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.  

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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.

Historic Fundraising Concert to Benefit Disaster Victims

UMOS, Dist. 12 Alderman José G. Pérez and El Conquistador

Newspaper to Co host: HISTORIC FUNDRAISING CONCERT TO BENEFIT DISASTER VICTIMS featuring Multiple Grammy Winner and Living Legend Eddie Palmieri & his Latin Jazz Ensemble in a unique once-in-a-lifetime concert performance with local salsa musicians and a special appearance by Afro-Puerto Rican Jazz Virtuoso Dr. William Cepeda direct from Loiza, Puerto Rico. 

International and Locally known Puerto Rican Artists unite and donate their services to raise funds to aid victims of Hurricane Maria and Mexico Earthquakes

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (October 13, 2017) – UMOS, together with 12th District Alderman Jose G. Perez, and Publisher Victor Huyke will welcome Grammy Winner, Music Icon and Living Legend Eddie Palmieri & his Latin Jazz Ensemble in a special benefit performance to raise funds for victims of the natural disasters in Puerto Rico and Mexico on Saturday, October 28, 2017 10:00pm at the Potowatomi Hotel & Casino- Woodland Dreams Ballroom, 1721 W. Canal Street, Milwaukee, WI 53233. ALL ticket proceeds will be donated to charity thanks to the generosity of Mr. Palmieri, his sidemen, and all of the participating artists and volunteers.

FlyerMike

The recent catastrophic natural disasters in Central America and the Caribbean have directly impacted friends and families of many residents of Milwaukee County and Southeastern Wisconsin. An important humanitarian effort to aid victims has emerged from high profile musicians who are donating their time, talent and artistry to provide a dynamic entertainment experience while generating much needed monetary funds. The City of Milwaukee was honored to be the recipient of legendary musician Eddie Palmieri’s offer to donate 100% of his services on a precious Saturday evening time slot together with local and regional musicians in order to send aid directly to victims. Mr. Palmieri, winner of 10 Grammy Awards, an NEA Jazz Master Award-America’s highest honor for lifetime achievement in Jazz, is currently on a national tour entitled: “EP @ 80” celebrating his 80th birthday with innovative new music and a selection of classic hits most of which have become anthems throughout the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia. A volunteer committee of artists, elected officials, educators, and community activists quickly mobilized to produce and market the event. All three event co-hosts have a distinguished record of providing outstanding leadership and support to underserved communities. UMOS, a leading nonprofit community based advocacy agency has generously offered to support this humanitarian fundraiser and concert which follows its acclaimed annual Hispanic Awards Banquet scheduled to take place earlier that evening in an adjacent ballroom. The Palmieri Concert will take place promptly at 10 p.m. in the Woodland Dreams Ballroom of the Potowatomi Hotel & Casino, 1721 W. Canal Street, Milwaukee, WI 53233. Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended. Advance tickets available online at: www.eddiepalmiericoncertforprmx.mivoz.com. Donations will also be taken at the door and a select number of Special Discount Coupons will be available on a first come- first served basis to all patrons who attend the UMOS Hispanic Awards Banquet. A VIP package is available with premium seating and perks which include a private meeting with the artists, and signed poster or CD. All proceeds will go to the American Red Cross whose representatives will be on-hand to meet and share information about their relief efforts. It is anticipated that one or two actual Red Cross volunteers who are serving currently in Puerto Rico will be on hand to describe first hand accounts of relief efforts on the island.

Ticketing // Admission: Seating capacity is limited. Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended. Minimum advance donation is $40.00. Special VIP package $150.00 includes premium reserved seating, private meet and greet with artists and complimentary signed CD or Poster while supplies last. ONLINE TICKET PURCHASE AT: www.eddiepalmiericoncertforprmx.mivoz.com.

