“You can tell that they care”: Greenfield man finds hope in people helping each other under the weight of COVID-19 and an apartment fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jessie Austin saw the smoke pumping out of his Greenfield apartment building, could see the flashing fire truck lights. But his mind was elsewhere.

Austin said he had “déjà vu” to other traumatic events in his life, like a fire during his youth that took a friend’s mother, and his experiences in the Army during the evacuation of Vietnam in the 1970s.

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Jessie Austin shares from a hotel in Milwaukee, a temporary home as he works on next steps in his recovery with the American Red Cross and others.

With his own apartment and belongings uncertain, under the shared stress of a global pandemic, Austin said he knew the “best way to deal with things was to get them out.” He started talking – with his neighbors on scene, on the phone with his counselor from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and multiple times each day with volunteers from the American Red Cross.

“[T]he volunteers from the Red Cross … they are very committed, compassionate people,” Austin said Thursday from a hotel sheltering operation where he and 10 other residents were staying.

“They don’t do a whole lot of talking; they’re there for support, like a sounding board. It’s … easy conversation because you can tell that they care. That’s the main thing. I’m very appreciative of them.”

In all, 19 people were displaced by the apartment building fire on April 20 and the Red Cross has worked with the residents on resources and recovery plans. In the time of COVID-19, crucial disaster response and recovery work persists – including a higher-than-normal rate of home fires for this time of year – with disaster teams adding extra safety steps along the way like daily health checks, an emphasis on virtual interactions, and masks and gloves whenever out in the field.

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American Red Cross volunteers Robin Berzowski, right, and Jim Berzowski, bring ‘room service’ meals to Jessie Austin, who was one of nearly 20 people displaced by a recent fire in Greenfield. The food drop offs are part of additional health and safety steps by disaster workers amid COVID-19.

It was the weight of the pandemic that turned Austin downright philosophical as he shared his story, his soft voice underscoring the importance he finds in keeping up hope and finding a way to help others. In a hat that read “United States of America” and prepping his hot lunch brought by Red Cross volunteers from a local diner, Austin expressed the deeper values he sees amid this unsettled moment.

“This Coronavirus thing, I’m telling people, look at what’s really going on. This thing is causing us to lean on each other and to continue to understand what life is all about. It’s about people helping each other. That’s what counts, that’s what’s important,” he said. “It’s the respect, knowing that you’ve been cared about, knowing that you count, knowing that in the long run, it’s time that is the most precious thing that we have.”

The spirit of people like Austin looking out for each other and sharing what help is available has been evident to Red Cross Disaster Action Team (or DAT) volunteers Jim and Robin Berzowski.

The couple has led food deliveries from generous Milwaukee restaurants like Don’s Diner and Landmark Family Restaurant, to the hotel sheltering the apartment complex residents. The dynamic duo of Jim and Robin – jokingly known as “DATman and Robin” among the Southeast Wisconsin disaster team – said they’ve felt grateful to be able to bring tasty meals to the residents, though the social distancing and other health steps have taken some getting used to.

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Food pick up on April 23 from a Milwaukee restaurant, with meals destined for residents of a recent apartment building fire, one of many fires during an unusually busy spring.

As they delivered spaghetti dinners to each room at the hotel shelter Thursday, residents like Jessie gave quick updates on talks with their Red Cross caseworkers, and others let Jim and Robin know what they had heard from their neighbors earlier that day.

“We’re helping but they’re helping each other out, too,” Jim Berzowski said.

For more information on the response to COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan – including ways you can get involved – visit this site.

Readiness, Service and a Fire Close to Home: Our First Year Together

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

It was December 2018 and, as always with the holidays, it was time for family updates. Checking in with siblings, relatives, loved ones, a roundup on new jobs, relationships, babies and other benchmarks.

From my sister, the update was initially grim: my nephew in Racine had suffered a home fire.

Mark Thomas headshot proThat’s the kind of news that puts so much into perspective. She said he and his girlfriend had gotten out safely. They lost many possessions, including gifts from the holidays. But, as my sister said, they had hope right after the fire, because that’s when they received comfort and help from volunteers at the American Red Cross.

My sister and nephew didn’t even know I had started a new career at the Red Cross. This was just weeks after I had joined. The story from my sister was an unfiltered acknowledgement that fires didn’t just happen to other people. And that hope and help came from the Red Cross for everyone in need, my family included.

