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.

‘This is temporary’: perspective and perseverance power recovery after Menasha apartment building fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jo Ann Harris in a selfie.

Jo Ann Harris stood outdoors in flip flops and comfy clothes amid a Wisconsin winter afternoon, in “total shock” as a police officer told her the building she lives in was on fire.

She had left the apartment that morning for doctor’s appointments, on a seemingly ordinary Wednesday, never dreaming of the doubt and obstacles she’d come home to.

Yet just over a week later, she’s standing strong with the keys to a new apartment – and a newfound appreciation for those organizations that help others, like the American Red Cross.

“There’s so much good I haven’t been able to focus on the down times,” Harris said.

On the afternoon of Jan. 20, fire ripped through the Jefferson Court Apartments, ultimately displacing people from 24 units in the residential building near Jefferson Park in Menasha. In the initial response, Red Cross disaster teams established lodging, meals and immediate needs at a nearby hotel for Harris and nearly 30 other people.

Disaster teams from the American Red Cross at the scene of an apartment building fire in January 2021 in Menasha. Dozens of residents received relief and recovery help from Red Cross and partner agencies. Photo by Tom Nimsgern / American Red Cross

Harris moved into her apartment in 2016, up from Hammond, Ind. near her hometown of Chicago. In Menasha, she found a good career in customer service, and an apartment ideally located next to “beautiful” Lake Winnebago and run by landlords she had started to tease as “like my mother and father in Wisconsin.”

The fire took away that ideal apartment. But Harris has been able to pull a few priceless items from the wreckage – her family photographs central among them – and find perspective parallel to the pain.

“I’ve been really trying to keep it together. It’s a strain,” she said.

“But I’m very grateful, because God has made a way for people that don’t know me to be empathetic and show they care, show a caring spirit. You don’t always find that and the whole world is going through [a pandemic] right now. This happened, this fire, but then people helped, got me in a hotel, you’re eating every day, you’re making a way to move. I’m so grateful.”

Red Cross and a network of local service agencies – LEAVEN, St. Vincent de Paul, United Way, Salvation Army – rallied early on to see what recovery resources may be jointly available, with the future of the Menasha apartment building uncertain.

Your generosity brings relief in times of need to people in our community. Thank you for your support.

Harris has been a big advocate of LEAVEN since she arrived in Menasha and called them “a rock” this past week. In short order, she’s also grown close with Red Cross team members, like Sharon Holt, a volunteer from Combined Locks who has helped her with calls and reconnections to the numerous agencies that become disjointed after something as dire as a home fire.

Harris shows off the keys to a new place, just a week after experiencing a fire.

As Harris talked up getting the keys to a new place in Appleton, she acknowledged the gravity of the whole fire may yet come to her doorstep. She promised to keep moving ahead though, turning up the Marvin Sapp gospel songs when she needs a boost and reminding herself that she’s a witness to that lesson her mother often shared – help others because you, too, may one day need help.

“The representatives of the Red Cross, they give you empathy and they are on the frontline of helping,” Harris said. “Sometimes, we drop all our load on them, like they’re our therapists. I look at them, like, ‘They’re here to help me. They’re giving me their time.’ They helped me realize this is temporary.”

Your support of the American Red Cross enables our disaster teams to bring emergency relief to people like Jo Ann. Thank you for considering a donation to our humanitarian mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air Force veteran gives back to the military as a Red Cross volunteer

By Andrea Azzo, American Red Cross

Wayne MacDonald’s life has been dedicated to serving others. It wasn’t long after he got out of the Air Force when the Wisconsin man decided to volunteer with the American Red Cross.

Now, nearly 34 years later, the Stevens Point man is nearing the end of his stint with the Red Cross. MacDonald is turning 72 years old on Nov. 26. His goal is to continue serving until he reaches the 35-year benchmark with the nonprofit organization.

“The Red Cross is so important with so many different things,” MacDonald said. “Supporting the military side is the biggest thing [for me].”

MacDonald’s volunteerism has been focused Service to the Armed Forces, the department at the Red Cross that helps service members, veterans and their families. He knows firsthand how difficult it can be to transition from the military to civilian life.

MacDonald served for 10 years in the Air Force and for 20 years in the Air Force Reserve. He has been stationed overseas in Turkey, England and Germany; plus in the U.S. at military bases in Alaska and Texas.

When he spent one and a half years in Turkey, MacDonald said he did not know what kind of assistance was available to him. Even today, he says other military families aren’t sure where to go if something happens.

