Oklahoma Strong

OKTShirt_DeckerDespite the devastation from the May tornadoes, the people in Oklahoma are showing incredible strength and hope during the recovery process. Vonnie Thomas and John Decker, American Red Cross Health Services volunteers, say both the tornado survivors and the volunteers responding to the disaster demonstrate positive teamwork during the ongoing recovery.

“It’ll be a long recovery, but people here are so resilient,” says Decker.

Weeks after the tornadoes hit Oklahoma, more than 1,600 Red Cross workers are helping people get back on their feet – providing shelter, food, relief supplies, health services and emotional comfort.  Thomas says volunteers have come from Florida, Georgia, Texas, Hawaii, Iowa, California, Illinois and a number of other states to help the tornado victims.

“Our outreach team finds families that have fallen through the cracks and need help with medical referrals,” Thomas explains. Since the tornadoes hit, the Red Cross has provided more than 20,000 health services and mental health contacts. “About 75 health services people have passed through, and they’re phenomenal. They’re working so hard and I can’t thank them enough.  It’s amazing teamwork.”

photo_car__deckerRed Cross disaster health services include:

-delivering medical equipment

-finding health resources in the community

-working with shelters to help people with functional needs

-providing transportation to people for their medical needs

– working with hospitals to contact families of hospitalized

-helping with medications

In addition, the Red Cross Safe and Well website is monitored to help communication between family members and friends to make sure missing victims are safe. “We’ve worked closely with Safe and Well looking for people who were missing,” says Thomas.  “We have only one person they haven’t been able to locate, which is good progress.”


The tornado victims also display immense strength and hope throughout the long recovery process. “I admire all of the people involved,” says Thomas. “The volunteers are giving 110%–they go above and beyond to help the victims. The victims are so strong and want to be so independent. They are trying to get out on their own, and that’s why the shelters only have a small number of people.  The families stay in tents or with friends in the area to maintain their independence.”

Decker says mental health teams are going into community to help people cope and get their story out. “It’s a great community,” Decker says.  “Some people are standing in front of their completely destroyed homes and are still extremely nice and pleasant.”

“It’s Oklahoma strong,” adds Thomas. “The people are phenomenal and inspiring.”

Reporting and story by Shannon Lewis, Communications Intern, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Photos provided courtesy of John Decker.

Disaster Gets Me Going

I’ve always admired seeing people respond to disasters and I’ve wished that I could be right there with them. It’s hard for me to put my finger on why I’ve felt that way, but there’s something about arriving early to a scene of a disaster that gets me going.

Terry Menge training for disaster response in Minnesota, June 2013. (Photo courtesy of Terry)
Terry Menge, wearing his Red Cross disaster response vest, demonstrates doing Red Cross disaster relief paperwork, Minnesota, June 2013. (Photo provided courtesy of Terry.)

As a child I was intrigued by disasters, whether it was a tornado, flood, hurricane or earthquake. But after school my life took different direction and I went into sales where I’ve spent much of my career, working mostly at AT&T and then with StayWell, a partnership organization with the American Red Cross. Several years ago, I accepted a health and safety services sales position with the Red Cross. This brought me closer to my life-long interest in disaster relief response. And soon I applied to become–and was accepted to be–a Red Cross Emergency Services Volunteer who responds to disasters in the Northern Minnesota Red Cross Region.

To date, I’ve had the opportunity to respond to three fire disasters: one duplex fire and two single family resident fires. It’s hard to explain, but getting a call to respond at 3:00 in the morning gets my adrenalin flowing as I never know what to expect until I get there. One of my first lessons learned was to bring my reading glasses as I felt very much unprepared in assisting my response partner in filling out forms and having to admit out loud “I can’t read this without my glasses!” How embarrassing was that! Well, never again. The next day I went straight to Office Max and bought some supplies to better prepare myself for the next response. I’m happy to report that it’s going more smoothly now that I can read the Red Cross disaster documents.