Once I had the chance to share about my new role at the Red Cross, I knew from my family’s story that I had come to the right place.

I’m happy to report that my family is back in their place and on solid footing. As for me, I’m now at one year as Regional CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive with the Red Cross. On this anniversary and during a time of year when people are extra reflective, I wanted to revisit a few of the milestone moments from another outstanding year of service by your Red Cross in Wisconsin. I also wanted to share a big lesson I’ve learned and the vision I have for the time ahead.

But back to 2019. As the anecdote I shared at the start shows, our programs and mission became very real in my life right away. Here are a few, high-level bullets of the stand-out moments our Region has been involved with over the past 12 months:

January

  • Received the “Region of the Year” recognition for the fundraising success of my predecessors and present leaders on our fund development team
  • Brought together our Southeast Chapter Board for my first full meeting (special shout-out to board chair Becky Fitzgerald for your leadership and guidance)

February

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With our team at the Milwaukee Stand Down, held at the Armory. 

March

  • Met people displaced by a large-scale apartment fire in Bayside, including a dear friend and a local reporter brave enough to share her story
  • At a shelter from ice jam flooding in Fond du Lac, watched as strangers brought a turkey on their Harley for people who were displaced, and was impressed by all the volunteers who kept spirits high (my teenage daughter was wowed, too, and impressed me by putting on a Red Cross vest and pitching in)

April

  • Welcomed and enthused by our staff at our first, in-person meeting in Madison
  • Those feelings multiplied this same month on an introductory meeting with my national colleagues at the historic Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

May

June

July

  • Able to notch success in nearly every way for our fiscal year, which ended in June
  • Completed my first CPR training
  • Worked alongside local and national Red Cross teams at the LULAC Convention in downtown Milwaukee
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Meeting disaster volunteer Ryan Clancy before he headed to help during Hurricane Dorian. Also met a few members of the Milwaukee media, who helped share Ryan’s journey.

August

  • Talked with volunteers as they flew off to the large-scale response to Hurricane Dorian and other flooding and fires – what an impressive machine to help people in desperate need

September

October

  • Grateful to have Greg Novinska take a new role with our biomedical services team, my colleague in everything happening behind the scenes to merge the full power of the Red Cross for people in our state

November

  • Cold weather came early, and with it, the typical spike in home fires … thankfully, our volunteers around the state have once again answered the call for families displaced by this every-day disaster
  • Had important discussions around inclusion and diversity with our talented Wisconsin leadership team, such a vital part of plans to make our organization the best place it can be for everyone

December

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Kids in Milwaukee enjoying swim lessons, with the promise of many more to come thanks to the Centennial Campaign and Milwaukee Rec.

There has been so much from those events and more that have impressed, humbled and energized me about the work we do. From it all, two ideas stand out.

The first is readiness. That word – readiness – means so much more to me, now that I’ve seen us in action. Home fires, floods, staff meetings, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, blood collection, outreach to military families … even as these words are coming together, our teams in Osseo are wrapping up a reception center for people affected by a massive car pile-up. Just before I pulled together these thoughts, one of our long-time and wonderful volunteers, Marge, stopped in and reminded me of the value of openness and being ready to share her passion and ideas for our mission. The countless ways readiness is part of our service at the Red Cross keeps what we do exciting and important.

From that important lesson on readiness, I have a solid foundation on how we build for the days ahead. We have a very strong network across Wisconsin. I am committed to making sure our core service is focused on our customers – including people in need, our volunteers and our supporters – and that it remains inclusive to all. There have been incredible people who have sustained and led this organization for more than 100 years in our state. I will carry that legacy of service. And I aim to make sure every community we serve knows the Red Cross is here to help, the right way. With you, I know we can help our friends, family and neighbors in need for the next 100 years – and beyond.

New National Swim Program at Four Milwaukee Pools Focuses on Affordability and Access to Life-Saving Skills

American Red Cross and Milwaukee Recreation Aquatics partner to create ‘ecosystem of water safety’ for children and adults with Centennial Campaign

[MILWAUKEE, Wisc., Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019] In an expansion of a national multi-year campaign to reduce drownings and increase access to water safety skills, the Milwaukee Recreation Aquatics program through Milwaukee Public Schools has joined the American Red Cross Aquatics Centennial Campaign.