That’s where his work with the Red Cross comes into play. MacDonald’s primary duty includes communicating with military families to make them aware of the support that exists. This includes notifying service members when a loved one back home falls seriously ill or dies.

The Red Cross’ work has evolved over time. When MacDonald began volunteering, letters informed service members. Now the Red Cross puts a service member in touch with military families. 

Most of the time, MacDonald says feedback is positive and communication is fast. Sometimes, families are surprised at how quickly they receive important news.

Other Service to the Armed Forces volunteer opportunities include canteening at veteran Honor Flight celebrations, like this one in May 2019 in Beloit.

The Red Cross of Wisconsin primarily helps service members and veterans within the state, but there have been instances in which other Red Cross chapters have needed Wisconsin’s help. MacDonald says he has helped the Red Cross in Florida when there was a hurricane. He has also covered Minnesota when there was a shortage of volunteers.

MacDonald primarily helps over the phone. (He has never met anyone he has helped face-to-face.)

“The main thing for me is to provide, whatever their need is,” MacDonald said. “Knowing they had a need, through the Red Cross, they got support. That’s the main thing.”

For more on the many ways the Red Cross supports veterans, service members and their families – and to join volunteers like Wayne – click here.

Introducing: Jennifer Clearwater, Regional Philanthropy Officer, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jennifer Clearwater recently joined our fund development team in the Wisconsin Region, bringing a range of philanthropic expertise and a true enthusiasm in connecting supporters with the mission of the American Red Cross.

A few weeks in, and she’s already making connections for people displaced by a Milwaukee apartment building fire, along with no shortage of internal training and on-boarding. We recently invited Jennifer to share answers to a few questions at the start of her Red Cross journey.

What drew you to the mission of the Red Cross?

Clearwater: Working for the Red Cross is sincerely a dream come true. Early in my career, when I knew that I was pursuing fundraising as a profession, I had it in my mind that someday I might be experienced enough to work for the American Red Cross, and now here I am!

I believe the Red Cross is the most important nonprofit in our country, and our country’s most important non-governmental partner. It is truly an honor to be on the team and working with the amazingly generous donors and volunteers who truly make all our services possible. 

Do you have a connection with the Red Cross prior to joining our team? (blood donor, military family, etc.)

Clearwater: Well, my favorite color is red, so there’s that … Our family has been blessed to have never been in a position to have needed the services of the Red Cross, but my husband, brother, and extended members of our family and friends are either currently active military or veterans, so the American Red Cross has always been the organization we knew would be there for them if they found themselves needing assistance domestically or internationally.

I also recently donated blood for the first time – the new Blood Donor app is terrific for scheduling appointments and I highly recommend everyone downloading it if you haven’t already. I was a little nervous going in to my first blood donation, but it was an energizing experience and I’ve already used the Blood Donor app again to schedule my next donation. 

What are some professional high points for you so far?

Clearwater: I’ve been blessed to have had opportunities to raise donations for and leave a positive mark on several important Wisconsin institutions, like Polish Fest, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. Working for the American Red Cross is a dream come true for me; quite frankly, this is the most important job I’ve ever had, and I am delighted to be here at this highly critical time in our nation’s history to support the giving that makes Red Cross donors most fulfilled. 

Coming into the organization during this dramatic time, when we’re dealing with the daily effects of COVID-19 as well as disaster upon disaster has been interesting to say the least. Sort of like jumping onto a moving treadmill that’s set for Olympic gold medal sprinter speed while simultaneously drinking from a firehose … but I wouldn’t have it any other way and have already begun connecting with our generous supporters about the tremendous needs of the times. I’m looking forward to helping them and our volunteers and staff partner their resources to deliver critical services to our fellow ‘Sconnies and Americans today and for many years to come.

Outside of your career, what else would you like people to know about you right out the gates?

Clearwater: Rob – my husband of 27 years – and I are blessed with two healthy, smart, loving, and beautiful daughters, Emily and Paige. We all live in picturesque Port Washington, where I am also humbled to be a volunteer political appointee on our city’s Police and Fire Commission. I additionally have the honor of serving as a volunteer board director for Ozaukee County’s Riveredge Nature Center. 

