Gift of A Lifetime

During the holiday season there is much to be thankful for as we gather with loved ones, participate in traditions and winter festivities, and search for the perfect gifts to give to family and friends. However, there are some gifts that are less tangible than others. Tacy Fleener from Alexandria, Minnesota, describes her recent deployment to the Red Cross disaster relief response to Superstorm Sandy in New York City, and the special “gift of a lifetime” she received.

Red Cross disaster relief volunteer worker Tacy Fleener. (File photo: American Red Cross)

Tacy has been with the Red Cross for 30 years as the first national responder out of Douglas County. She started at 16 years old, teaching swimming lessons and CPR training. Later on, with the help of her husband, she got the local Red Cross chapter in Alexandria up and running with different classes and opportunities of involvement for local community members. Her heart is most passionate about disaster relief and being of use during times of great need.

During past deployments, Tacy  specialized in mass care shelter management and hands-on experience. However, this deployment was a different involvement; one that was also very intense but rewarding. Tacy’s job was behind the scenes to guide volunteers through the deployment process. She would enter these volunteers into data bases and designate hotel rooms to keep track of individuals during their deployment.

Tacy expertly handled stress the minute she arrived on site, “Things were chaotic when I got there, my job was to try to keep the peace with the hotels we had under contract. I played detective to try to spend Red Cross’ money the right way, while making sure that volunteers were where they needed to be, with places to stay.”

“Just to see the need I had been hearing about with individual faces and stories kept me motivated throughout my deployment. It was easy to see that the distribution process was very difficult. People on the distribution team were bringing supplies to outskirt areas, such as Stanton Island where 12,000 people are still without power.” She remembers that distribution volunteers are overwhelmed with the need. One story that impacted her life was one gentleman leading a distribution team. She recalls, “He had just got back from Staten Island where he had been sleeping on pallets for two weeks. He looked like death warmed over and I thought to myself, oh wow, we need to find a hotel for this guy so he can rest and get cleaned up.”

Josh Holper card
A “thank you” from Josh Holper and his friends to the Red Cross. (Photo credit: Sue Gonsior/American Red Cross)

Though rooms were in a shortage in Stanton Island during this time, various New York hotels were gracious and gave American Red Cross a block of discounted rooms. This is an example of a reoccurring theme of camaraderie and teamwork throughout the east coast disaster relief. Even with support and understanding, every day was mentally and emotionally stressful. “We spent 12-14 hours a day keeping track of hotels to try to save the Red Cross as much money as possible,” says Tacy. “Every volunteer constantly gave it their all and was very supportive. Thanksgiving was especially a wonderful time to be volunteering; we had the opportunity to make sure that people had a Thanksgiving dinner. Citizens were very appreciative and it was neat to spend Thanksgiving by giving back to this community. To hear someone say ‘thank you’ was wonderfully rewarding.”

Volunteering during this disaster is a constant 24/7 job, without many breaks, yet Tacy says she would do it again in a heartbeat. “I love the Red Cross, the volunteers, the people I meet. Everyone that is there wants to make a difference. Even when you had been working 12-14 hours a day, you just go and give a big hug to each other and say thank you.”

Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf , Ed Newman (c) and Sue Buelow, in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.
Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf, Ed Newman and Sue Buelow in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.

Thank you’s and appreciation can go a long way. The American Red Cross Northern Minnesota would like to extend its gratitude to Tacy and more than 100 relief workers who have donated, volunteered or been involved with the Red Cross mission to reduce human suffering during the Sandy disaster response on the east coast.

Tacy hopes her experience encourages others to volunteer. “Just to meet one person who says thank you brightens my whole day. It really helps me when I come back home to Minnesota; to appreciate what I have; to appreciate helping others in a time of need. It fills my heart to be able to give back by doing something truly important. I know my whole heart is into it when I’m there. I know the other volunteers feel the same way, young and old. I recommend that anyone become a Red Cross volunteer–it’s an experience of a lifetime. Make the time, take some classes and experience the opportunity to give back to others, because you never know when you will need it yourself. Some of the friends you meet will touch your heart for a lifetime.”

Click here to find out more about how you can help with Superstorm Sandy relief this holiday season and give the gift of a lifetime.

