Care, for the “Things You Didn’t Even Think About”

Story & Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

On Friday afternoon, James Fair had initially stopped by the American Red Cross caseworker station set up in a Milwaukee hotel lobby to ask about transportation. He’s in that challenging in-between time, after being displaced by a fire at his apartment building but before he can move into his new place.

Moments later in the lobby, along with talking transportation, Red Crosser Melinda Rosario was putting adhesive bandages on cuts on Fair’s hands, making sure he’d had a chicken Caesar wrap for lunch (he’d eaten it) and checking in that he knew the latest developments on his next apartment.

Melinda Rosario, Red Cross disaster team member, opens an adhesive bandage for James Fair, one of many people still dealing with an apartment building fire on Jan. 28.

“They take care of things you didn’t even think about,” Fair said afterward.

Fair is one of more than 100 people still displaced by a Jan. 28 apartment building fire on Milwaukee’s South Side, a fatal incident and the largest among a slew of high-volume residential fires to kick off 2021 in Wisconsin. In all, the Red Cross has helped 740 people who have been displaced by more than 100 fires since the start of the year, which is on trend with a typical busy winter here, but markedly higher in terms of the number of people affected each day.

Behind those numbers, however, are the unique ways disasters affect each person, from flashpoint to aftermath, with no certain timetable. Fair, a military veteran and a Milwaukee native, had lived in the 106-unit building in the Burnham Park neighborhood since the fall. On Jan. 27, he had dozed off to the nightly news only to be woken up at around 2 a.m. to pounding by a neighbor on his third-floor apartment door. Half wondering if it was a dream, Fair had enough time to grab his cane, put on a robe and grab a hat, to cover his head and face, given the smoke, to say nothing of the pandemic.

“They were yelling that we had to evacuate onto a city bus … at first, I was thinking that I’d be right back up in my place,” Fair said, before stepping back to reflect on the layers of issues that come up with such a fire. “You know that saying, ‘Bigger the headache, bigger the pill’? I feel like there isn’t a pill big enough for what you go through” after a fire.

Even still, Fair said he was very appreciative of the hive of Red Cross activity buzzing around him in the hotel lobby. Sheltering operations on Friday at the hotel – one of two hotel-shelters established over the past two weeks with just this fire – included delivery of 80 lunches by volunteers Kevin Connell and Terry Mackin, and restocking of complimentary masks and gloves by Merrill volunteer Laurel Cooper and Binghamton, N.Y. health services volunteer Jeanne Frey. Behind the scenes, numerous other disaster workforce members organized partners to identify affordable housing possibilities, transported totes for those ready to begin moving and helped residents process the emotional gravity of a fire.

James Fair calls himself a “different type of soldier,” though one grateful for help from the Red Cross after a fire displaced him and the rest of the people in his 106-unit building in Milwaukee.

Rosario, a disaster team member from Harrisburg, Pa., said that Fair and a handful of other military veterans displaced by this Milwaukee fire would be moving into longer-term housing in the coming weeks thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. Fair called himself “a different type of soldier,” someone up for the challenges that life can hit you with at 2 a.m. on a sub-zero-temperature Milwaukee weekday. At the same time, he recognized that he’s had Red Cross volunteers fighting for him since he arrived from the fire. 

“I’m glad Red Cross is here, these people are here, because … otherwise, I don’t know,” he said.

Your generosity and volunteerism enable the Red Cross to help people like James every single day. We’re grateful for your consideration of joining our mission, through a gift or as a volunteer.

“Your whole team has saved our lives”: the words of 2020 that stand out to me

By Mark Thomas, Regional CEO & Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive, American Red Cross

“On behalf of our family, thank you so very much for all the help from the Red Cross. Words cannot describe how much you have helped us. You are all amazing. You have been the world to us, your whole team has saved our lives.”

A member of a family in Racine texted the words above to one of our dedicated Disaster Action Team volunteers. The family was one of a handful who had been displaced by a fire in October. Texting had been the fastest and safest way to connect the family with shelter, food and more in the aftermath of the fire that displaced approximately 40 people total. As this and other families made their next steps toward recovery, the volunteer shared the words from this text to the rest of us on the daily disaster response meetings.

In darkness and loss, this person in need reached out to share gratitude, positivity and caring. Although they wrote that “words cannot describe” their feelings, the consequences of your impact was on full display.

Volunteers Dave Flowers and Kevin Connell deliver relief resources to the Wisconsin National Guard at a COVID isolation site in spring. It was one of the many ways our teams rose to the challenge of humanitarian aid during the pandemic.

In this year with so much uncertainty, pain and, yes, death, I want to take a positive cue from one of the thousands of people we’ve helped. Rather than reel off grim reminders of 2020, I want to take the chance to shine a light. Three lights, actually, for the three words that stood out to me over the past 12 months.

With apologies to Merriam-Webster, my first word of 2020 is commitment. Your commitment as Red Crossers since spring has been nothing short of astounding. When the pandemic really hit here, we weren’t sure how we’d connect volunteers with clients or if we could even hold blood drives. I remember some terrifying scenarios floating around. You remained committed to our mission. You stayed committed through societal turmoil and the worst natural disaster season in recent memory. You exemplified why people believe in the American Red Cross.

Here I am donating blood at our Milwaukee headquarters, where, like at all our drives during the pandemic, temperature readings, masks and extra cleanings are part of the extra steps to make donations safe.

Looking back over the year, the second positive word that comes to mind for me is resilient. It comes in partnership with commitment, but shows our flexibility, creativity and humanity in making our mission happen. Think about the resiliency it took to pull off virtual fundraising galas and take on brand-new volunteer roles; to innovate on the fly with COVID antibody testing and convalescent plasma collection; to come together around difficult conversations in digital town halls on topics like racial equity and civil unrest. And then to keep ourselves and those we serve safe and prepared in everything else we do. For every fire and each blood drive, with any fundraiser and all our programs, you bounced back with new, evolving opportunities to help someone.

That brings me to my final word of 2020 – honor. I am honored to call you colleagues and teammates, to do this work and follow in your footsteps. It’s an honor to know that our commitment and our resiliency enable us to serve people in crisis, no matter how daunting the news. I’m honored to wear this Red Cross because of everything we can accomplish together for people who need us, in “normal times” or whatever is next.

World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day

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One in twenty-five people receive help from the global Red Cross network every single year. One in five hundred people in the world is a volunteer for the cause. Today—World Red Cross Red Crescent Day—we’re celebrating all the men, women, and children who have a Red Cross story to tell.

The Red Cross network transcends borders. Guided by its seven
fundamental principles:

  • humanity
  • impartiality
  • neutrality
  • independence
  • voluntary service
  • unity
  • universality

tumblr_static_my-story-headerRed Cross volunteers are inspired to help at every turn. They fly halfway around the world during international disasters, drive to nearby communities when tornadoes strike, and walk right down the street to teach swimming lessons. The network is so abundant, many people are touched by the Red Cross without even realizing it.

Nearly everyone has a Red Cross story. What’s yours? Share your Red Cross story at: http://ifrc.tumblr.com/