My experience with the disaster team members has been very positive. I’m learning new skills by taking training courses, such as Disaster Assessment, Disaster Action Team  Simulation, Client Case-Work, Shelter Fundamentals, Psychological First Aid, and Emergency Response Vehicle Operation.

Being a Red Cross disaster volunteer has many benefits. Having first-hand disaster response experience, for example, has added credibility to my social and business speaking presentations. But for me what’s most rewarding is being able to help people get through a difficult time. I’ve learned that a hug and kind word gives them strength to move on from tragedy. For me, each call to action brings its own unique circumstances. I’m grateful for those who’ve welcomed me to use their home, car, or other space for warmth on a winter night while I’m helping their neighbors affected by disaster. I enjoy the human connections and can confirm that the comfort we bring, the smiles we create and the words of thanks we receive are some of the reasons that I’m a disaster volunteer.

Guest Blog Post by Terry Menge, Prepardness, Health & Safety Services Sales Manager, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region (AND Red Cross Volunteer Disaster Relief Worker)

“I Know You”

On a sunny October afternoon, a young EMT pulled long-time Red Cross disaster volunteer Diane Dunder from the tangled wreckage of her SUV after another driver lost consciousness and struck her.  “I know you,” the young woman told Diane.  “You were my teacher in high school.”  Diane recalled how that young EMT made sure she was calmed and comforted.

Red Cross disaster relief volunteer Diane Dunder talks with Joan and John Belch.
Diane Dunder talks with Joan and John Belch about American Red Cross disaster relief services following the Germann Road Wildfire in western Wisconsin.

Two years later, Diane was at a Red Cross shelter when she ran into that young woman’s parents, who had lost their home during the Germann Road Wildfire near Solon Springs, Wisconsin, in May 2013.

“I know you,” Diane said.  Now it was her turn to provide comfort.

John Belch and his wife Joan lost almost everything in the wildfire that overnight destroyed over 8,700 acres of woodland and 77 structures, including John and Joan’s home, garage, and many of their belongings.

Joan wasn’t home when fire erupted in their yard. Earlier that afternoon John had watched fire trucks come in and out of their rural neighborhood without much concern.  Their home wasn’t in danger.  Then a sudden switch in the wind put the Belch home directly in the path of the blaze. Joan cried as she remembered learning from her son that her home was gone.

“The Red Cross was great,” John told Dunder and Red Cross worker, Nancy Rogers, who stopped in to check on them and deliver Red Cross comfort kits. “The help you gave us has really come in handy.”

The 3,000 pine trees that John Belch had planted since 1996 will never recover from the fire.  The sound of logging equipment harvesting the burned trees to be recycled into fence posts was a steady back-beat to the sound of brightly colored goldfinches that flitted through the blackened branches.  However, the Belch family is ready to start making plans, thanks in part to a twist of fate that brought them in contact with Diane Dunder and the American Red Cross.

The couple said that they’ve learned from the experience and are making sure they are prepared and have a plan in place in case disaster strikes again.

Free information about disaster preparedness is available at www.redcross.org.

Story and photo by Judy Hanne Gonzalez/American Red Cross

Fire Chases Away Christmas Joy

by Anne Florenzano/American Red Cross

A tired Yvonne Johnson sat at a table in her apartment complex community room. “I am still in disbelief,” she said. “You hear of people in the news who have fires like this, but I never thought it would be ME in this situation. It still seems so unreal!” she said.