Story by Megan Barnes/American Red Cross

Remembering Sandy: “Minnesota, I got your back”

Red Cross responder Sue Buelow is back from New Jersey where she helped with Superstorm Sandy disaster relief efforts. Below, Sue looks back.

The very beginning was a lot of trying to figure out the response system and getting used to hurry up and wait. But soon after arriving I was assigned to supervising special field teams doing “seek and serve” emotional support and traveling to Moonachie, Newark, Jersey City, Toms River and nearby damaged communities.

Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.
Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.

I learned a few things along the way: 1) speed limit signs are a suggestion, 2) many cities are not on a map, 3) there are few places that allow left turns, 4) be thankful for clean clothes; and 5) they love Minnesotan accents there!

The work was hard emotionally and physically. My first partner had to return home to California for health reasons. Then, for the next 12 days I had the pleasure of partnering with Lizzie Kampf, a new “just-in-time”  disaster mental health responder who was also from the Twin Cities. It felt like we’d known each other a lifetime. I was sad to see Lizzie leave before I finished my final week there. I didn’t know what I’d do without her driving the truck — she took on the persona of a New York cab driver quite naturally.

Lizzie and I went to New Jersey’s upper Barrier Island as the residents returned to see their homes, or absence of, for the first time. The devastation to the townships there was beyond words. The water and sand was 4-5 feet deep and the waves were up to 12 feet high.  The stories of the emergency medical services (EMS) workers and residents who rode out the storm there were frightening. We bonded with these communities and it was not unusual to hear “Hey,  Minnesota….” My last contact with one of the EMS workers that had been struggling was “Minnesota, I got your back.”

Being there when the residents saw their condemned or empty lot of debris was indescribable as they collapsed into my arms, sobbing and needing a “Minnesota hug.” We helped look for mementos in the debris, from small things to stones of a child’s hand and foot prints. We were there for those in shock who couldn’t think to pack up some clothes. Listening to them tell their stories and showing us their homes or pictures was moving.

I certainly have received a great gift from the same people: I believe I have helped them. I am blessed to have had a small part of their lives and in their recovery from this disaster. I will always remember my time spent there.

Sue returned home a few days ago. She is among more than 100 Red Cross disaster relief workers (mostly volunteers) from Minnesota who have responded to Sandy.

Fearless and possibly foolish

Red Cross volunteer Claudia Kelly, on the  ground responding to Superstorm Sandy, sends us “Greetings from New York City”:

I’m halfway through my third week on this operation. I started in Mass Care Sheltering, and was sent to manage a shelter in Glen Cove, Nassau County, Long Island during and immediately after the storm. I had the chance to work with some fabulous people there. Our shelter population stayed small, ranging from 3 to 18 residents, but many community members stopped by during the day to charge their phones and to escape their powerless and increasingly cold homes. A group of Seniors joined us to eat one afternoon (this was a few days into my super effective all-cold-sandwich diet), and they had so much fun that several of them registered as shelter guests and proceeded to stay up all night laughing, chatting, and watching DVDs.

It’s a small Red Cross world: Claudia Kelly (right) bumped into Choua Yang (left), another disaster responder from Minnesota, while working at the Red Cross headquarters in New York City. (Seeing friends during disaster response is nice.)

Later, some shelter consolidation took place and I joined the staff of an 800-resident mega shelter at the Nassau County Community College just before Election Day. The state Board of Elections brought in absentee ballots for the residents, and Best Buy provided TVs, computers and WiFi hotspots so they could follow the election results. (Over at the staff shelter, we were all just exhausted and went right to sleep.) The mega shelter had many other amenities as well: a free laundry service, a medical clinic, a cell phone charging and loan station, and a supervised children’s play area. Nevertheless, a population that large is chaotic. Several residents were transferred to hospitals, including one in full labor who gave birth to a baby boy (+1 to shelter count since Mom was still registered!).

After two weeks in Sheltering I transferred to Client Casework, which is based out of Operation Headquarters at the New York City Red Cross office building.  I’ve been on Staten Island for the past few days representing the Red Cross at a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center near the shore.  There was a tremendous amount of damage there, and our presence seems meaningful as a validation of the incredible loss the community has suffered. I am being sent to a different area tomorrow, as I am among the fearless and possibly foolish few who are willing to take on New York City driving, and another team’s driver is having a day off. Traffic here is truly abysmal, as some of the tunnels remain closed, and many streets in Lower Manhattan are clogged with recovery trucks and trailers.  But that’s only half the fun: New York City drivers are an aggressive lot. I’m working on my swerve technique in hopes that defensive driving becomes an Olympic sport in Rio in 2016.

