“Show Them That We Care”: Volunteers Detail Unique Roles in Disaster Relief

By Kelsey ShaSha McCarthy, American Red Cross

At the American Red Cross, volunteers donate their time, skills, experience and care to alleviate the suffering of others during a disaster.

Yet no two volunteer departments are the same. And a recent wave of apartment fires brought forth the unique skills and heart volunteers have in our shared mission to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

On Jan. 28, three separate apartment fires – two in Milwaukee and one in Beaver Dam – displaced nearly 400 people in a single day. In an already-busy winter of home fire relief in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan, our local volunteers and some from other states stepped up in their various roles to make sure people in need were taken care of. More than 184 volunteers were involved in those larger scale incidents, with dozens more involved in the every day response and recovery of people across our Region.

Ranjit Verma, right, and volunteer team member Denise Bruneau pick up 130 lunches cooked by Alverno College, to share with people displaced by an apartment fire in Milwaukee.

One of the departments that provides assistance is the Disaster Action Team, or DAT.

Ranjit Verma, a volunteer from Shorewood, has been a DAT member for around two years. When asked how the DAT Team helps clients and their families Ranjit explained that “we respond to people in disaster areas; commonly fire accidents that have taken place in the area.”

Ranjit has always played a volunteer role in his life. Before he joined the Red Cross, he hosted a number of fundraisers and supported local students in his area.

When Ranjit heard about the Red Cross, he knew it was something he wanted to be a part of. He enjoys providing care and comfort to people “who have faced unpleasant situations” and he is glad to be “part of this mission to give to people in need.”

On Feb. 1, Ranjit and other DAT feeding volunteers delivered around 130 prepared meals to guests; he had another meal delivery route the next day. (All told, from one hotel-shelter set up for residents displaced from a Milwaukee apartment fire, volunteers delivered more than 7,000 meals in four-plus weeks.)

The meals consisted of a main course – chicken Caesar wraps, for instance – and a snack. Some guests even had dietary requirements and Ranjit provided diabetic meals to them. 

“I love the one-on-one interaction … saying ‘How is your day?’ provides relief. It brings a lot of smiles and joy and I’m more nervous than the guests sometimes,” he said.

With a knock and a call of “lunches … Red Cross,” Volunteer Terry Mackin brings sandwiches to rooms at a hotel-shelter not far from his home in Milwaukee. Photo by Justin Kern/American Red Cross

After delivering meals to guests, others would be waiting for theirs asking him, “When are you going to reach the third floor?” and “What did you get for us today?” 

However, along with the pleasant conversation, Ranjit also mentioned how guests looked to him for guidance. “It was surprising how much more they needed,” he explained.

They would often ask him about the next steps in their recovery and asked what they could expect next, putting their trust in him and the Red Cross volunteers on his team supporting them. 

Ranjit went on to explain how COVID has impacted his deliveries. He can no longer provide hugs or handshakes to offer comfort and Ranjit says he misses that contact as a way to connect with guests.

Another way volunteers once again answered the immense need was on the Health Services team. Again, on just the one Milwaukee apartment fire, Disaster Mental Health and Health Services provided 4,171 contacts with people for anything from medication prescription refills to talks with a certified counselor.

Jeanne Frey from Binghamton, N.Y. deployed in Milwaukee to assist with client support and prescription needs. Jeanne has served with the Red Cross in Health Services since 2005. As a retired registered nurse, Jeanne explained how she does her part to serve clients.

Jeanne Frey texts to check in with health needs of people displaced by an apartment fire in winter 2021 in Milwaukee. She flew in from Binghamton for two weeks of service in Wisconsin as a Health Services volunteer. Photo by Justin Kern/American Red Cross

“We try to help them move forward in their recovery and work with the community resources,” she said.

Jeanne works with case workers and other Red Cross volunteers as well as pharmacists and doctors to assist her clients.

“We provide food for them and take care of them and their medical needs if necessary … And we can contact the pharmacy where they have their prescriptions refilled and make arrangements to get those replaced if they lost them in a fire … We want them to feel safe.”

Jeanne explained how she enjoys providing the highest quality of care and attention to her clients.

“I come to one of the shelters and I’m available if one of the clients has a health-related need or I try to make myself available for any of their needs,” she said.

And when clients have emergency medical needs, Jeanne and her team act swiftly to provide critical support and ease her clients’ minds.

“As common practice …We will call the pharmacies and pick them up [prescriptions] for the clients if they needed them right away.”

Jeanne mentioned how much her service means to her and she knows how important it is to be there for them and help them through as many of their problems as she can. 

“For me personally I try to put myself in their place … anything that we can do to be supportive, show them that we care, and do whatever we can to help guide them back to some semblance of normalcy,” she said.

When asked about how she got started with the Red Cross back in 2005, Jeanne told about how she was inspired to join when a coworker of hers was already working with the Red Cross and had gone down to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina.

“I was just so touched by his role in providing care for the people down in New Orleans that I said, I think I can do that, too.”

