Red Cross Responds On Sub-Zero Minnesota Morning

By Red Cross Volunteers Dave Schoeneck and Grace Thompson

When fire struck an apartment building on a recent sub-zero morning in Minnesota, residents had little time to do more than escape. Some leaped from second- and third-story windows while others dropped their children into the arms of first responders.

Eleven apartments suffered extensive damage, displacing more than 30 people. Within minutes, Twin Cities Red Cross volunteers responded to assist them.

Red Cross Comfort Kit
A simple Red Cross Comfort Kit, which includes shampoo, soap, and other essential personal care items, helps people with immediate disaster relief. Photo credit: Grace Thompson/American Red Cross

“Some people fled the burning building in nothing more than shorts,” said Anne Florenzano, a Red Cross volunteer who arrived on the scene early Tuesday.

Heated buses provided initial refuge while residents wondered where they’d sleep that night. By 10:30 AM, the Red Cross had opened a shelter offering a safe and warm place for families to sleep and make plans for rebuilding lives torn apart by disaster.

Kiara Faalafula, a six year-old girl living with her grandmother, was dropped from the second story window because smoke filled the halls made escape by stairs impossible. A police officer caught the kindergartener and took her to a heated bus where she was given a blanket, and later a coat.

Melvin Saballos, 31, who also lived on the second floor, was woken by his father about 5:45 AM. The hall was so filled with smoke that the only exit was through a window.

Melvin, 31, escaped the burning building on a ladder and later sought refuge in a Red Cross shelter. Photo credit: Grace Thompson/American Red Cross

“The Red Cross has been very attentive to the needs of the people, making sure that nobody panics,” said Saballos. “The Red Cross has been incredibly helpful. We are warm and safe.”

Britney Godfrey and Roderick Diggins, along with their daughter, MaKayla, and Roderick’s sister, Ladietra Diggins and her son, Tre’von Diggans, lived in a third floor apartment.

MaKayla, 3, was dropped from a third-story apartment window and caught by a police officer. Here, she's getting clean socks and pants (that are way too big for her). Photo credit: Grace Thompson/American Red Cross

Britney woke up, smelled smoke, and tried to get everyone out, but the smoke-filled hallway was impassible. Godfrey realized that the window was the only way out. After dropping the children into the arms of first responders, the three adults then jumped to save their own lives. All are grateful for the Red Cross help they’ve received.

Since January 1, The Twin Cities Red Cross has responded to 80 fire disasters, providing comfort and other immediate disaster relief for more than 250 people. More than 75 Red Cross volunteers have assisted these families.

Residents affected by the Bloomington apartment fire or other recent disasters can call (612) 871-7676 for more information about the Red Cross and disaster relief services.

Not Stopping Anytime Soon

By Grace Thompson, American Red Cross Twin Cities Area Chapter

For many, it’s hard to remember the hot days of the Minnesota State Fair this time of year, but for Muriel Olson the smell of corn dogs and the sounds of the “great Minnesota get together” are vivid as she reflects upon her last 50 years of service with the American Red Cross.

Muriel’s story began in 1956 when she was asked by her school’s nursing program director to volunteer for the American Red Cross booth at the state fair. “It was minimal work, washing people’s feet and dressing blisters.”

Muriel Olson has been a Red Cross volunteer for 50 years.

Little did she know, this agreement would begin a remarkable span of years sharing her time and talent with the American Red Cross, for which she was recognized this past year with a 50-year service pin.

“I didn’t really choose [volunteering for the American Red Cross], it kind of just happened and it never stopped. I don’t plan on it stopping anytime soon!”

As a recent volunteer with the American Red Cross (or as Muriel might call me, a “newbie”) I was both honored and excited by the chance to interview the Red Cross veteran. I naturally had all kinds of questions I wanted to ask her—such as how many disasters have you responded to (“too many to count”), why do you continue to volunteer (“because I love helping people”), and was there any experience that was particularly meaningful for you (“the embrace of a family member who suffered the loss of their home to a fire”).