Hope to see you all soon back in Minnesota.


Sandy Postcard From Choua

Greetings from Greater New York, Superstorm Sandy Aftermath Followed by Nor’easter, November 7, 2012

Hello from Greater New York,

I’ve been going out doing Disaster Assessment (DA). There are so many homes affected and or destroyed by the storm. DA is on hold right now due to the snow mix with rain. Based on the data that we collected, upper managements are planning to deliver supply of goodies to those affected areas. Yesterday, I went to eat with my team and our server asked where we were from. One of the teammates told her that we are with Red Cross and the server just broke down and cried. She was very grateful and happy that we were there for her community. She thanked us for leaving our families and friends to come help out.  It was such an amazing experience  with this disaster response so far. I am so happy and proud to be Red Crosser!!!


Choua Yang is one of 5,700 or so Red Cross disaster relief workers responding to Superstorm Sandy. (Around 50 are from Minnesota.) 90 percent of Red Cross responders are volunteers. You can help support Red Cross humanitarian disaster relief.

We agree with Pawpaw: Storms Affect Families

Ed “Pawpaw” Semmes and granddaughter Corrie Lee, in Picayune, Mississippi, after Hurricane Isaac. Photo & story credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Disaster responders from our Northern Minnesota Red Cross region are home from Hurricane Isaac. Everyone returned safe, exhausted, and rewarded with the gift of helping people during a time of need.

People like Edward “Pawpaw” Semmes, 62, and his granddaughter Corrie Lee, 5. Ed’s family received food and a clean-up kit from the Red Cross once it was safe to return to his neighborhood in Picayune, Mississippi. With his household contents piled high on the lawn, Semmes recalled that they had about five minutes to escape because the water came from “the north, the south, the east, and the west. It came from all four directions.” Inside the house, his son-in-law pulled up ruined flooring. Ed easily kicked in sodden sheetrock. “We understand what others went through because we went through it.”  Only in recent days did he break down and cry. Before he was too stressed about taking care of his family, something he’s always done with great pride, but he was concerned for them, their lost belongings, and the uncertainty of where they’d live. Thankful for Red Cross assistance, Ed (or Pawpaw), said “storms affect families–that’s what it gets down to.”

Red Cross Rick and Karen Campion were among the volunteers who responded to Hurricane Isaac. Image provided courtesy of the Campions.

The Red Cross recognizes this truth. We are grateful to everyone within our Northern Minnesota Region who helped–and continue to help–families along the Gulf Coast. A special thanks to local volunteers who worked on this disaster relief response: Mark, Margaret, Marie, Catherine, Mark, Diane, Marty, Dave, Hildred, Judy, Dick, Amanda, Karen, Rick, Harriet, John, Gordie, David, Claudia, Greta, Steve, Richard, Kris, Susan, Debbie, Eric, Brent and Marian.

Click here and learn more about the Red Cross response to Isaac or about how to get involved with the Red Cross.

Story by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross


Red Cross Pugsley?

The other day while riding along the Minneapolis Grand Rounds bike path, we stumbled across Blaine Mogren. He loves bikes. He looooooooves bikes. Among the bikes in his collection is this fine (pictured left) Surly Pugsley. He has six of them. This particular one he calls Fire Engine Pugsley. We can see why. For starters, its BRIGHT RED. It also has loud horns,  flashing lights, and a fire-fighter rubber duck. And crosses, white ones (like on the Swiss flag). After a minute of chit-chat with Blaine this thought emerges: let’s make a Red Cross Pugsley!

After all, the Pugsley is (via Wikipedia) revolutionary: In 2005, Surly began selling the Pugsley, the first mass-produced mountain bike with extremely large volume tires, up to 4 inches wide, for deep snow and sand riding. The front and rear wheels share a common hub size and can be interchanged, allowing for additional gearing combinations. Noted bicycle technical authority Sheldon Brown said, “Pugsley is, in its way, as revolutionary as the original mountain bikes were in the early 1980s.” Bicycling Magazine wrote, “It’s not ideal for everyday use, but it can handle a wide variety of demands and conditions well.” Let’s repeat that last bit: a “wide variety of demands and conditions.” Sooooooooo, that could include disaster response in your hometown (or ours where it snows for months except last winter).

