You’re invited: fundraising gala celebrates southeastern Wisconsin heroes, supports Red Cross mission

          In-person and virtual tickets now available for 2022 Brave Hearts event

MILWAUKEE (April 6, 2022) – The 2022 Brave Hearts fundraising gala will return as an in-person event this May! There is no better way to celebrate coming back together as a community than by honoring this year’s heroes from southeast Wisconsin and supporting the humanitarian mission of the American Red Cross.

The fun-filled night at Kohl’s Innovation Center will begin at 5 p.m., Thursday, May 12. This year’s event will be hybrid, allowing for online and in-person access to the evening’s inspiring hero stories, alluring auction items and many opportunities to join the Red Cross mission. Online and in-person tickets are available at BraveHearts.Givesmart.com.

Chosen across a handful of categories, honorees at this year’s Brave Hearts represent the best in spirit, service and action in our communities. The 2022 heroes are:

Frank Nee (Milwaukee Co.) – Hero of the Year

Sophie LaRose (Waukesha Co.) – Adult Good Samaritan Hero

Molly & Dustin Kesner (Ozaukee Co.) – Community Safety, Security & Resiliency Heroes

Milwaukee F.D. Station 24 & Rescue 2 (Milwaukee Co.) – Emergency Response Heroes

Passion Terrell (Milwaukee Co.) – From the Heart Hero

Eric Beach & Eric Hill (Waukesha Co.) – Military Hero

Isabel Zuniga-Meyer (Waukesha Co.) – Youth Good Samaritan Hero

Tickets are now on sale and will be available through the start of the event. Attendees who purchase individual tickets before April 22 will receive an early-bird discount.

Brave Hearts is made possible by incredible, generous support from organizations in southeast Wisconsin. Lead supporters this year include Nicholas Company, Northwestern Mutual, American Red Cross Tiffany Circle, Brewers Community Foundation, Clarios, Johnson Controls, Kohl’s and Molson Coors. Additional support is provided by A. O. Smith, Halo, SC Johnson, Snap-on, SysLogic, Rockwell Automation, We Energies and West Bend Mutual. All proceeds benefit the programs and people helped by the Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross.

For info on ticketing & the event, email Sasha J. Parsons Waters: sasha.waters@redcross.org

First person: volunteer connects with shelter client facing “new beginning” after apartment fire

By Diana Higgenbottom, American Red Cross

As I walked into the American Red Cross emergency shelter on Feb. 23, it was clear to me that everything the residents had in their possession in this moment was all that they had left to call “belongings.” But as I learned from one shelter resident, there was much more to see in a person’s response and recovery than physical belongings.

A few of Lisa White’s belongings after a fire at her apartment building. She’s spent the past week at a shelter run by the American Red Cross.

Two days earlier, an early morning fire had caused widespread damage, displacing all 30 residents. For the foreseeable future, there’s no going back to what once home was now destroyed and uninhabitable.

As I looked around the shelter at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, one woman seemed to generate a light, which caught my eye. I walked over to her cot and smattering of belongings in the shelter just as if I were walking into her home. Lisa White or “Miss Lisa” welcomed me and agreed enthusiastically to share a little bit of her story.

Almost everything she owned had perished in the fire. Still, she had a smile on her face. With so much uncertain in the aftermath of this disaster, she had a sense of security. In part, it came from the volunteers around her and the other shelter residents. Miss Lisa said several times during our conversation that she “knew this moment was rough but knew everything happening was only temporary … the Red Cross doesn’t leave anyone behind.” 

Lisa told me that she has proudly lived in Milwaukee her whole life, where she ultimately graduated from Washington High School. In addition, Miss Lisa had lived in that apartment building for 32-and-a-half years, making her the longest running tenant. She explained to me that the very first year she was living at the building, there was also a fire that caused substantial damage. However, at that time it remained inhabitable.

Fast forward more than three decades and this recent fire took so much – but not her spirit. I could see her inner joy amid devastation. To get a few basic priorities together and more like her normal life, she said she took a few days off from her local cleaning job. The many things people don’t think about after a disaster like a home fire.