Reach out to Jennifer on ways to put your generosity into action with the Red Cross at Jennifer.Clearwater@redcross.org

‘It’s a changing experience’: how Wisconsin volunteers are helping families decimated by wildfires in Oregon

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Hundreds of American Red Cross disaster teams have been working with families in crisis for months after a wave of hurricanes and wildfires ravaging the United States. Hillary Wanecke, of Delafield, Wisconsin has been involved with the Red Cross in humanitarian relief since Hurricane Katrina. Last week, she returned from a deployment in Oregon, where deadly wildfires decimated communities.

In this brief conversation, Wanecke shared with us the differences of deploying for disaster relief during a pandemic and the ways she was still able to let reeling families know that they weren’t alone in this battle.

You are someone known around southeast Wisconsin for your work helping people after home fires or other local disasters. But you’ve also deployed to do different types of roles in humanitarian relief after large-scale disasters. Tell me a bit about your role after the wildfires in Oregon and where you were.

Hillary Wanecke, left, was part of a team that checked on affected homes and residents after wildfires in Oregon. Photo by Lynette Nyman / American Red Cross

Wanecke: On this deployment I went out in Disaster Assessment … so I went into areas that had been affected by the wildfire – it had been burning for about two weeks. We went through trying to find out which homes were affected and which weren’t and that is used for the recovery process, so that Red Cross and other agencies can help people with the things they need to recover. A lot of the roads for the addresses we had were closed, some of the assessments started virtually, where we mapped out the locations of the houses based on what the Sheriff’s [Department] said. When the streets opened up after a few days, we drove by these addresses and verified. It seemed like there was a wind storm that just kicked up this fire and people had to evacuate within minutes. They just had to leave everything. That was heart-breaking. I was around the town of Blue River [Oregon], population of about 900 on the McKenzie River. It burned to the ground. There wasn’t one building left, commercial or home in that little community.

You have hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland [in this part of Oregon]. These fires started from the lightning and the wind. At the beginning, around the beginning of September, they thought that they had these fires contained. These communities have existed here for hundreds of years, beautiful backdrops of the mountains and filled with these pristine trees. And the wind picked up, the fires kicked up and they just rolled down. … What was amazing was in some places, one house was standing and the next three houses were ashes. It seems like luck of the draw but no matter who you were, if you were in the path of it, you were really in trouble.

What were some of the homeowners you talked with saying about how they escaped, what they went through to get out?

Wanecke: One guy was very prepared, a younger man who had a satellite phone, a generator. He had kind of organized people in his community of McKenzie Ridge, for water and necessities, his own little help center. His house wasn’t burned. He said he went to sleep that night, knowing there was a wind storm [coming]. He was prepared for that but he thought the power might go out. So, what did he do? He turned off his phone to preserve power. And he woke up and the fire saved his house, but it torched the rest of the community. He was like a lot of people, he went to bed and it was fine and then it escalated to … people had to flee with whatever they had on them.

You’re just thinking that this fire is still going. If the winds changed, if the forecast changed, it wasn’t good.

What were some of the resources you and your Red Cross teams were able to bring people.

In the town of Blue River, Ore., Wanecke, left, and fellow disaster volunteers gathered information used to provide financial and other assistance to hundreds of families who lost everything to wildfires. Photo by Lynette Nyman / American Red Cross

Wanecke: We’ve got this great technology and we were able to go around, find addresses, locate people who had been affected. Then, we were able to share with victims where they could get help. In the aftermath, they left so quickly, they may have been staying in cars, staying with relatives. They were shell-shocked. We were able to connect with people to get them into hotels from the Red Cross, to get them registered that they were affected by this so that they could start a case with us [for potential financial assistance], with FEMA, other agencies. After the initial days, we were doing “hot shot” calls, for people seeking help. We’d get a call from someone who evacuated who’d say, “My house, I’m not sure if it was affected, it’s at this address.” People couldn’t go back in to their communities. And if we hadn’t identified it previously, we’d go out to see the status of the house.

Now, we’re talking with people who are existing volunteers and recruit new volunteers to help with these wildfires and other disasters going on, either in person or virtually. What would you say to someone about the personal reward you find in deploying like this, even with all the considerations?

Wanecke: I was nervous about going out, during the pandemic. But you’re very well covered. The Red Cross has a lot of good training, specialty training related to COVID-19 … We’ve changed procedures during this. We’ve all gotten very good at [Microsoft] Teams and we’re using other technology more smartly. But we pivot where we have to. Some of the cell towers burned so we were doing work back on pen and paper.

