

Upon retiring from her job as a travel agent, Jeanne Charnon started to move up the ranks as a volunteer for the Red Cross.

In nearly a decade of “sharing my time,” Jeanne said she’s learned a great deal about herself and the organization. Her openness to lead and learn is one of the many reasons we’ve chosen Jeanne as one of our spotlight volunteers during Volunteer Appreciation Week.

Jeanne Charnon Photo“Knowing how many great people are involved … it’s a whole team effort and one person could not do it by themselves,” Jeanne (pictured above) said during a recent interview. “It’s very worthwhile, regardless of what area you’re in.”

In 2009, Jeanne, of Greendale, tagged along with a friend who was already volunteering with the Red Cross. Jeanne started out at the front desk, warmly handling reception and bureaucratic duties for about a year. Then, she joined the First Aid Support Team, also known as F.A.S.T.

Jeanne is now the co-facilitator of F.A.S.T. and has been essential in the success of the program. She is responsible for arranging contracts with clients and setting up the calendar for staffing events, which she says can mostly be done from home.

F.A.S.T. deploys volunteers who are certified in First Aid and CPR to community events like Summerfest and the Special Olympics, providing basic First Aid.

“Working with the Special Olympics, seeing how they interact and their joy, they’re a primary reason why I do this,” she said.

Amid staffing changes in 2014, Jeanne was part of a small group of volunteers who stepped forward to voice their concerns about the program ending. The group created a proposal and were granted one year to see how they would do, they are now into their fourth year. By 2015 the program was totally volunteer based and has been led by volunteers since. This year F.A.S.T. is expected to be present at around 35 events and has about 52 volunteers.

“We manage to staff them all. I hope we can keep the program going,” she said. “I enjoy the people that we work with.”

CARE for Paws Initiative: Helping pet owners in times of disaster

Story by Red Cross volunteer Ann Voigt

Tucked just outside of Green Bay, WI, in the quiet countryside, sits Country Care Animal Complex. Inside the walls of the complex, in addition to their everyday animal care, the staff serves another important purpose.  The CARE for Paws (Countrycare Animal Rescue Efforts) initiative is part of the Countrycare Animal Complex and partners with the Northeast Wisconsin Chapter of The American Red Cross, using their resources to help animals in need during disastrous times.

PAWS Kit Photo 1

When I spoke with Joanne Clark, Marketing & Communications Coordinator for Countrycare, to learn more about the CARE for Paws and the kits they make for animals in need, I could tell from just the phone conversation that this was an initiative which was very close to their organization’s heart. The kits are serve a dual purpose – to help victims who are pet owners with initial needs [for their pet(s)] after a disaster strikes and they then serve as carriers for the pets.  Included in the kits are collars, leashes, food, blankets, bowls, kitty litter, toys, and care information.

PAWS Kit Photo 2

The most important part of the kits, however, is the love that each volunteer puts into them. The organization holds bi-yearly gatherings to fill the hundreds of kits and has been doing so for about five years.  It is an effort put forth simply for the love of the animals and the need to ensure the safety and well-being of pets whose owners have fallen on hard times due to tragedy.

 

PAWS Kit Photo 3

The organization’s quest to help pets doesn’t stop with the aftermath of an event – they also provide needs in anticipation of unforeseen events. With a requested donation of $15.00, their Emergency Evacuation Bags include a pet blanket, collapsible food/water bowl, slip leash, waterproof envelope for medical records, booklet of preparedness tips, window sticker to alert first responders that pets are in the home as well as a pet first aid bag with instructional card. These items are all contained in a drawstring bag for easy access.

For more information on this heroic animal organization, please visit their website or Facebook page.

http://countrycareac.com/

https://www.facebook.com/careforpawscac/

https://www.facebook.com/CountrycareAnimalComplex/

Story by Red Cross volunteer Ann Voigt

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.

Kimpton Photo - Home Destruction 2

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.

Kimpton Photo - Home Destruction 2

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

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