A Milwaukee County Transit System bus transports residents from their uninhabitable apartment building to a shelter a few blocks away.

Miss Lisa went on to tell me that as she got on the bus after the fire to go to the shelter, she realized she didn’t know a lot of the people in the building. These strangers in their own building, strangers on the bus, were now becoming neighbors through the bonds they were making at this disaster shelter and over meals after the fire.

Honestly, I was in awe of her – a sense of peace and security through this disruptive situation. She was quick to tell me that she had hope and trust in the Red Cross, and that she had her needs in this moment taken care of. Through the first week of the disaster, Red Cross teams had provided these residents with 65 overnight stays at the shelter, more than 300 meals and snacks, and dozens of health, mental health and spiritual care resources.

With those things in place, Miss Lisa said she could put back together the pieces of her life from before the fire. She said that this is the beginning of the rest of her life, not the end. Miss Lisa called it a “new beginning.” Where Miss Lisa sees the Red Cross as a symbol of hope, I can clearly see her as a reflection of hope and determination. 

Your support makes our disaster relief mission possible. To share your generosity as a donor or volunteer, visit RedCross.org.

A diet of perseverance pays off for Brown Deer blood donor

By Tom Ruse, American Red Cross

Susan Blaske from Brown Deer has served up plates of perseverance to become a life-saving blood donor.  

Growing up in the Philippines, Susan was inspired early in life by a friend who was a regular blood donor and encouraged others to do the same. Susan’s first attempt to donate was unsuccessful, however, due to low iron. Subsequent attempts resulted in the same rejection, one that can be common among people unable to donate blood at various times, though no less disheartening.

Fifteen years ago, Susan moved to Wisconsin where, along with numerous other significant changes to her lifestyle that such a move entails, she modified her diet. Growing up in the Philippines, Susan’s diet was primarily plant and seafood-based. Once state-side, she began to incorporate red meat. Last year, amid this dietary shift, she decided to try again to donate blood. This time – success!

Susan recalls the success: “When I realized that I started eating meat, I thought possibly that I would be able to donate blood, so last year I tried again and was accepted. I was incredibly happy. I recently donated for a second time and am hoping to donate every three months.”

No two people are the same with diet or outcomes. There are many factors that impact each individual’s hemoglobin. (Click here for tips on diet and preparation that you can take ahead of your blood appointment.)

Issues with iron at blood donations? Here are six, iron-rich foods that may make good additions to your menu before an appointment to donate:

  1. Meat such as beef, poultry, pork, lamb, liver
  2. Bread
  3. Pasta
  4. Dried fruits like raisins
  5. Eggs
  6. Tofu

As she says, it’s easy, costs nothing more than a bit of time, and makes you feel great that you’re helping people in need.

“After donating blood, I felt healthier. Maybe because I also felt really good knowing that I helped others with my donation. I feel humbled,” she said. “I am grateful for the good health that I am enjoying in my life.”

Make an appointment to donate at an upcoming drive near you at RedCrossBlood.org.

American Red Cross honors local heroes March 9 at annual Heroes Breakfast

American Red Cross Honors Local Heroes March 9 at annual Heroes Breakfast

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (Feb. 9, 2022) – Every day at the American Red Cross, we see firsthand the remarkable deeds of everyday heroes. Their stories inspire and remind us to never doubt the impact an individual can make in the lives of others.

The Red Cross of Northwest Wisconsin will honor individuals who have shown courage, dedication and unselfish character by their acts of heroism in our community at the Northwest Wisconsin Heroes Breakfast, hosted by Katie Phernetton, WQOW News 18. This year’s award recipients will be honored Wednesday, March 9, 2022, at 8 a.m.at The Florian Gardens Conference Center, 2340 Lorch Ave., Eau Claire.  

The Northwest Wisconsin Heroes Breakfast honors people making an impact through their bravery, dedication, and humanitarian service. This event grew out of a desire to celebrate local members of our communities living our mission – to prevent and alleviate human suffering. The award breakfast also serves as a fundraising event for programs and services provided by the Red Cross of Northwest Wisconsin.

