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.”

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