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A student swims in Milwaukee pools during a summer safety lesson.

“We’re partnering with Red Cross aquatics training providers like Milwaukee Recreation Aquatics to create an ecosystem of water safety in communities where there are high numbers of drownings or drowning rates that are higher than the national average,” said Mark Thomas, Regional CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive, American Red Cross. “To families, this means having access to affordable life-saving swim lessons and water safety training in and near their communities.”

The Centennial Campaign will bring $5 swim lessons to resident and non-resident children and adults at four select Milwaukee Recreation school pools in the city:

  • James Madison Academic Campus (8135 W. Florist Ave.)
  • North Division High School (1011 W. Center St.)
  • Milwaukee High School of the Arts (2300 W. Highland Ave.)
  • Vincent High School (7501 W. Granville Road)

“Milwaukee Recreation is proud to be a part of the Centennial Campaign. The partnership will allow the Milwaukee community access to learn-to-swim programs at locations that have historically struggled with both poverty and drowning rates. We are excited to offer affordable, quality swim lessons, water safety education and lifeguard training to more students than we ever have before,” said Nicole Jacobson, Aquatics Supervisor with Milwaukee Recreation.

Registration is open starting Tuesday, Dec. 10 and available through the Milwaukee Recreation website [click here] and by-mail program.

Aquatics Centennial Campaign by the Numbers

The Red Cross campaign began in 2014 in recognition of 100 years of Red Cross swimming safety education. Due to the positive response, the campaign is expanding beyond the initial 50 programs.

Through the end of 2018, national campaign milestones include:

  • 81,288 sets of swim lessons in 93 communities and 197 aquatic facilities in 23 states
  • 839 lifeguards certified and 1,896 junior lifeguards trained
  • 768 Water Safety and Basic Swim instructors certified
  • 12,388 parents and caregivers armed with lifesaving water-safety knowledge and skills

Media contact on Centennial Swim program: Justin Kern (414) 242-6806 Justin.Kern@redcross.org

Blessings, ‘Star Wars’ and home fire safety: local stories from ‘Sound the Alarm’ 2019

Words by Wendy Rociles and Justin Kern / Photos by Hannah Hudson, Rociles and Kern, American Red Cross

More than 1,620 smoke alarms were installed in just shy of 800 homes across Wisconsin this spring during “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life,” an American Red Cross campaign for home fire safety.

Nationwide since 2014, the campaign has involved 1.7 million alarms and home fire escape plans brought to more than 709,000 homes. Among other results, the campaign has saved 589 lives to date, including a family of three in Janesville.

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After training and a rally, teams pulled together home fire safety tools before heading out into Wisconsin neighborhoods.

For the 2019 home fire safety push, events large and small spread across Wisconsin in late April and early May, including installations in Janesville, Barron and Brothertown, and in La Crosse, Dunn and Taylor counties. The two largest installation days occurred in Milwaukee (593 alarms in 225 homes by 223 volunteers) and the Fox Cities (823 alarms in 276 homes by 159 volunteers).


You can still bring this home fire safety campaign to your home. Enter your info at GetASmokeAlarm.org for an appointment.


Here are vignettes from this campaign to make our state safer and better prepared when it comes to home fires, the top disaster response on almost a daily occurrence for the Red Cross in Wisconsin.

‘Thank God you’re here’

Aretha Robertson breathed a sigh of relief once she heard why volunteers from the American Red Cross were at her door.

“My smoke alarm just started chirping today, thank God you’re here,” Robertson said.

Robertson was one of 225 residents in Milwaukee who received nearly 600 free smoke alarms during a one-day home fire safety blitz in Milwaukee by the Red Cross and partners as part of the “Sound the Alarm.”

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Volunteer Kristen Forseth, right, discusses a home fire escape plan with Milwaukee resident Cora Martin during the “Sound the Alarm. Save A Life” event.

Three trained volunteers – Kristen Forseth, Anthony Marzien and Joey Schulteis – installed a trio of new alarms in the home where Robertson lives with her husband. And while they did the installation, Robertson rang up three of her Washington Park neighbors to let them know about the free alarms and home fire escape opportunity.