Chosen across a handful of categories, honorees at the Northwest Wisconsin Heroes Breakfast represent those among us who reflect what is best in our communities. For over 20 years, more than 130 local heroes have been recognized and we are thrilled to add to that number.

The 2022 Heroes are:

Adult Good Samaritan Heroes

  • Kevin Dague, Eau Claire County
  • Todd Dague, Eau Claire County

Community Heroes

  • Deputy Joel Eder, Price County 
  • Deputy Sean Peterson, Price County
  • Sergeant Robert Zoubek, Price County

From the Heart Hero

  • Isaac Grover, St. Croix County

Health Care Heroes

  • DeWayne Hanson, Chippewa County
  • Christie Naberhaus, Chippewa County
  • Chief Rick Sommerfeld, Chippewa County
  • Joel Sternitzky, Eau Claire County
  • Brittany Walters, Chippewa County       
  • Tim Walters, Chippewa County 

Lifetime Hero

  • Dave Nelson, Eau Claire County

Military Hero

  • Tim Nelson, Dunn County

Youth Good Samaritan Heroes

  • Alena Otto, Chippewa County
  • Briar Omar, Burnett County

Heroes are nominated by the public and are chosen by an awards selection committee comprised of local community leaders. Honorees are selected based on the degree to which their actions uphold the values of the Red Cross humanitarian mission and leave a lasting and positive impact on the community.

Mayo Clinic Health System is the presenting sponsor of this very special event. Additional event sponsors include HSHS Sacred Heart and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospitals, Xcel Energy, Ayres Associates and WQOW TV-18. This year’s individual Heroes sponsors include Royal Credit Union, Global Finishing Solutions, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, Marshfield Clinic, Scheels Sporting Goods, Security Financial Bank and WESTconsin Credit Union. Additional support sponsors include Associated Bank, Charter Bank, Group Health Cooperative of Eau Claire, Kaze Studios, M3 Insurance, Market and Johnson, OakLeaf Medical Network, TTM Technologies and Wipfli.

To reserve your seat for this event, visit https://NWHeroes.givesmart.com. Reservations for this event are $45 and all proceeds go toward the Red Cross of Northwest Wisconsin.

For more information, email Mary Jane Thomsen at MaryJane.Thomsen@redcross.org.

‘Red Cross came to the rescue’: after massive apartment fire, Milwaukee woman joins as a disaster volunteer

By Katie Baneck, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

House fires occur in the winter more than any other season. This can be attributed to heating equipment, especially in Wisconsin, among other factors. The American Red Cross utilizes Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteers to help families affected by emergency situations, such as house fires. DAT volunteers assist those affected by providing resource information, financial assistance, emotional support, and whatever else may be needed after their tragic event

Shortly after experiencing her own tragedy, Martha Preston became a DAT volunteer herself. In January 2021, Martha arrived at her Burnham Park apartment to find that it was no longer a home. A fire within the complex just after midnight displaced more than 100 residents and took one life.

The morning after a deadly fire that displaced dozens from an apartment building in Milwaukee’s Burnham Park neighborhood.

Martha recalls the Milwaukee County Transit buses parked nearby as warming shelters for the building’s residents as firefighters battled the four-story building blaze. Then, the volunteers arrived.

“The Red Cross came to the rescue,” she remembered of the scene that day.

The Red Cross provided shelter for Martha and dozens of those who were displaced, in a 24-hour span that also saw other large apartment fires in Milwaukee, Janesville and Beaver Dam. At one point soon after these fires, the Red Cross in Wisconsin led the nation with the number of people supported in disaster sheltering, even surpassing the largest cities in the U.S., and areas ravaged by natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.

It was the kind actions of the Red Cross volunteers that responded to this event that inspired Martha to join the cause herself. Now as a DAT volunteer, Martha is the first person many come in contact with after their emergency. She provides water, hygiene kits, stuffed animals for children, and many other things that help these families begin to recuperate after tragedy. Martha has fond memories of her first time responding as a DAT volunteer.

Martha Preston

“It is so rewarding to be able to help out people on probably the worst day of their life, and get them on their way to recovery,” Preston said.