Red Cross volunteer Sheila Miller (l) helps Yvonne Johnson (r) with emergency disaster relief after an early morning blaze burned her home on December 26, 2012. (Photo credit: Anne Florenzano/American Red Cross)
Red Cross volunteer Sheila Miller (l) helps Yvonne Johnson (r) with emergency disaster relief after an early morning blaze burned her home on December 26, 2012. (Photo credit: Anne Florenzano/American Red Cross)

Yvonne, her teen daughter and nephew had enjoyed Christmas together in their apartment in Plymouth when their building fire alarm went off at about 12:30 a.m. They were still up, and dressed, and they grabbed their new gifts and put on their boots and coats and went outside. A half-hour later they were given the okay to go back into their apartment. At approximately 3:30 a.m. Yvonne was woken out of her sleep by the smell of smoke and her daughter saw sparks and flame out of the balcony window coming down from above. Yvonne and the two teens raced out of the apartment, this time dressed only in pajamas and unable to save anything but a clutch with her phone and keys.

The three of them took refuge in their car to stay warm. Eventually Yvonne was able to send her kids to warmth and sleep with her sister while she made arrangements for help from the Red Cross for temporary lodging, clothes and food. The firemen have told her that her apartment is uninhabitable because of water damage. Fortunately her landlord has some empty units where Yvonne can begin rebuilding her home, but she won’t know until she can get back into her apartment if any of the kids’ Christmas gifts or the furniture she recently inherited from her Mom can be salvaged. Yvonne is a middle school English teacher at the Woodson Institute for Student Excellence, and she said, “I’ve never had any help or assistance before – never in my life – but I need this help today.”

Disasters are hard any time of year, but can be especially hard around the holidays. Since Friday, December 22, the Northern Minnesota Red Cross has helped more than 8 families, including 20 adults and 15 children. Our volunteers respond to more than a disaster a day here in our region.  In addition, more than 100 volunteers from our area have deployed east to help those affected by Superstorm Sandy–several are on their second deployment, missing holidays with their families because they want to help those in need. Everyone can help those affected by local and national disasters: please consider making a year-end gift to the Red Cross at redcross.org.

Staffing Red Cross Disaster Response

Red Cross volunteer Kris Posey (right) helps get other volunteers, including Lori Olsson (left), quickly and safely out the door for disaster response.

Question: Who are those people working tirelessly to get Red Cross relief workers deployed to disaster locations, such as Superstorm Sandy? Answer: They’re Emergency Services Staffing volunteers!

In the case of our American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region, we’re  talking about volunteers Kris Posey, Susan Waananen & Cari McCollor. Although they’re often not working on the ground in affected disaster areas, they’re working hard to get those who are responding in the field out the door quickly and safely.

Emergency Services volunteers work behind the scenes 24/7 when disaster occurs. They’re in the Red Cross offices on weekends monitoring email, helping arrange training and processing volunteers. They’ve been doing this nearly every day since before Superstorm Sandy made landfall on the East Coast. Every day, they return calls and answer emails that come in from our 700+ volunteers across our Red Cross region.

Hey, Cari, we like that henna tattoo!

In addition, we’ve had staff services volunteers in the office these past few weeks learning all there is to know about national deployment.  Thank you Steve, Marcia, Lois, Bonnie, Barb, Jan & John. We’re building great capacity throughout our region.

Thank you to Emergency Services staffing volunteers. You help make our mission happen. And we love you for it!

P.S. Emergency Services staffing volunteers also deploy to disasters. Cari (pictured) is now on the East Coast working as part of the Red Cross field response to Superstorm Sandy. Return home happy and safe!

P.P.S. Question: Do you want to join our team? Answer: Yes, I do. I really really do 🙂


Stop Over And Make Someone Smile

Special Post From Red Cross Disaster Volunteer Dun Bui

Dun Bui (far right) and other Red Cross disaster responders at the shelter in Oceanport, New Jersey.

Red Cross volunteers from Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin are working together at the shelter at Maple Place School in Oceanport, New Jersey.

Over 600 people have checked into the Red Cross shelter established at Maple Place School in Oceanport over the past 48 hours. Many have come in for a hot meal, chance to charge some electronic devices, file a claim with FEMA or just talk with a friendly volunteer.