One of those neighbors, Cora Martin, welcomed this same team of volunteers into her home, where her adorable puppy, Bentley, even received some good scratches for his enthusiasm at the newfound friends.

Martin also received three smoke alarms and said she was very happy that her husband, who has a medical condition, wouldn’t have to handle the installation himself.

These volunteers were three of more than 220 involved during the April 27 home fire safety event in Milwaukee, which primarily fanned out eastward from host site Harley Davidson on West Juneau Avenue. Volunteers toted alarms, tips for home fire and tornado preparedness, Snap-on drills and other instructions, along with a determination to make their city a safer place.

“I was really excited to be able to do this,” said Forseth, a first-time home fire safety volunteer and an employee with Harley. “I didn’t expect as much thanks as we’re getting, so it’s really awesome to be able to go in the home and hear homeowners say, ‘Thank you so much, you answered my prayers today.’”

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At one Menasha home, Ayden Overson and Garred Blanthorn replaced alarms in the kitchen while team member Mark Gallert talked tornado preparedness with the owner.

Safety on ‘May the Fourth’

After stopping by a smoke alarm appointment in Appleton on May 4, a volunteer team of Sharon Holt, Dean Haas and Joanie Micke knocked on the door of a next-door neighbor.

Laura Leyh answered and soon admitted she didn’t know the number of alarms in their two-story home, nor the last time the batteries were checked.

“I had no idea you did this. Of course, please come in,” Leyh said to the volunteer team.

Micke began discussing home fire escape plans with the five-person family, around the kitchen table for lunch, as Haas got permission to check on smoke alarms around the home. In the meantime, Holt shared a safety coloring book with the smiling, rambunctious kindergartener in the home, Lillian. (Nationally, 1.3 million youth have been reached with home fire safety lessons and materials to this point in the campaign.)

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Sharon Holt, left, shares a preparedness coloring book with Lillian Leyh during a “Sound the Alarm” visit in Appleton.

The Leyh home was decorated with an intricate, colored pencil drawings of R2-D2 and an explosive poster that featured Rey donning a lightsaber. It became clear on this installation date of May 4 that the family chose to include home fire safety as part of their “May the Fourth” celebration of the “Star Wars” movie franchise. Exiting the home, the Leyh family replied to one volunteer with a “May the Fourth Be With You” cheer.

2019 American Red Cross of Wisconsin “Sound the Alarm. Save A Life” Milwaukee and Fox Cities partner roster

  • Fox Valley Technical College
  • Menasha Corporation
  • Festival Foods
  • WHBY
  • Lands’ End
  • United Way Fox Cities
  • Appleton Fire Department

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    Mark Thomas, CEO, American Red Cross of Wisconsin, tests an alarm during a home fire safety stop at a home in Dunn County. 

  • Appleton City Hall
  • Menasha Health Department
  • Hmong American Partnership
  • Great Northern Corporation
  • Harley-Davidson
  • Wisconsin Tiffany Circle
  • We Energies
  • Lands’ End
  • Forest County Potawatomi Community
  • Milwaukee Fire Department
  • Nicholas Family Foundation
  • Laureate Group
  • HOPE Worldwide
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County
  • Coffee Makes You Black
  • Pete’s Fruit Market
  • Near West Side Partners, Inc.

 

‘Gwen T. Jackson Day’ sights and proclamation

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

May 28 was proclaimed “Gwen T. Jackson Day” in Milwaukee County, a recognition of her tireless decades of volunteerism and community service. That included more than 60 years with the American Red Cross, in roles that ranged from famine relief for Africa, support of U.S. service members and expansion of diversity in volunteerism, to the highest ranks for a volunteer in the organization, as National Volunteer Chairman in Washington, D.C.

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Mark Thomas shares reflections on Gwen Jackon’s impact on Milwaukee and the nation as a volunteer leader with the American Red Cross.

To honor Gwen T. Jackson Day on what would have been her 91st birthday, organizations close to Gwen’s legacy of work gathered on Tuesday to share stories, food and her spirit of community service. Our hope is to build upon Gwen’s legacy to create an annual day that acknowledges volunteerism and community action across Milwaukee.

“As someone who grew up in this community and spent much of my professional career here, I know I’m able to be the CEO of the Red Cross because [of] someone like Gwen Jackson,” said Mark Thomas, CEO and Southeast Chapter Executive.