It’s a changing experience. The Red Cross sees a need and it finds a way to fill it. If we can’t serve people out of Cambros, those big, red meal containers, we’ll find a way of packaging those meals and getting them to the people. If we can’t have a large congregate shelter in the basement of a church with 200 people, then we’re going to find a hotel and run it like a shelter, to get the people housed and fed. It’s a little different, you’re not hugging people. But you’re still getting information out to people and there are a lot of people who need this help, between the fires, the storms down South, the home fires locally. It’s a mess out there. But we’ve made it work.

Was there a moment you had with someone from Oregon, affected by these wildfires?

Wanecke: This one couple … she had just gotten out of the hospital and was sitting on her walker while her husband took a sieve through the ashes of their trailer home.

We found out from them that they had evacuated and this was their first time back to their trailer, which was in ash. And they had been sleeping in a tent. She was just out of the hospital … [from] a back surgery. When you think it can’t get any worse …

We let them know that they didn’t have to sleep in a tent. We got them in touch with the Red Cross in Eugene [Oregon] and found a hotel room for them and food was being delivered. … [W]hen you’re knocked on your tail with a disaster like that, sometimes common sense can go out the window. You are so overwhelmed. We were able to tell this couple that they didn’t have to do this by themselves.

You can join volunteers like Hillary in a number of roles that help people in need. Find roles for today’s disasters at redcross.org/VolunteerToday

Lloyd Seawright is engaged, busy — and ready for even more

By Nicole Sandler, American Red Cross

It was fifteen years ago around this very time that Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana coast and pummeled the city of New Orleans. Lloyd Seawright, a current American Red Cross volunteer based out of Milwaukee, shares harrowing tales involving several of his family members directly impacted by Katrina.

“My mom is from New Orleans and was living there in 2005 when Katrina hit. Although she was trapped by the storm she survived,” recounted Seawright. “But I lost several family members including my grandmother and my great uncle to the disaster.”

Lloyd Seawright while helping others at a disaster shelter.

His elderly grandmother was living in a convalescent home and couldn’t get out in time. According to Seawright, she actually floated out of the facility and was located through the help of Red Cross ham radio operators. His great uncle was never found.

After experiencing the fear and heartbreak of that natural disaster, Seawright made a vow to himself that one day he would help others who might be in such a situation. And he is making good on his promise.

In 2013 Seawright registered to volunteer with the Red Cross and has jumped at every opportunity to get involved. He’s participated in a range of trainings, all to provide him the chance to respond, help others, and eventually perhaps to save lives.

“I’ve been able to get involved with the Red Cross on many levels all across the board, and I continue to be ready to do whatever is needed of me,” he said.

In the past several years Seawright has responded to the destructive flooding in Burlington and Waterford, as well as the major fire in Bayside last year that displaced more than one hundred residents. He also participated in Red Cross fundraising campaigns to support the recovery from Hurricane Florence’s devastation in 2018.

You can be a hero to veterans, families displaced by fire, blood donors and more. Join our volunteer teams. Find the volunteer opportunity for you at redcross.org/volunteer.

Seawright explains that he enjoys his Red Cross volunteer work because it provides him with the continuous opportunity to learn and operate within the ranks of the Red Cross. He appreciates the education he’s gained and the chance to work across different teams in different ways – from sheltering and fundraising to lifesaving and disaster response. The one major box he has yet to check is deployment. Seawright’s training and skills are matched by his desire to one day deploy to a national or international disaster site.

Lloyd Seawright gives two-thumbs up after a smoke alarm installation event in 2019.

Seawright’s non-volunteer work keeps him busy, and there’s a common thread across his various activities. A former member of the Marine Corps Reserve; he demonstrates a call to duty in everything he pursues. By day he works in emergency management where he instructs and evaluates individuals training to become EMTs. He’s also passionate about his job as a lifeguard at Atwater Beach, a public beach located on the shore of Lake Michigan in Shorewood, Wisc. His medical training, lifesaving and open water skills make him especially suited for that work.

When asked his thoughts regarding the current global pandemic, Seawright expresses concern for the toll it is taking on mental health. The isolation factor many are experiencing is particularly troubling.

“I’m not a doom and gloom kind of person,” he said, “but I do worry about how the loss of normal milestones like going back to school or celebrating birthdays and weddings with friends will impact many people, especially kids.”

For now, Seawright continues to stay optimistic and focus on the Red Cross volunteer activities that come his way. And more than anything, he looks forward to getting the call to deploy to serve as a Red Cross volunteer on a national mission.