A majority of the Red Cross volunteers are not even from this area or state. A husband and wife drove from Kentucky, one woman came in from Ohio, another from up-state New York while two others are from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Volunteers are needed at the shelter to assist with serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also people are needed to help watch and supervise children and play games with senior citizens. The shelter is open 24 hours. And if you can spare an hour or so, stop over and make someone smile.

Thank you to Dun Bui and the other 5,400 Red Cross volunteers responding to the Superstorm Sandy disaster on the East Coast. Take care and return home safe and happy.

And The Heroes Are Off

We have in our Red Cross region fabulous people who leave behind their lives and loved  ones for days and days to help others in great need. Right now, twenty-five disaster relief workers from our Northern Minnesota region are responding to Superstorm Sandy. Twenty-two of those are volunteers. We’re incredibly grateful to have outstanding responders. We know that they’re doing great work. And, the heroes are off…

Sheldon Bruce, who will be gone for three weeks, says goodbye to his wife.

Lori Olsson brings snacks and cereal for the long drive ahead on a
Red Cross emergency response truck.

Steve Baltes (r) helps Jeff Skoog (l) and Diane Hofacker (c) map their deployment  destinations where they will provide Mass Care and Sheltering assistance.

Open shelters according to the Red Cross Hurricane App.

Disaster Mental Health volunteer Larry Larson (r) gets important deployment information from Emergency Staffing Manager Theresa Moerbitz.

Sheldon Bruce is ready to roll.

Lori Olsson waves goodbye.

To support American Red Cross disaster relief visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Your gift enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance to those affected. (Story by Lynette Nyman and Megan Barnes; photos by Megan Barnes/American Red Cross)

A Farm House Burns Down

The fire started in the night on October 5, 2012. Linda, her husband Tom, and their dog Rex were asleep in their home on the Cook family homestead in Somerset, Wisconsin. Rex woke first. He nudged Tom’s arm then Tom woke Linda. Their house was on fire. Linda saw flames going up a wall. She went for the fire extinguisher. It was empty or broken. The fire spread fast. The century-old house turned out to be a tinder box ready to burn. Linda saw Rex through the smoke. She followed him outside. Her feet were bare. She wore pajamas. She looked for Tom. Linda thought he was behind her. “I turned around and he wasn’t there.” He was inside, somewhere inside a house filled with flames and smoke. He was somewhere in the house where he was born and where he spent most of his nights.


Linda met Tom at the old Stardust Room in Osceola, Wisconsin. “He went there every day. For our first date we went to the fair.” They married in 1974. “I said I’d never marry a trucker or a farmer and I married a man who was both.” Together, they raised five children. For years he worked as a local mechanic and farmed the Cook land with a horse-pulled tractor. Years earlier, in 1968, he lost a hand in a corn picker but he managed, choosing prosthesis for a working arm over a re-attached limp hand. He was no stranger to fire. A barn burned in 1991. Tom and Linda lost horses, cows, pigs, a dog and hundreds of hay bales. Linda baled hay too. “We worked side by side.”


Tom died in the fire. Linda says he will be remembered as a caring, loving guy. “He loved everybody. He loved his horses.” Tom was known in the area, Linda says, for his horses. They were regulars in the local parade. “We’d get the horses and away we went!”


During the funeral services, Tom’s ashes were held in a wooden box that his son Scott handmade. Farmers, truckers and others from around the area attended the services. Around 200 people paid their respects. Linda received hugs, many hugs. “My shoulders hurt from all the hugs.” Starting soon to rebuild her life, she wants to put a trailer on the farm. “I don’t want to leave the farm. Tom always said, if something happened to him, stay on the farm.” Red Cross emergency relief has helped to get her going. The Red Cross has been great, she says. “I didn’t know there was a Red Cross out here. I don’t even know how they got my name. I didn’t expect anybody.”


Wherever she goes and however long it takes to recover, Linda plans to have her dog Rex by her side. “Rex got me out. He’s my hero.” Seven years go Rex was a puppy offered for free at a farm auction. Now he’s a hero to everyone. To all those–Rex, too–who save and comfort our neighbors during great times of need, we express our heartfelt gratitude.