There are numerous ways you can use your talents toward good in the Milwaukee area. Click here to find out more.


In this blog are a few pictures from the event, which included Red Cross and United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, which was held at one of her favorite art galleries and community spaces, King Drive Commons Gallery and Studio. In addition, we’ve included the full proclamation from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

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During an event held in her honor, Gwen Jackson pictures and momentos were on display at one of her favorite spaces, King Drive Commons Gallery and Studios.

Executive Proclamation

Whereas, on May 28, 1928, Gwen T. Jackson was entered this earth and on March 24, 2019, at the age of 90, Gwen T. Jackson was born into eternal life; and

Whereas, we now take time to recognize the loss of an important member of not only our community but also a loving mother, daughter, wife, sister and friend; and

Whereas, we will never forget Gwen’s civic leadership and commitments to our community. Gwen retired as a Human Resources Vice President from Brills Colony Men’s Clothing Store. Her volunteer service includes time with the United Way, Urban League, YMCA, and more than 60 years of volunteering with the American Red Cross. Gwen held the National Chairman Volunteer position for four years with the American Red Cross, the highest volunteer position available; and

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Milwaukee disaster action team volunteers serve food and listen in during drumming played at a Gwen T. Jackson Day event in Milwaukee.

Whereas, in addition to volunteering for disaster relief, Gwen dedicated service to our most vulnerable populations – senior citizens and children. Gwen served as Commissioner Emeritus of the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging, and worked to improve the educational outcomes of young people in Milwaukee, having 21st Street School renamed the Gwen T. Jackson Early Childhood Elementary School; and

Whereas, Gwen’s effervescent spirit, perpetual optimism, unending loyalty and constant cheer were a blessing to everyone around her,

I, Chris Abele, do hereby proclaim May 28, 2019 as Gwen T. Jackson Day throughout Milwaukee County, and I offer my support to the family and friends of Gwen as well as appreciation for her positive contributions to Milwaukee County.

‘Grateful’ installers, recipients of free smoke alarms and fire escape plans

By Wendy Rociles, American Red Cross

Dora Hogan was singing a grateful tune after a friend in her choir said she could get free smoke alarms installed in her Milwaukee home. American Red Cross volunteers who made the installations were grateful, too.

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American Red Cross volunteer Jordan Davis, right, talks over a home fire escape plan with Dora Hogan, left, & Alisa Jones. 

Hogan, a grandmother living on the west side of the city, said a smoke alarm in her living room had fallen from her ceiling, which made it difficult for her to replace. With family – including her beloved grandchildren – visiting often, Hogan found it essential to reach out to the Red Cross on their standing offer to provide free smoke alarms to those who need them.

Hogan made an appointment for the alarms (click here to find out how) and two Red Cross volunteers came to check out her home fire safety needs. Along with the living room replacement alarm, Red Cross volunteer Jordan Davis found another alarm in one of the bedrooms with a 1997 expiration date. A few additional alarms were in order, too, posted in important spots in the home to give Hogan peace of mind. Davis tested the alarms and, with a beep, everyone knew that the home was a safer place.

“The smoke alarms could save a life, especially with a lot of grandkids here all the time,” said Alisa Jones, Hogan’s daughter, who was present during the installations. “They could be doing anything: cooking, curling irons left on … I’m very grateful that we have the smoke alarms.”

Along with the alarms, Davis sat with Hogan and Jones to review fire safety tips and a fire escape plan. With these plans, in case of a fire, Hogan’s family will know exactly what to do and how to stay safe outside the home.

Sound the Alarm logoIn addition to installing smoke alarms, Davis volunteers on the Milwaukee area Disaster Action Team (DAT), a role that puts him in a place to comfort and help families involved in many local home fires. Davis said smoke alarm and home fire escape plan events like one coming up April 27 in Milwaukee are “crucial” when it comes to family preparedness.

“Responding with DAT in the aftermath of a home fire to provide comfort and resources to community members can be extremely challenging – and especially when one learns just how many residences in Milwaukee do not have working smoke alarms. Installing smoke alarms before a fire occurs, however, truly brings my service experience with the American Red Cross full circle,” Davis said.