If you or someone you know is thinking of becoming a Red Cross volunteer, please go online to the Red Cross Volunteer Opportunities page and see what area(s) of service might be a great fit for you. You can also find out the top needed volunteer positions at the Red Cross on the Become a Volunteer page.

The Red Cross will provide the necessary training and new volunteers are always encouraged to explore and try out different roles in the various Red Cross Departments to find what they’re most passionate about to help and to help carry out the Red Cross mission to be there when others need it most.

More than 1,000 People Displaced by Fires to Start 2021

Story by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Another 536 people were displaced by home and apartment fires in February in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan, the continuation of a busy and tragic start to American Red Cross relief efforts in 2021.

Apartment fires have been rampant to start 2021. The Red Cross helped 25 people displaced by this fire on N. 25th Street in Milwaukee in February. Photo by Justin Kern/American Red Cross

In the first two months of the year, that total of people affected by approximately 180 residential fires helped by the Red Cross topped 1,054. That total is more than one-quarter of the entire number of people served by the Wisconsin Region of the Red Cross through disasters for all of our previous service year.

Along with a few more home fire fatalities, this start to 2021 was also marked by more large-scale apartment building fires, including: 13 people at an apartment fire in Wisconsin Rapids; 8 people at an apartment fire in Clintonville (Waupaca County); 18 people at an apartment fire in Janesville; 12 people at a multi-unit fire in Kenosha; and 25 people from an apartment fire in Milwaukee (pictured at left). While residential fires affected every corner of Wisconsin and the U.P., nearly half of those in need of services happened in Milwaukee.

At this same time, Red Cross disaster teams continued to provide hotel-sheltering for people displaced by a few incidents that occurred in a single day in late January. As of March 1, there were still 40 people displaced by one of those fires, in the Burnham Park neighborhood of Milwaukee. Concurrent to hundreds of nights of hotel room stays with that Burnham Park fire in the past four-plus weeks, Red Crossers have provided 6,787 meals and 4,147 health/mental health contacts. At one point in early February, the number of people helped in local Red Cross sheltering efforts was second only to Louisiana, where hundreds remain without homes after summer and fall hurricanes.

The Red Cross volunteers “take care of things you didn’t even think about,” said James Fair, a veteran who was among 225 people displaced from that fire, the largest single incident in recent Red Cross service history.

American Red Cross volunteers and Wisconsin Veterans Network collaborate on recovery plans for a number of military veterans put out of their homes by a recent apartment building fire. Photo by Leslie Luther/American Red Cross

Examples of relief support by Red Cross disaster teams at these fires includes aid for temporary lodging at a local hotel, meals, and access to health and mental health resources. Volunteers and staff also work with residents on recovery plans to move forward during the protracted aspects of a home fire, like identifying longer term housing.

The winter season typically brings an increase in residential fires, though our teams have been involved in a higher than usual number of large-scale fires going back to the start of the pandemic. Since March 2020, Red Cross disaster volunteers and staff have been committed to internal and CDC protocols to ensure health and safety measures for everyone involved in our mission.

For a list of home fire essentials and preparedness steps to take with your family today, click here.

Your support brings immediate resources to people in need after a home fire. Thank you for considering a gift to our mission for people affected by fires in our communities.

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.

American Red Cross seeks your community hero nominations for 2021 Brave Hearts honors

MILWAUKEE, Wisc., Nov. 24, 2020 – Do you know a hero living in our community? Someone who has saved a life or whose actions inspire others? Someone who makes southeastern Wisconsin a better place every day?

The Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross is now accepting nominations of inspiring local people for consideration at our 2021 Brave Hearts community heroes event. We’re looking for your nominations of people who have performed or continue to perform heroic acts in 2020 across a handful of categories.

Brave Hearts heroes are being accepted until Jan. 31 in the following categories:

George Koerner was selected as our most recent Military Hero for his passionate work with fellow veterans.
  • Community Safety, Security & Resiliency – use of knowledge, skills or research to provide aid to the life of another
  • Emergency Response – first responder exhibiting heroism on or off-duty, or in an ongoing and extraordinary effort toward community support
  • From the Heart – blood donor or blood drive supporter
  • Military – member of the Armed Forces exhibiting heroism in response to an emergency situation, on or off-duty
  • Youth – involved in a heroic act at 18-years old or younger

Nominees must live, work or the heroic act of courage or kindness must have occurred in one of the following counties: Dodge, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington or Waukesha. A specific heroic act must have occurred in the past year, from Jan. 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2020; an act of courage or kindness can be ongoing or have occurred at a particular time. From the nominees, a committee also selects a lifetime award for the Brave Hearts event.

Nominate a hero before Jan. 31 and find more details here: https://www.redcross.org/local/wisconsin/about-us/news-and-events/events/brave-hearts/brave-hearts-nomination.html

The annual Brave Hearts fundraising gala is slated to be a virtual event in May 2021.

“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.

GF fire Jessie food Jim Robin Berzowski

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.

GF fire COVID April 2020 Jim Robin Berzowski Landmark food pickup

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

    Mark Thomas tests alarm NW STASAL 2019

    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.


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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.