The event organizers and artists have set a minimum goal of $25,000.00 for disaster relief. All proceeds donated to: The American Red Cross. Thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation. Artist websites: www.eddiepalmierimusic.com www.williamcepeda.com

Attorney Michael Reyes, event coordinator: 414-350-5522 michaelreyesmusic@gmail.com

Greenfield’s Life-Saver Receives National Award

At only 11 years-old, Abram Suminski of Greenfield, Wisconsin, is a official recipient of the American Red Cross Certificate of Merit for selfless and humane action in saving a life. This is the highest award given by the Red Cross to an individual or team of individuals who saves or sustains life by using skills and knowledge learned in the American Red Cross Preparedness, Health and Safety Services courses.

When Abram Suminski was learning first aid basics in an American Red Cross Babysitter’s training course, I doubt he knew how quickly he’d be putting them to use in a real-life situation. Good thing he was prepared though when his younger brother, Logan, was in need. Shortly after, the brothers were playing in their grandmother’s basement when Logan started to choke on a piece a candy. Abram saw his brother turning purple and jumped into action to perform abdominal thrusts. His quick actions dislodged the piece of candy from Logan’s throat, saving his life!

Abram’s instructor from the Babysitter’s training course heard of his life-saving story, and she, along with the Greenfield Rec. Department (where the training took place), nominated Abram for the Red Cross Certificate of Merit, which is signed by the President Barack Obama, who is the Honorary Chairman of the American Red Cross!

abram-suminski

Abram Suminski holding his award with the help of his younger brother, Logan.

On Tuesday night at the Greenfield Common Council Meeting, Abram received the Red Cross Certificate of Merit. The Mayor of Greenfield, Michael J. Neitzke, and local Red Cross CEO, Patty Flowers, had the honor of presenting the award to Abram. In attendance, were some very special guests including Abram’s family, the vice principle of his school, his Red Cross instructor and the Greenfield Fire Department.

If you’re thinking about signing up for a Red Cross training course, don’t hesitate – be prepared! Information about the Red Cross Babysitting course, First Aid, CPR/AED and other training courses are available at redcross.org/takeaclass.

To see live action watch the Fox 6 news clip!

 

Milwaukee Volunteer Tackles the Logistics of Disasters on Month-Long Deployment to Missouri

By Max Seigle, American Red Cross Public Affairs Volunteer

It’s a role you don’t always see in the headlines when it comes to American Red Cross disaster help. But if you ask volunteer, Phyllis Wiggins, she’ll tell you Logistics is vital to ensure clients get help.

PHYLLIS WIGGINS PICTURE

Red Cross volunteers, Phyllis Wiggins and Megan Besset, on deployment in St. Louis, MO.

“We get you the people, places and things you need to be successful on the operation,” Wiggins said in a recent interview with Red Cross Public Affairs.

Wiggins, of Milwaukee, spent a month helping with flood disaster relief in the St. Louis area. She left in late December and served as a Logistics Manager at the Red Cross headquarters in the city.

“If you need a 26-foot truck to load things around, Logistics gets that for you,” Wiggins said.

Requests also included more basic things, like food, bleach, gloves and comfort items for children staying at Red Cross shelters.

“We actually had to go out and make a run for coloring books and crayons,” she said.

Wiggins said Logistics plays a big role in securing locations for shelters and assistance centers during disaster relief. She explained the Red Cross works with community partners to find places, like schools, churches and office buildings. The Red Cross also had its own technology team to equip those facilities. On her deployment to St. Louis, Wiggins said churches, especially, rose to the occasion to offer space. She was also amazed with additional support from corporate donors.

“I’ve been on some operations where people were just begging for help – just trying to dig up that big truck stuff. Here, it was just never an issue,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins recalled one day where a fellow Wisconsin Red Cross volunteer, Megan Besset, was on the phone working to get meals for the mission. What came next was a major delivery, and all of it donated.

“All of a sudden we had food from Popeyes, White Castle, pizza, Italian…” she said.

Wiggins worked about eight to 11 hours a day on her deployment. She was even on the ground New Year’s Eve and Day.