If you don’t know if your smoke alarms are working or think you need new ones, please reach out. Red Cross volunteers are always here to help, such as numerous, day-long smoke alarm installation events coming up:

  • April 13 – Chippewa Valley
  • April 27 – Milwaukee
  • April 27 – La Crosse
  • May 4 – Fox Cities
  • May 4 – Janesville

Sign up for your free smoke alarm and home fire escape plan by entering your information at GetASmokeAlarm.org or by texting the word “Alarm” to 844-811-0100.

A Hand Up for Veterans at Milwaukee Stand Down Rally

By Justin Kern – American Red Cross

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Walter Donaldson joined 172 veterans Saturday at the Milwaukee Veterans Stand Down.

With icy rain and whipping winds outside of the Richards Street Armory in Milwaukee, Walter Donaldson was perfectly content to reminisce on warmer and brighter days, during the 1990s, when he lived in Florida.

Donaldson lived there during and after his service in the Army. He taught high school students and even volunteered for the American Red Cross after a tropical storm. The years since then haven’t always been easy or kind to Donaldson, he said, with a wizened smile and a follow up declaration that he’s doing better now, with a place to stay on the southwest side of Milwaukee and a chance to teach again. On this day, he attributed an upbeat attitude partly to thoughts of Florida during a Midwestern winter, and partly from the clothing, personal items and resources he received at the Milwaukee Veterans Stand Down.

“This helps. I’m grateful, all of this helps,” Donaldson said, pointing to clothing and Red Cross bags.

Donaldson joined more than 170 area veterans at the Stand Down rally at The Armory, a bi-annual event that focuses on homeless or at-risk veterans. At Saturday’s Stand Down, veterans had the opportunity to meet with dozens of organizations, including the Red Cross, veterans’ groups and food providers, health professionals and hair stylists, as well as various state and federal agencies. Service to the Armed Forces volunteers and staff from the Red Cross once again provided hygiene items and informational/communication resources for veterans.

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A veteran in prayer during Saturday’s event at The Richards Street Armory.

The event is billed as a “hand up, not a handout” for veterans. Between meals, check-ins and conversation, the rally included call-and-response shout outs to the five branches of the military, patriotic songs and a plea from organizer Stan Kogutkiewicz for vets in the crowd to use the resources in the room.

“Do not leave here until you get going on your problems,” echoed George Martin, one of the event emcees.

For Marvin Britton, that meant taking a stroll through the booths that packed The Armory. Britton’s gold Army ring caught the light as he talked and clutched onto a smooth wooden cane, as he shared straightforward stories of service, of addiction, of sweethearts long gone. Since his service in Vietnam, from 1974-78, life took him to San Diego and La Crosse, with time on and off in Milwaukee. These days, he’s staying in Union Grove at the Wisconsin Veterans Home, from where a group of veterans bused in for the rally.

“I’m fine, now … just trying to stay healthy. Got my backpack, going to the booths after I get some of [those] clothes” from the clothing donation line, he said.

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Veterans received information on ways they can connect with resources and family from the American Red Cross.

Ready to meet Britton, Donaldson and all the veterans were volunteers like Bob Nelson. Nelson joined the small team handing out American Red Cross bags with hygiene items and veterans resources information at the west end of the stout military hall. Nelson’s son is in the Marine Corps, connecting him to a lineage of men who have served in their family. For Bob Nelson – also on the Red Cross disaster action team – meeting and sharing with veterans at the Stand Down rally is a small gesture of gratitude.

“This is something I can do, I can be here,” Nelson said.

For more information on the Milwaukee Veterans Stand Down event, click here.

To get involved or find out more on the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces mission for veterans and military service members and their families, click here.

Mark Thomas to join American Red Cross as Wisconsin Region CEO, SE Chapter Executive

The American Red Cross today welcomes Mark Thomas as its new Wisconsin Region CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive.

Mark Thomas - headshot Dec 2018Thomas has deep nonprofit and for-profit executive experience, with strengths in sales and operations management, and strategic leadership skills. Thomas has led or participated in fundraising efforts for The American Heart Association, United Performing Arts Fund and The United Way. Most recently, he served as Vice President and COO for the Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee.

Thomas said the people and mission of the American Red Cross provide an opportunity to extend his professional expertise and his dedication to Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

“The staff, volunteers, donors and advocates at the Red Cross provide our state with a powerful resource for positive change, from home fire recovery and military support, to safety training, responses to national disasters and ensuring a strong blood supply,” Thomas said. “I am grateful to help lead such a highly regarded organization with a commitment to Milwaukee and Wisconsin that spans more than 100 years.”