Story and photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Photo descriptions: (1) a baking pan survived the fire; (2) the remains of the Cook farm house; (3) Scott Cook’s handmade box for his dad’s ashes; (4) Red Cross nurse Vonnie Thomas hugs Linda Cook where she’s staying with family in New Prague, Minnesota; and (5) Rex, 7 years old, canine hero and beloved family member.

Right now we’re helping someone after a fire

Red Cross volunteers respond to a house fire in the south metro. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Right now the American Red Cross is helping someone recovering from a fire. Across our Northern Minnesota Region, we respond more than 400 fires each year. (And more than 63,000 across the nation annually.) That does not account for  home fires that not requiring Red Cross assistance. In September, we experienced one of the busiest fire response months that Red Cross disaster volunteers have seen in quite a while. There were 48 responses region-wide, including a 12-unit apartment fire in Brainerd where all 12 families needed assistance. To date, October has been no-less busy with 14 incidents. Combined, we’ve assisted 329 people with emergency relief after a fire.

So, we feel compelled to ask: are you prepared for a fire? Are you ready to not return for hours, days, or maybe never to the home you have now? Take a moment to answer those questions. Then what?

The Red Cross recommends two easy steps to help protect your home and loved ones from a fire: get a smoke alarm and create a fire escape plan.

  • Smoke alarms save lives. Working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in a home fire in half.*
    • Place smoke alarms on every level of your home, including bedrooms.
    • Test smoke alarms once a month and replace batteries at least once a year.
    • Fires can spread quickly and every second counts. Having a plan in place can help you escape, but less than one-fourth of Americans have actually made a plan and practiced it.*
      • Home fire plans should include at least two ways to escape from every room of your home.
      • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance from your home where family members can meet after a fire.
      • Discuss the plan with everyone in the household and practice it at least twice a year.
      • For more information visit http://www.redcross.org/homefires.
  • Download the American Red Cross First Aid App to get access to life-saving information on what to do for common, everyday first aid emergencies. The app is available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play for Android.

* Statistics provided by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Disaster Training Institute Makes Triumphant Return

Red Cross disaster relief volunteers Nancy Young and Mike Hofmann work together during a training scenario during the 2012 Minnesota North Star Disaster Training Institute, Camp Ripley, Little Falls, MN. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

The Minnesota North Star Disaster Training Institute made a triumphant return in early October when around 150 volunteers from 9 states turned out for a chance to build their American Red Cross disaster response skills. Both rookie and veteran disaster relief workers attended. This was no surprise for Megan Mrozek who serves as Emergency Services Director for the American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. “The disaster institute is a great way to train,  network, and practice together.” Mrozek and five others were the key organizers of the training institute. Instructors included experienced disaster responders from across Minnesota and surrounding states.

Red Cross disaster relief volunteer Vonnie Thomas teaches the Psychological First Aid course during the 2012 Minnesota North Star Disaster Training Institute, Camp Ripley, Little Falls, MN. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Long-time responder and instructor Vonnie Thomas faced dozens in a Psychological First Aid course. “Your impact is so important,” she told them. Several shared stories about their personal experiences working with families during disaster response. Sometimes the emotional trauma touches the responder. Vonnie reassured them saying, “It’s okay to cry with a client. I’ve said, I need a Kleenex, too.”

The Institute’s course roster was thorough, offering everything from conducting disaster assessment and learning how to drive a Red Cross mobile feeding truck to managing a shelter and collaborating for success when delivering Red Cross relief services. More than anything, said Mrozek, the training institute gave people a chance to sit next to others. “It helps when you recognize the faces of fellow relief workers when responding to disaster.”

Grant-funded, the current hope is to hold the North Star Training Institute every two years. Click here to learn more about Red Cross opportunities and services. Click here to see more photos from the training.

Story and photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

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