‘Diminished’ after a home fire, a Kenosha County nurse helps others as she rebuilds

Story by Cooper Adams, American Red Cross

Stephanie Mortenson laid down on her hotel bed, sobbing after finally having the chance to process the previous stressful hours. Losing her house, her car and most of her belongings in a devastating home fire, Mortenson now had to figure out how to start over.

“My life was diminished to a razor and a toothbrush,” Mortenson said.

Mortenson had been having a pretty normal night with her husband, watching their two grandchildren, both toddlers. Around 9 p.m., an explosion came from the garage. Their pickup truck caught on fire. Because there were no smoke alarms in the garage, the fire built before the alarms in the rest of the house detected anything. Fortunately, Mortenson heard the explosion, promptly called 9-1-1 and the family escaped the house.

Mortenson admitted that her family should have had a better escape plan in case of a home fire: “We should have discussed it earlier. We didn’t know where we were going to go, just that we had to get outside.”

Everyone made it out of the house unharmed. Mortenson had brought her grandchildren to her neighbor’s house to keep them safe. Shortly after, the fire department and American Red Cross arrived to check on everyone.

Chin Ng Kenosha installs fall 2019

Chin Ng, volunteer with the American Red Cross, installs a smoke alarm during a home fire safety event in Kenosha. Photo by Cooper Adams.

As someone who describes herself as stubborn, Mortenson was initially hesitant having the Red Cross help her that night. “I thought we didn’t need help,” Mortenson explained. “We’re givers, not takers”. After some friendly persuading, Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteer Ben Neal convinced Mortenson to take the first step of accepting a hug.

With Red Cross assistance, Mortenson and her husband are now living in an apartment, with plans to rebuild a new home in the same location as their previous one.

Mortenson’s journey with the Red Cross actually didn’t start with the home fire. Since she was 18, she’s been an advocate for donating blood. She’s donated every chance she’s had since.

Then, about a year and a half ago, she witnessed a horrible car accident involving a truck, leading to severe injuries and even deaths. As a nurse, she sprang into action and helped the passenger struggling for air in the wrecked car, saving her life. For her heroic actions, the Red Cross awarded her with the Brave Hearts award.


Do you know a community hero in southeastern Wisconsin? Click here to nominate them as a Brave Hearts hero.


After her own home fire, Mortenson found a way to be active with the Red Cross that would help others struck by home fires. For National Fire Prevention Week, the Red Cross teamed up with Journey Church and the Kenosha Fire Department to install free smoke alarms throughout Kenosha. Since Mortenson regularly attends Journey Church and remains involved with the Red Cross, she signed up to volunteer.

Mortenson felt moved to help make people safer by recalling the tragic night she had just months before. Mortenson arrived at Journey Church, prepared to go out and make a difference. She stopped when she recognized a familiar face: it was Ben Neal, one of the Red Cross volunteers who helped her the night of her own home fire.

She came up to him and they were able to catch up. Neal asked Mortenson about her grandkids and she replied that they were doing well. She also apologized for being stubborn about receiving help. When asked how she was, Mortenson grew contemplative.

Stephanie

Stephanie Mortenson, left, receives a Brave Hearts community hero award in May from presenter Beth Straka, We Energies. Photo by Front Room Studios.

“We live in a proud fashion,” Mortenson reflected. “People are just going through life, and we need to stop.”

The two continued their conversation until the time came to begin the installations. Mortenson reiterated how grateful she was for Neal and the Red Cross’ assistance that night and the following weeks.

When asked about his experience working with Mortenson, Neal responded that “It was great! I could tell she had a desire to give back and share her story. I began to volunteer so I could give back and help others who are at their lowest.”

After this experience, Mortenson feels as if she’s become a better person. She learned that admitting you need help is not a sign of weakness. She learned how to remove a mask she felt that she was wearing. She learned to be okay with three pairs of jeans instead of a whole closet. Grateful for the help she received, she thanked the Red Cross for providing her with the resources she needed to recover and give again.

You can help families during their moments of need. Join our Disaster Action Team volunteers. Take that first step by clicking here.

Do you know a local hero? Red Cross searching for Wisconsin nominees

For Brittany, it happened at the gym. Gagandeep and Chetna were on vacation. Leroy was volunteering.

Brave Hearts posed umbrellas Brittany family

Brittany Sabin, center in red, gave life-saving CPR to a man who collapsed at her gym. Here, she poses with friends and family during the 2018 Brave Hearts awards in Menomonee Falls.

Acts of heroism are all around us, every day. The American Red Cross of Wisconsin celebrates those heroes at three events each year. We need your help to identify outstanding heroes in our community at these three Wisconsin events: Evening of Heroes in Wisconsin Dells, Heroes Breakfast in Eau Claire, and Brave Hearts in Milwaukee.

 

Whether they’re stepping up during a medical emergency to provide assistance or helping others through a lifetime of volunteerism, heroes reflect what is best about our community.

Do you know someone who should be recognized? Click the event titles below for nomination details, award categories and event information:

 

Leroy NW hero consoles fellow veteran screenshot

Leroy “Buzz” Thompson consoles a fellow veteran as part of his volunteer efforts, one of the reasons he was chosen for an award.

Evening of Heroes

Nominations due October 31st  

Eligible counties: Adams, Clark, Columbia, Crawford, Dane, Florence, Forest, Grant, Green, Iowa, Iron, Jefferson, Juneau, La Crosse, Lafayette, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Marinette, Menominee, Monroe, Oconto, Oneida, Portage, Price, Richland, Rock, Sauk, Shawano, Taylor, Vernon, Vilas and Wood counties in Wisconsin and Houston County, Minnesota.

 

Heroes Breakfast

Nominations due December 31st

Eligible counties: Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Buffalo, Burnett, Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson, Pierce, Pepin, Polk, Rusk, Sawyer, St. Croix, Trempealeau, and Washburn.

NW Heroes Breakfast doctors speak

2018 honorees Chetna Mangat, at podium, and Gagandeep Singh used their backgrounds as doctors to save a life while on vacation. 

Brave Hearts

Nominations due December 31st

Eligible counties: Dodge, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth and Waukesha.

Questions? Please contact McKenna Olson at mckenna.olson@redcross.org