“If you’re doing good as the year rolls over, then the year is going to be good for you,” Wiggins said.

It’s clearly “Mission First” for Wiggins. And serving behind the scenes in Logistics is a role she’s happy to take on with a humble nature.

“It’s more important that people get help, that they feel safe, that they feel take care of,” Wiggins said.

“That is much more important than getting a slap on the back or a Thank You.”

Thank you Phyllis for proudly representing the American Red Cross in Missouri.

This month, the American Red Cross has many volunteer opportunities, including becoming a disaster responder, supporting military troops, and many more. Red Cross volunteers are united by their service and the feeling that in changing others’ lives, their lives are also changed. To learn more, visit redcross.org/volunteer or contact the office of Volunteer Resources at volunteerwisconsin@redcross.org.

No April Fool’s Day Joke

We are proud of our American Red Cross responders! Here’s just a brief one-day recap:

  • For a large apartment building fire on S. Cesar E Chavez Drive in Milwaukee, we opened a shelter for residents displaced by fire. Many of whom, had to jump to a neighboring buildings before being rescued by fire fighters. We are now working one-on-one with them to address emergency needs and longer term living solutions as the building is, now, rubble.
  • An apartment building fire in Taylor (Jackson County) has taken the life of an elderly gentleman. We are assisting survivors with lodging, food, clothing and emotional support during this difficult time.
  • We also responded to fires in Sheboygan County and to a family of six in Cudahy (Milwaukee County) after fire destroyed their homes too.
  • Altogether 32 people have been assisted with their immediate disaster-caused needs.
  • National Deployments! Three of our trained responders, Brenda Haney of Deforest and Cheryl and Doug Mason of Chippewa Falls, are deploying to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

 “It is days like today that leave me in awe at the dedication of wonderful volunteers and staff who give so much of their time and energy to help people in need. They respond day and night, rain or shine, to bring help and hope to so many. If you run into a disaster volunteer or staff member in the next few days please thank them for what they do.” Marytha Blanchard, WI Disaster Officer

Doug and Cheryl Mason are Oklahoma bound!

Doug and Cheryl Mason are Oklahoma bound!

Welcome Alex Lombard – Volunteer Specialist, American Red Cross Southeast Wisconsin

College Headshot - Alex LombardThe Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross is proud to announce the addition of Alex Lombard to the Volunteer Services Department. In his role as a Volunteer Specialist he will be primarily focused on the recruitment, onboarding, and placement process for volunteers throughout the Southeast portion of the state.  Alex comes to the Red Cross after successfully working in another segment of the non-profit world. He is passionate about community service and has hands on experience recognizing the untapped skills individuals from all walks of life, then placing them in positions to flourish.

Originally from Boston, MA., Alex is the son of David and Barbara Lombard. Early on in high school Alex discovered his passion for volunteerism; working as an after school tutor, in transport services at a local hospital, and participating in multiple service trips. Alex found his way to Wisconsin first to attend Marquette University, where he earned a B.A. degree in Social Welfare and Justice. Alex explains, “in college I got started right away with volunteering through various channels at the university. When it came time to choose a major, it just seemed to make the most sense for me to study something that applied to how I was already spending my free time.”

Prior to the American Red Cross, Alex was working as an Employment Consultant with Creative Employment Opportunities, Inc. (CEO), a non-profit in Milwaukee focused on providing employment support to individuals with disabilities in the community. In his role, Alex worked directly with job seekers to develop systems and accommodations for success in the workplace. Likewise, Alex formed many strong relationships with local businesses, consulting them on best practice hiring methods to promote diversity and inclusivity.

“Volunteering not only taught me so much over the years but shaped my entire career goal. It is extremely exciting to me that as a volunteer specialist with the Red Cross I can put others in touch with the same rewarding experiences.”

 

Service Leaders Conference Military Letter Writing Campaign Leader - Alex