In addition to her participation with the Red Cross, Martha also volunteers with anti-human trafficking organizations. When she is not busy volunteering, Martha enjoys spending time with her husband and their three cats.

The winter of 2021 saw a recent high in the number of home fires and number of people in need of humanitarian relief from the Red Cross. That trend has continued with nearly three fires per day to start 2022 – with people like Martha there to help people in the response and recovery.

For information on how to become a DAT volunteer visit this link. To search for other volunteer positions and opportunities, go here.

Wisconsin Region spotlight: Q&A with Edita Emini

Every few months, we’re highlighting the incredible work toward the mission of the American Red Cross by one of our colleagues in the Wisconsin Region. Hopefully these short profiles provide a little light of positivity and inspiration across all lines of service in our humanitarian mission.

This latest profile is on Edita Emini, an Aquatics Sales Leader with our Training Services department, who has transitioned her passion for athletics into programs that make our communities healthier and safer. Questions were asked by members of the Region communications team, and edited for style and space.

American Red Cross: Tell us about your professional background and your role at the Red Cross. 

My career started at Carthage College where I was a graduate assistant for the soccer program. Upon completion of my graduate degree I then transitioned into the role of Manager of Athletic Faculties at Carthage College. Prior to the Red Cross, I was with Kiefer Aquatics as an Account Executive. The transition to the Aquatics Division within Red Cross Training Services from Kiefer Aquatics was natural, as I worked in the aquatics industry for four-plus years. 

The mission of the Red Cross connects us to so many people. Can you share an anecdote about someone whose life was affected by your role or work at the Red Cross? 

My father recently experienced cardiac complication. My role with the Red Cross and training within our CPR and AED program helped myself and my family react quickly, which made a big impact in his treatment!

How do you explain what you do to people outside the Red Cross? 

This is a good question! The Red Cross carries such a big brand. When I say I work for the Red Cross the assumption is with disaster or blood services. I explain to family and friends I work for the division that trains individuals and organizations in CPR, First Aid, Lifeguarding, etc. Not many are aware the Training Services Division is within the Red Cross. However, I am proud to say that our Red Cross brand and name is always talked highly upon when asked, where I work or what I do.

What is your hidden talent? Or a hobby you have that people may not know about?

I am a big sports nut! I follow college, NFL, etc.! I played college soccer at Carthage Soccer and grew up around sports my entire life.

What does the Red Cross mean to you?  

The Red Cross to myself and my family represents a brand and company that always does the right thing! This term is often used in our Division – do the right thing – and it has stuck with me. That term can be used in business, but most importantly throughout life. The Red Cross to me represents a company that is there during time of disaster to help and do the right thing; that same term applies to our division of blood services and training services.

What would you say to inspire someone to join the Red Cross – through a training, or as a blood donor, volunteer or supporter? 

The Red Cross is a great place to work and be a part of! Many of times when you bring up the Red Cross, almost immediately you can bring up a conversation and commonality with anyone. The Red Cross is a company that holds great values and ultimately is there to help and meet the need of the community.

New home for the holidays

Story & Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

With less than an hour to safely evacuate their home of fourteen years, Beth and Scott Hastreiter piled what they could into bins and boxes.

It being December, they already had their Christmas tree up, ornaments and lights dangling in the glow of the holiday season. Faced with evacuation of a building under threat of “imminent collapse,” there was a premium on the time allotted to pack the tree and everything else.

So, Beth’s sister swaddled the tree in industrial packing wrap, ornaments, treetopper and all, to move it quickly to their new place in a nearby village.

Beth and Scott Hastreiter pose with their Christmas tree, one of the items they were able to gather from their former home was evacuated under threat of collapse. The Hastreiters credit support from community agencies like the American Red Cross for their quick recovery.

That Christmas tree was standing and twinkling in a living room still in the process of unpacking – the new and welcome anchor after an 18-day journey for the Hastreiters, going from a familiar apartment to emergency evacuation, from two days at a hotel to a week at an American Red Cross shelter.

“Homelessness really can happen to anybody, at any time, for any reason. We are anybody,” said Beth Hastreiter. “It really can happen to anybody. And thank God there are agencies like yours that step in when something like that happens. One day you think things are stable and then literally the ground beneath you is not there any more.”