You’re invited: virtual fundraising gala brings everyone together over southeastern Wisconsin heroes, Red Cross mission

MILWAUKEE, Wisc., May 4, 2020 – The 2020 Brave Hearts fundraising gala has gone virtual! Our signature spring fundraising event will now be hosted online, with free access to inspirational stories of heroes from southeast Wisconsin as well as fun opportunities to support the humanitarian mission of the American Red Cross.

This one-of-a-kind virtual event kicks off at 7 p.m. CST, Thursday, May 14 and lasts through Thursday, May 21. Each day is packed with hero stories, tantalizing auction items and new ways to back the Red Cross mission. Attendance for this virtual event is free, with plenty of exciting chances to boost the life-saving work of the Red Cross.

WI-Brave-Heart-Virtual=Event-1920x720Chosen across a handful of categories, honorees at this year’s Brave Hearts represent the best in spirit, service and action in our communities. The 2020 heroes are:

Rachel Nelson – Adult Good Samaritan Hero

Eva Welch & Shelly Sarasin (Street Angels) – Community, Safety, Security & Resiliency Hero

Milwaukee Fire Department Lt. Mike Ball – From the Heart Hero

George Koerner – Military Hero

Darnell Easterly, David Easterly & DeAngelo Lee (All4Kidz) – Youth Good Samaritan Heroes

Melinda Schultz – Hero of the Year

Brave Hearts is made possible by incredible, generous support from organizations in southeast Wisconsin. Lead supporters this year include Northwestern Mutual, Nicholas Company, Molson Coors, Johnson Controls and State Farm. All proceeds benefit the programs and people helped by the Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross.

You can also show your support in this fun, interactive and free week-long event. Sign up by clicking here and make sure to share on your social media platforms.

Questions on sign up or getting involved? Contact our events specialist Jen Allen at Jennifer.allen5@redcross.org.

About the American Red Cross
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org, or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

“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.

GF fire Jessie Austin chair ONE

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.

‘You Don’t Know How Much Better I Feel Now’: Volunteer Kathy Markgraf Calls In with an Update from Puerto Rico

Interview by Justin Kern, American Red Cross / Photos from Puerto Rico by Scott Dalton, American Red Cross

Kathy Markgraf is one of our very special American Red Cross volunteers in Wisconsin. After a successful career shaping the lives of teens as a Spanish teacher, she joined our volunteer teams with a specialty in connecting with Spanish-language families affected by disaster. Markgraf, of Lodi, brings an invaluable mix of compassion and language skills to families experiencing home fires and other tragedies.

Kathy MarkgrafIn mid-January, Markgraf brought her casework skills to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico after rounds of earthquakes shook the island. (She also deployed to Puerto Rico twice for similar work after Hurricane Maria.)

On Jan. 22, Markgraf took a moment from her evening to share a sliver of her experiences so far in helping people after the ongoing earthquakes in Puerto Rico. An edited version of her conversation appears below.

Where is your base of operations right now?

San Juan, but Mayaguez is where we stayed last night and we’ve been told we may move to that [western] part of the island in the next couple of days. The [Red Cross] mental health and health services teams are already operating in that area … it’s a lot closer to where things are happening.

Are you familiar with that are from when you went there a few years ago?

Yeah … after Hurricane Maria, the first time [I was deployed] I was based in San Juan and we traveled all over the island. The second time, I was down in Ponce, which is part of the area affected by the earthquake, though not the very center of it … It’s like going full circle for me, because I’m going to so many places I went to before, but they look so much better than they did … after the hurricanes. The one that hit me really hard: it used to be, as you drive out of San Juan toward the south coast, you drive over the mountains and you can see down to the coast to … an area near Santa Isabel where the windmills are set out onto the water and they were never working. A couple of days after we got here, we were driving over the ridge of the mountains and there were about 20 windmills and they were turning. It was cool to see the improvement.

Puerto Rico Earthquake 2020

Red Crosser Grace connects Miriam with her cousin, who she has not spoken with in years. Miriam and her husband Jose have been sleeping in a van outside of their home since the earthquakes began. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross – Utuado, Puerto Rico, Jan. 23, 2020

The footprint of this operation is probably considerably smaller than we originally thought. It’s a relatively small area … what is really affecting people is the fear. There are buildings and homes that are damaged close to where the quakes are. But, through a large area of the southern part of the island, you’ll sometimes feel the quakes. There hasn’t been anything big like there was, most of them run … 3.0 to 4.0, but there hasn’t been one over 5.0 for a week or so. But they happen a lot. Maybe 20 times a day.