Tell us, what do you think? What would your Red Cross Pugsley look like? Would it be red with white? Or white with red? Would you have side bags for water and snacks that you would distribute to people affected by disasters or those responding to them? …..

Story and photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross


Three Cheers for Paul!

So, the other day, this young man named Paul van Vliet stops by Red Cross offices in Minneapolis and drops off comfort kits for kids. How cool is that? He (Paul) comes up with his own project idea (making comfort kits for kids) and provides them (the kits) to us (Red Cross) so that our disaster relief workers can give the kits to kids affected by disasters (like fires, floods, & tornadoes).

Now, let’s give some credit to us (Red Cross) because we came up with the original comfort kits for adults and children idea, but we rely on motivated and generous peeps like Paul to make this kits and help reduce the suffering of people who escape burning buildings or high waters. Paul’s dad John was on hand for the comfort kits for kids drop off. He took a fine photo of his son Paul (top & bottom) and then sent us a nice note (excerpt below left).

“It was great to meet you at the Twin Cities’ Red Cross office today. Thanks for your interest in my son, Paul’s, Eagle Scout project. It was a wonderful surprise and honor to meet Phil Hansen, an Eagle Scout himself. I know Paul was very impressed and honored by Mr. Hanson’s enthusiastic reaction to his project. And I am sure Paul will remember this day for the rest of his life. Most important, he and I are gratified to know these comfort kits will benefit the littlest and most vulnerable victims of disasters.”

Well, John, we think your son is the bee’s knees. We could not do what we do without him and others like him. We wish Paul many happy days during his next adventure (college) and hope that he will make his way around the world and back to us some time in the future.

Banging on doors, pounding on windows saves lives

Story and photos by Red Cross Volunteer Amy Conger

Nathan Steen (l) receives comfort kits for his children from Red Cross disaster relief volunteer John Trieb, July 5, 2012. Photo credit: Amy Conger/American Red Cross

Hudson, Wisconsin resident Nathan Steen was watching TV around 2:30 in the morning, July 5, 2012, when he started to smell an odd, almost chemical-like, smell in his basement apartment. He opened the door to his unit and was shocked to see thick black smoke in the hallway. Running to the fire alarm pull switch in the hallway, he yanked it several times but did not hear the alarm. Nathan couldn’t see flames or the source of the fire, so he went back to his apartment, woke his wife and two children, and called then called 911. He then ran to the other apartments, banging on doors to alert his neighbors to the fire. He was pounding on windows from outside, yelling “Fire!”, when the police arrived and began to assist getting people out from the other 9 units of the building.

Red Cross disaster relief volunteer Jason Winget (l) assisted resident Jannelle Waara following the Hudson apartment fire, July 5, 2012. Photo credit: Amy Conger/American Red Cross

The other residents report opening their doors to thick black smoke before rushing out of the building. A main concern of all the residents was the failure of the alarms to sound. Nathan Steen was truly a hero to alert everyone to the danger before it spread to other areas of the building. The fire appears to have occurred in a basement storage area, but the incident is under investigation by the Hudson Police Department.

Kevin Williams (c) shares his surprise about Red Cross disaster relief with volunteer Jason Winget, July 5, 2012. Photo credit: Amy Conger/American Red Cross

Red Cross volunteer workers Jason Winget and John Trieb assisted residents of the two lower units with emergency disaster relief. They will be able to return to their homes after the smoke damage is cleared. Everyone assisted by the Red Cross was thankful for the help. Kevin Williams, who was displaced by the fire with his mother, said that the Red Cross helped bring relief and comfort to them. He didn’t know that Red Cross volunteers helped people in situations like this and said that he would consider volunteering himself in the future to help others dealing with disaster from fire.

Visit our website to learn more about Red Cross services and opportunities.

Every Donation Counts

Ruby Born, 6, held a lemonade stand and raised money for Red Cross disaster relief. Photo credit: Nancy Rogers/American Red Cross

When Ruby Born, 6, came to the Red Cross office in Duluth, Minnesota, after the flash flooding, she had a sparkly yellow skirt, a beautiful smile, and a plastic bag filled with cash for the American Red Cross disaster relief operation helping affected families. “We sold lemonade,” she told the Red Cross.