On Dec. 2, the city called for an evacuation to the four-story residential building near downtown Waukesha. While the building had faced issues in recent months, no one expected to have to leave, especially so suddenly. Many stayed at a hotel for a day or two supported by the local Salvation Army. Then, the American Red Cross opened a shelter at Elmbrook Church, for those who were without places to stay with friends, family or backed by insurance coverage. Along with a shelter occupied by a handful of residents, Red Cross volunteers provided nearly 300 meals and snacks, 31 contacts for health, mental health or spiritual care services.  

Crews work to stabilize a 40-plus-unit building in Waukesha after an evacuation in early December.

Scott Hastreiter, who works days at a local screen-printing shop, said it was a relief to know essentials like meals and a roof over their heads were taken care of at the shelter. He recalled their shared giddiness over finding toothpaste in a Red Cross hygiene kit.

“It was a comfort to be able to go back and … just knowing that we were secure, somewhere for the meantime where we could be OK,” he said.

Coincidentally, the church that opened its doors was the same attended by the Hastreiters, a sign of sorts, Beth felt. While staying at the shelter, the couple walked across the Brookfield church campus to attend services and to lead their weekly Sunday school duties with toddlers.

While recovery from an evacuation or disaster often receives less outside attention than the initial shock of the incident, it can often take up much more of the physical and mental bandwidth. At first, Beth felt overwhelmed by all the recovery steps and costs jotted down in front of her on tablet paper. Red Cross volunteers talked through achievable daily steps in their recovery plan, what they could handle today, tomorrow and further down the road. Later, the Red Cross and Waukesha County partner agencies opened a multi-agency resource center for a one-stop shop with assistance and guidance.

“Every day [Red Cross volunteers] were helping me with what I needed to do to make forward progress. I could have never accomplished the amount of stuff that had to get done any other way,” she said.

The Hastreiters share their experiences and get advice from Red Cross volunteers Hillary Wanecke, left, and John Hughes at a shelter established at Elmbrook Church following a building evacuation in Waukesha.

Less than three weeks later, the Hastreiters have shifted from uncertainty to their own new place in Mukwonago. The recovery remains a daily process for the couple, together since 2000, as with many others no longer allowed to return to the Waukesha condo building. At the Hastreiter’s new apartment, a doormat calls this their “happy place” as candles waft a coziness through the air. The Christmas tree is beaming; the rest of the furniture will find its place in due time.

Beth summarized the last few weeks with perspective and gratitude befitting of the holiday season: “This feels more like home every day and it feels like our life is improving every day. At least going forward, we have stability and that started with being at the shelter and having people to walk us through a plan. We couldn’t have done that on our own.”

Your support makes the mission of the Red Cross possible. Thank you for considering a gift so that relief can get to people in need as quickly as possible.

Stanley community response after tornado “restores your faith in humanity”

Days after a tornado hit Stanley, Wisconsin, the clean up and power restoration efforts continued.

Story & Photos by Dan Schillinger, American Red Cross

“This is what neighbors do.” 

That was Jeff Sauer’s reaction to the outpouring of help that flooded into his hometown of Stanley, Wisconsin, population 3,608, in the aftermath of a very rare December tornado. Hundreds of people from all over western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota came to the town to help clean up, feed displaced residents and restore some sense of normalcy.

The American Red Cross was part of those efforts, supporting a shelter for residents displaced or dealing with power outages, one of a handful of disaster relief operations around Wisconsin this week following a round of powerful winds and sporadic tornadoes. Sauer came from nearby Thorp and spent two days driving around Stanley, stopping to help residents clear downed trees and pick up debris.

One of the homes walloped by an EF2 tornado that touched down in Stanley, among a handful that touched down in Wisconsin in mid-December.

Red Cross volunteers Mike and Cathy Stevens came from New Richmond to help. Mike spent part of Friday doing assessments of the approximately 10 homes heavily damaged from the storms. Meanwhile Cathy, worked at a local shelter, helping to feed people. 