His professional background also includes leadership roles at The Milwaukee Business Journal, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A Milwaukee native who lives in Mequon with his family, Thomas has and currently serves on numerous nonprofit boards, and has been recognized on numerous occasions for his contributions to the community.

Patty Flowers, the prior CEO and Chapter Executive, retired recently after eight-and-a-half years of remarkable growth and collaboration across the five chapters and two biomed territories in the state.

For more information on other Wisconsin Red Cross executives and locations, click here.

Thomas officially starts his leadership role effective Dec. 12, 2018.

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.  

Installing smoke alarms and peace of mind

by Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

For Renee Hovland and Ms. Bowman, volunteers installed peace of mind along with smoke alarms during recent communitywide events.

The two Wisconsin residents welcomed Red Cross volunteers and partners into their respective homes as part of “Sound the Alarm, Save a Life,” a national campaign to reduce injury and death from home fires.

Madison STASAL volunteers prep

Volunteers receive tools, alarms and instruction in Madison at event host, American Family Insurance HQ.

Hundreds of volunteers teamed up with a goal to install 1,400 smoke alarms during separate, daylong events in Milwaukee and Madison. Other cities and counties have or will hold their own installation roundups. (Click here to sign up for a free smoke alarm installed as part of this ongoing campaign.)

During the recent communitywide events in Milwaukee and Madison, Renee and Ms. Bowman shared the stories behind their installations.

‘It means the world to me’
Renee Hovland and her family know firsthand the impact of a house fire.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 11 years ago, a candle burned out of control and “took down our whole house,” she said. Seven fire crews came to the site of their house in McFarland, on the outskirts of Madison, even tapping a neighbor’s pool to help contain the blaze.

The Hovlands – Renee, her husband Eric, their two daughters, plus three dogs and two cats – lost that home and all their possessions. But, they were alive and unscathed. They rebuilt on the same property.

Madison Sound the Alarm install family

Charles installs an alarm at the Hovland house with his family team, Crystal (center) and Samantha.

So, when they received a flyer about the fire department and Red Cross teaming up to install smoke alarms on May 5, Renee made an appointment.

“We had hardwired smoke detectors when we rebuilt and some of them are past the date that they’re still working,” Renee said. “It’s been something that’s bothering me, knowing that don’t have current alarm equipment that’s working. To me, this is a huge deal.”

A volunteer team of four family members installed five smoke alarms in the Hovland house and talked through an escape plan with Eric. As Renee brought their dogs outside to prevent a distraction, she reflected on the sense of security she’s gained from the free installations.

“It means the world to me,” she said. “I honestly can’t afford to buy that many [smoke alarms] and putting them up on a ladder, with my health, I can’t do that. It’s huge, a huge help.”

Donta and Shelly Grasso STASAL Milwaukee 2018.jpg

In his Milwaukee kitchen, Donta Geter, right, talks through a fire escape plan with Red Cross volunteer Shelly Grasso.

‘That’s a blessing’
Donta Geter invited a team of Red Cross volunteers from Marquette University into his family’s majestic, three-story red brick home in Milwaukee’s Cold Spring Park neighborhood on April 28. Donta pointed to a few spots in and around the living room that lacked a working smoke alarm. Then, he helped his grandmother – who introduced herself as “Ms. Bowman” – into the kitchen to establish a fire escape plan with volunteer Shelly Grasso.

Shelly drew an escape map onto a dry erase board with input from Donta and Ms. Bowman, as the other volunteers snaked their way up the home’s back stairwell to install alarms on the second story and in the attic.

“Nope, we don’t have a plan,” said Ms. Bowman. “We were always under the assumption that if there’s a front entrance and a back exit, you go out [of one of those]. But … you might have to go out of one of these windows!”

Milwaukee Sound the Alarm pin 2018Ms. Bowman and Donta talked with Shelly about the best ways to get out in the event of a disaster, and then posted that map on their refrigerator. In the meantime the other volunteers had finished installing three new alarms and replacing another.
Ms. Bowman remarked: “Thank you for all of this. That’s a blessing.”

For more information on the home fire safety campaign – including installation signups and volunteering – click here.