What has been your experience as a Midwesterner with this particular type of natural disaster?

It’s not something we experience [in Wisconsin]. … I’ve never been in a big one. Here … you’ll be leaning against a railing and it’ll start [shaking] and your knees will wobble a little. They don’t last terribly long but because they’re so common, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who will not sleep in their homes at night, because they’re terrified by it. … There are dozens of informal camps that have opened up. They pitch tents, people drive by at night and sleep in their cars. There are the formal government shelters, in stadiums or basketball courts. There are also base camps that have been set up and some of those are several hundred people at a crack, run by the National Guard. What is cool to see is that, after [Hurricane] Maria, the whole island was devastated, they couldn’t help each other [because of widespread power, communications and travel challenges]. Now, that it’s a part of the island, it’s churches, community groups, people in the communities are getting together and collecting stuff – diapers, cases of water – and over the weekend they were coming in with convoys … of tents and air mattresses or games for the kids at these informal camps …

Mentioning the fear earlier, the people you’re interacting with as part of the Red Cross, how are you helping them to bring resources and alleviate some of that fear?

Puerto Rico Earthquake 2020

Mexican Red Cross volunteer offers Tailianis a hug at a makeshift tent camp. The Red Cross has more than 180 trained disaster workers on the island, supporting shelters and helping to care for more vulnerable populations such as the elderly and children. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross – Guánica​, Puerto Rico, Jan. 20, 2020

What my team has been doing, particularly our mental health people and spiritual care people – there are a lot of those volunteers already here in Puerto Rico – they’ve been going place to place, daily. There is a lot of psychological first aid from us and our mental health [workers] are very, very involved. It’s probably one of the greatest needs they have here at this point. … For about the first week, our [casework] team was doing a community assessment, where we drove into all of the affected areas and gradually eliminated areas that didn’t have a lot of need and particularly looked for these small informal camps. We met with community leaders and tried to assess, with an emphasis on elderly who may not being served, maybe people living alone, people who were bed-ridden, trying to locate what kinds of needs there were. We found that communities were checking on people and they could give us a lot of that information. But in the camps we’d go in and talk with them. One day I talked with a guy and he and his wife weren’t staying at the camp, but they came by every day and spent time there. They lived in the neighborhood. We just chatted for maybe five minutes. And when I was leaving he said, ‘You don’t know how much better I feel now.’ I was a caseworker just chatting with him, I wasn’t a [disaster mental health volunteer]. But they have so much confidence in the Red Cross, just seeing us there in our vests and stopping to … see how they’re doing, you can just see it makes them feel better.

What’s your team look like?

There are four of us deployed as Red Cross caseworkers. Two of us are Red Cross staff, one from Indiana and one from California, and two are volunteers, myself and one from Arizona. But beyond that we’ve been working with a lot of the local volunteers [from Cruz Roja Americana Capitulo de Puerto Rico]. In our team … one member was born and raised in Puerto Rico, one is from a Puerto Rican family … and I consider myself pretty bilingual at this point. I studied in college and spent most of my life as a Spanish teacher … at Poynette [High School], just north of Madison. Spanish is what took me to the Red Cross.  I retired and I said, ‘I have spent most of my life using Spanish to touch lives. What do I do now?’ And that took me to the Red Cross.

DISASTER COUNSELING/SUPPORT To reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.

EARTHQUAKE SAFETY You can find valuable information on how to be safe before, during and after an earthquake here.

RECONNECT WITH LOVED ONES The Red Cross has two easy ways to help people reconnect. The Red Cross Emergency App features an “I’m Safe” button that allows users to post a message to their social accounts to let friends and family know that they are out of harm’s way. The Red Cross also offers the Safe and Well website, safeandwell.org, which is a private and more secure option. It allows people to list their own status by customizing a message for their loved ones or selecting pre-scripted messages.

HOW YOU CAN HELP You can help people affected by the Puerto Rico Earthquakes by texting the word EARTHQUAKES to 90999 to make a $10 donation or indicating this disaster on the donation form on redcross.org, and printing and mailing to your local Red Cross chapter. The Red Cross honors donor intent, and all designated funds will be used to support the affected communities in Puerto Rico through emergency relief, recovery and preparedness efforts.