“It restores your faith in humanity,” said Cathy Stevens, a retired nurse, as she looked out on a roomful of volunteers. 

Mike and Cathy joined the Red Cross as volunteers four years ago, after Mike retired from a construction business he owned for over 40 years. He described the response to the disaster as “unbelievable.” Like many others, Mike says he joined the Red Cross as a way of giving back to his community. He says it’s been a rewarding experience.

Edit Krueger, left, a resident of Stanley, was grateful for the outpouring of support for her and her hometown by people like Red Cross volunteer Cathy Stevens.

Edie Krueger has worked as a teacher in Stanley for over 40 years. She says the damage to her town “shook me to my core.” She saw people coming to the shelter with tears in their eyes. But she’s also seen the strength of her neighbors, as they work to clean up the damage and put the town back on its feet in time for Christmas. 

The city of Stanley set up a shelter for residents late Wednesday night at a community center in Chapman Park and Red Cross volunteers helped operate the shelter in the subsequent days. Outside of the handful of residents who stayed at the shelter, meals were served – including 300 for residents on Thursday alone – and on Saturday numerous service and government agencies gathered to provide assistance, resources and referrals to residents affected by this freak storm. 

Red Cross volunteer Mike Stevens serves meals at a community center-turned-shelter after the December storm.

Red Cross volunteer Dave Nelson said he and his colleagues will remain as long as it takes to help residents in Stanley get back up on their feet. Like the others, Nelson has been struck by the willingness of complete strangers to come together to help each other in the wake of the disaster.

You can join our Disaster Action Team volunteers in community relief responses just like this one. Find out more and sign up at redcross.org/DAT.

In a time for traditions, De Pere teacher gives blood

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Natalie Buhl is a frequent blood donor approaching her 57th blood donation. When she was young, she vividly recalls attending her father’s blood donation appointments and the pride she felt knowing he was helping to save lives.

When Buhl became old enough to donate blood, she made for her first blood donation appointment and has been donating blood regularly ever since.

She is also a teacher at West De Pere High School and wants to be an inspiration to her students the way her father inspired her to give blood so many years ago.

“I’ve been blessed with good health all my life,” said Buhl. “I donate blood for those who have not been so fortunate. It’s a little thing I can do that means a lot to someone in need. We are role models for the next generation of blood donors.”

More than 160 community members typically roll up their sleeve to give at the annual Green Bay Winter Holiday Blood Drive. The Red Cross is thanking those who come to give Dec. 23 at St. John the Baptist School and Dec. 27 at the Ashwaubenon Community Center with an exclusive Red Cross long-sleeved T-shirt, while supplies last.

Appointments are encouraged; visit RedCrossBlood.org to make your appointment at one of these or other festive drives over the holidays.

“We would never be able to host such a successful drive without the incredible support of the community,” said Steve Hansen, Executive Director for the Northeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross. “Year after year, the community steps up to the call for blood donations which go toward helping to save lives. We are grateful for those who respond to the constant need for blood donations at such a critical time of the year.”

2021 in Review: International Symbols of Care During a Year that Defied Expectations

By Mark Thomas, Regional CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive Director

As I pulled off the interstate and onto a two-lane road lined with the cedar trees and bogs of “Cranberry Country,” I was quickly shifted out of agricultural Wisconsin and into the major global issues that had brought me here.

In front of my American Red Cross vehicle were charter buses filled with evacuees from Afghanistan temporarily calling Fort McCoy home. An historical response, in a year already packed with them. With all the planning calls, news stories and more swirling around, I saw that first of what would be many buses of people escaping a war zone and I thought, “We’re here. This is real.”

Allie Kress, a Red Cross volunteer from Milwaukee, made paper airplanes with children from Afghanistan during her deployment at Fort McCoy. Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross

For thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan under dire and uncertain circumstances, our Red Cross teams from Wisconsin and across the country provided an invaluable welcome alongside our military partners at Fort McCoy.