Ruby held a two-day lemonade stand in her Superior, Wisconsin, neighborhood (just across a bridge from Duluth), selling an estimated 60 cups of lemonade.  Her parents Jeanne and Hector matched Ruby’s $150 in sales. And Enbridge Energy in Superior matched their combined gift for a total contribution of $600.00.

Red Cross disaster relief workers distribute clean up supplies in flood damaged Willow River, MN. Photo credit: Judy Hanne-Gonzalez/American Red Cross

The Red Cross continues to respond to flash flooding that resulted after a storm dumped more than 9 inches of rain across northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, causing widespread damage and displacing hundreds of people. The Red Cross supported around 200 people in shelters.  Red Cross disaster relief workers conducted damage assessment across several counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Other Red Cross workers are still on the ground distributing water, food, and cleaning supplies to people in the most impacted areas.

Asked why she raised the money, Ruby’s mom said the family talked together about the flood and discussed ways to help.  Ruby said, “I want to give the money to the Red Cross.”

Red Cross disaster relief workers provide food from mobile trucks, Fond du Lac, Minnesota. Photo credit: Judy Hanne-Gonzalez/American Red Cross.

Thank you Ruby, and to everyone, for supporting the American Red Cross and helping fulfill our mission to reduce human suffering in the face of emergencies.

Every dollar counts, including those made from selling lemonade. If you would like to help people affected by the Northland flooding and other disasters here and around the world, you can make a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief by visiting, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to your local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross P.O. Box 37423, Washington, DC 20013.

Red Cross and the Minneapolis Tornado

A year ago, May 22, 2011, an EF1 tornado swept through Minneapolis, mostly on the North Side where it ripped up homes and trees, displaced hundreds of our neighbors, killed two people, and injured dozens of others. The American Red Cross responded immediately, providing safe shelter, food, water, and emotional support to survivors. Like others, right now we’re remembering this tragic event. Watch our tribute video.

Disaster relief workers at the Red Cross shelter lifted spirits and gave people a shoulder to cry on. They connected displaced families with a network of organizations focused on long-term recovery. In all, the Red Cross provided 1,377 overnight stays for people with no place else to go and more than 151,000 meals and snacks. (Photo credit, left: Amanda Mark, American Red Cross)

“People often enter a shelter at their lowest point. Sometimes that’s really what people need…someone to support them and provide energy they don’t have.” A Red Cross Shelter Worker responding to the Minneapolis tornado that hit May 22, 2011.

Red Cross emergency disaster relief also includes distribution of bulk items, such as blankets, personal hygiene items, and cleaning supplies. Red Cross workers distributed more than 10,800 such items, including 1400 comfort kits for individuals, to meet basic needs after the tornado. (Photo credit, left: Carrie Carlson-Guest, American Red Cross)

“Thank you Red Cross! We’re getting what we need thanks to you.” A Minneapolis Tornado Survivor after receiving relief supplies from the Red Cross.


Disasters affect everyone, adults and children alike. Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers responded and met with individuals and families, providing more than 2,800 health and mental health consultations to help people cope with the tornado, its destruction, and the stress of rebuilding a life after disaster. (Photo credit: Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross)

“Without the American Red Cross we would have nowhere to go.” A Tornado Survivor who relied on the Red Cross shelter for many nights after the disaster.


More than 350 Red Cross workers were part of the Minneapolis tornado relief operation. Ninety-five percent were Red Cross volunteers from Minnesota and around the country who contributed more than 25,000 volunteer hours worth nearly $600,000. (Photo credit, left: Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross)

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” From everyone…


The Red Cross relies on donated money and goods from individuals and organizations to help our community. Donations for Red Cross disaster relief from the storm included $525,000 in money and $188,000 in goods – totaling $713,000. However, due to the scope of the disaster, the Red Cross spent $793,000 on the response – $80,000 more than what was donated – to help those in need.   (Photo credit, left: Anne Florenzano, American Red Cross)

If this post inspires you, consider becoming a part of the Red Cross. There’s a place for everyone. You could give time, money, or blood. You could help us prepare for the next disaster, tornado, or emergency. You could learn CPR or First Aid. You could provide comfort when people need it the most. Learn more on our website.

“Many many thanks…” From all of us…

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