Two anecdotes on international symbols are among those I find myself returning to and sharing with others. The first came shortly into my initial visit. It was a rainy day but at one point the sun peaked through the clouds. No sooner than that, two kids, about six- or seven-years old, came running out into the green space between many of the residential buildings housing evacuees. With big smiles on their faces, you’d be forgiven for briefly forgetting all that they had been through to get to the U.S. When they saw me and a few other Red Crossers, we shared recognition through waving and fist bumps. Simply two children expressing that fundamental joy carried by children all around the world.

The second anecdote comes from my second visit, a few weeks on with the entire operation running like a fine-tuned watch to meet the needs of more than 13,000 people as of late-September. At one of our Client Care Centers, a teenage boy began talking about his harrowing experiences. Then, he pointed at our logo, and said that he had heard about the Red Cross while living in Afghanistan, though he hadn’t been involved in their services. However, he said that after his experiences with the Red Cross in Wisconsin, he “promised” he would join us as a volunteer – and he went on to repeat that promise. In this teenager’s time of extreme need, he was already focused on how he could give back. Our impact in a few weeks had made him want to share with others, which made me all the more proud that we could one day do so wearing the same emblem of the Red Cross. 

These moments at Fort McCoy were among many that defied our expectations, and also affirmed the capabilities and compassion that have established the Red Cross as a fundamental presence in American life over the past 140 years. With your support and volunteerism, we’ve had plenty of those signature moments in 2021. As recognition of your belief in the Red Cross, I wanted to spend a little time as the year wraps up reflecting on our action and achievements, as has become of a bit of a tradition during my now-three full years leading the Wisconsin Region.

But before I get into my list, please know that I want to hear from you – on volunteer possibilities, blood drive host sites, heart-warming stories of community support. Share your passion and story. Let me know how we can work together to make our communities stronger, healthier and more collaborative. Email me at mark.thomas3@redcross.org.

January

Crystal Irvine, left, and Leslie Luther deployed to Wisconsin to help with a surge in apartment fires in early January 2021.

Home fire highs: every winter we see an increase in home fires. But the number and severity of fires to start this year – and the ample response from our disaster teams – was extraordinary. In one, 24-hour period at the end of January, more than 500 people were displaced by apartments fires, in Janesville, Beaver Dam and two in Milwaukee. We led the nation in sheltering operations from these fires, part of a three-year high in fire responses in Wisconsin. With our disaster teams and support from great leaders like Chief Aaron Lipski, whom I’m also proud to call one of our board members, we were able to help get neighbors like James Fair back up on their feet.

Touchdown on blood collections: through an ever-shifting pandemic, our blood collections teams worked with donors to meet the constant need for blood. Plus, an ongoing partnership with the NFL enabled us to offer giveaways like Super Bowl tickets to those generous donors during National Blood Donor Month. 

February

Ice storms down South: Wisconsin Red Crossers went to one of the last places you’d expect an ice storm – the State of Texas. No matter the challenge, these disaster volunteers raced to the front lines for hundreds of deployments to meet the needs, which in 2021 also meant flooding in Washington, wildfires in California, tornadoes in Kentucky and the effects of a hurricane felt as far north as New Jersey.

March

2021 Heroes Breakfast: our annual community hero and fundraiser event recognized the finest acts of courage and humanitarianism in northwest Wisconsin. You can get inspired by those honorees with video stories posted here and you can nominate someone for our 2022 event through this link. It’ll also be a great chance to get to know our newest Executive Director, Mary Jane “MJ” Thomsen.

April

Volunteer appreciation, front (yard) and center: With social interactions greatly reduced during COVID, our Volunteer Services team brought engagement and recruitment “to the streets.” Red Cross volunteers planted yard signs pronouncing their dedication and inviting others to join throughout Wisconsin and the U.P., beginning during Volunteer Appreciation Month. (P.S. Did you know that more than 90% of what the Red Cross does is led by volunteers? Click here to join us.)

May

2021 Brave Hearts: our signature community recognition and support event was held virtually for a second year, though without missing any of the inspiration and pizzazz. I’m eager to return to an in-person gala in 2022, as well as other great events in our Southwest and Northeast Chapters. As for Brave Hearts this coming year, I’m inviting you to nominate your community heroes from southeast Wisconsin here.

Rita Thompson, left, talks through an escape plan for her and her pets from her La Crosse home during a preparedness visit with volunteers Peter Knapik, center, and Jay Tucker. Photo by Riley Neper / American Red Cross

Sound the Alarm returns: our preparedness teams collaborated with the La Crosse Fire Department for the return of the “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” home fire safety program. Dozens of residents received new smoke alarms and talked through home fire escape plans, for the first time since 2019. Who knew that chirp from working smoke alarms could sound so sweet?! It all has us even more excited for more community home fire safety programs in the coming year.

June

Making waves: with careful steps, our swim courses returned to many pools, and we worked with partners to address lifeguard shortages seen across the country. As this Wisconsin Dells life-saving lifeguard can attest, the need for swim safety is ever present.

Rebecca Neumann stands in front of the damage to her home from a tornado in Oconomowoc. Photo by Laura McGuire / American Red Cross

July

Stormy weather: it seemed thunderstorms, tornadoes and destructive winds hit the Midwest about every week through the summer. Wisconsin disaster teams set up shelters and met residents at the scene in so many of these instances, like with the Zastrow family in Oconomowoc.

Milwaukee Bucks are world champs: I know it’s not exactly in our service area, but wasn’t it a nice jolt of positivity for so many of us to be able to root on the hometown team as they took the title? Bucks in six!

August

Repatriation of Afghanistan evacuees: from Kabul and Germany to Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey and Texas, tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan were supported by the Red Cross in the early months of their evacuation. While our commitment has wrapped up in Wisconsin, Red Cross teams continue help behind the scenes to support service members and veterans, and to connect evacuees with agencies taking on the next steps of this migration.

September

Demarus Torrence and his family held a drive at his high school to raise awareness on the importance of blood donations on those afflicted with sickle cell disease. Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross

Blood supply diversity and tackling sickle cell: it was exciting to hear new steps by the Red Cross in strengthening the blood supply with more donor diversity. Demarus, a teen from Milwaukee, knows the pain of sickle cell, and the value in having better matches when he receives blood transfusions. It’s encouraging to act on something that we can directly improve in Wisconsin and across the country. Join me as a blood donor and become part of a positive solution.

Help after Hurricane Ida: not only did numerous volunteers head to Louisiana and the East Coast after Hurricane Ida, but hundreds of you shared your generosity with people affected by this ravaging storm. WISN in Milwaukee generously partnered with the Red Cross for a multi-day telethon that brought your support directly to so many people who lost their homes and livelihoods. On behalf of those in need – thank you once again for your support.

October

Tiffany Circle accolades: our women leaders community at the Red Cross, Tiffany Circle, includes so many esteemed members from Wisconsin. And one of those members, Sara Horein, is now the national group’s Co-Chair – during their October conference, you may have heard her presenting, or flashing her Clara Barton-on-a-stick – joining fellow Wisconsinite Marti Ziegelbauer on the National Council. Thank you to all our Tiffany Circle members!

November

Service to the Armed Forces volunteer Wayne McDonald shares resources with a veteran and their spouse on Veteran’s Day at an event in Wausau. Photo by Beckie Gaskill / American Red Cross

Supporting our veterans: our Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) volunteers and staff were able to mark Veteran’s Day in a special way, by sharing resources and programming with former service members and their families at an event in Wausau. In addition, our SAF program leader, Michelle Matuszak, gave a first-person account of how important it was to participate in another veteran recognition that included her father, who served in the Vietnam War.

December

Hurt and healing in Waukesha: our volunteers opened a shelter after the evacuation of a 45-unit residential building. The building is three blocks away from the site of an absolutely tragic and deadly incident during a holiday parade about a week beforehand. Our teams were deeply saddened that one of our own dedicated volunteers, Tammy Durand, was among those who lost their lives. Between the parade and this evacuation, we stand with Waukesha through the healing ahead. 

No two years are the same. But over the past 140 years, the American Red Cross has consistently been here for people in need in our country, after everything from a return from the frontlines of war or a sudden choking incident, to recovery support after a home fire or the ample availability of blood during cancer treatments. I’m proud to partner with all of you to keep moving forward in 2022 on this legacy of humanitarianism in our communities.