She kindly replied to all of my questions and also offered three nuggets of wisdom I’m excited to pass along:

1.    “Be passionate about helping people”
To Muriel, this is the most important quality of a Red Cross Volunteer. The reason why the American Red Cross makes a difference is because its volunteers show compassion to every person, regardless of who they are or what his or her circumstances may be. “Even if it is a single-family fire, it’s a disaster to them. Sometimes they just need people to help them- whether it be filling out paperwork, or sitting with them.”

2.    “Be willing to adapt to changes”
Muriel enthusiastically expanded upon this, “if there is one thing I can tell you, volunteering with the American Red Cross will never be boring! There is always something new to learn or some challenges to overcome… you are responding to disasters, disasters by nature are never planned.” According to Muriel, the power of the American Red Cross is its ability to offer relief in the midst of uncertainly.

3.    “Be ready to work as a team, and to make life-long friends.”
Muriel attributes much of her achievement to the supportive Red Cross community. “I have been able to volunteer and remain positive throughout these last 50 years because of he wonderful friends I have made. The American Red Cross is filled with people of every skill and generation.” This diversity is seen in the classroom where Muriel teaches Disaster Medical Assistance to the “next generation” of Red Cross volunteers. For Muriel, the opportunity to see young volunteers dedicate their time and skills gives her hope for the future of the American Red Cross. “It is a volunteer run organization, without these newbies…[and] without this community, we wouldn’t have a Red Cross.”

In many ways, Muriel’s first actions as an American Red Cross volunteer are symbolic of her continued benevolence over these past 50 years. It’s because of people like Muriel that the American Red Cross, a volunteer-led organization, continues to make an inspiring impact on the world. The Red Cross is grateful for Muriel’s years of service and Muriel hopes her story encourages others to, in turn, “use their skills and talents to help people.”

Click here to learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer.

Red Cross Shelter Even Better The Second Night

By Lynette Nyman, Red Cross Staff, Twin Cities Area Chapter, October 22, 2010

Sharon Madigan, 62, and her grandson

Everyone would rather be comfortable, cozy and warm in their own beds at night, but when there’s a fire people have to get out and sometimes stay out for days.

When a fire disaster hit the Whittier Co-op apartment building in Minneapolis on October 20, fire responders went across the street to see if a church could provide a safe place for displaced residents.

Walking out the Calvary Church door on Blaisdell Avenue was Matt Gresham, 45, who had just finished choir practice.

Normally he maintains the church building built more than 100 years ago.

“If this wasn’t here, I don’t know where these folks would go,” says Gresham.

Church doors are now shelter doors

Gresham and other church members invited people inside, giving them blankets and hot beverages. The church opened its doors to the Red Cross as well.

Around 20 people have stayed at the shelter since the blaze. Among them is Sharon Madigan, 62.

“I thought this fire was another false alarm,” says Madigan. “My brother, who lives one floor down from me, called and told me to get out. Outside, I looked up and saw the roof on fire.”

The church people, Madigan, says came to them and told everyone to come inside for hot coffee and to wait for the Red Cross, which was on its way.

Madigan, who has lived in the Whittier Co-op building for more than 30 years, says that she was able to return home and gather a few personal belongings. She says that her second night sleeping on a cot will be better than the first.

“I’ll be used to it,” says Madigan. “I have a roof over my head and I feel secure. I’m thankful for everything. It feels as if the Red Cross is doing everything for us.”

Matt Gresham, 45, was homeless before he found his church

The Red Cross does a lot, but not everything. It depends on local communities to help during disasters, such as this building fire affecting more than 90 people.

Gresham, the man who opened the church doors after all, says that they’ll stay open as long as the displaced families need a place to be warm and safe.

Early Morning at a Red Cross Shelter

By Mark Smith, Disaster Public Affairs Volunteer, American Red Cross Twin Cities Area Chapter, October 21, 2010

Mozell, 8, and Zyiomna, 2

The Blaisdell Avenue fire in Minneapolis displaced more than 90 people, forcing several dozen to stay overnight in a Red Cross shelter.

Two of them were Mozell, 8, and his sister Zyiomna, 2.

Mozell started his day out by keeping an eye on his little sister, letting mom get a little extra sleep after a long night.


Being the watchful brother, he helped his sister get a plate of food for breakfast and sat with her as she ate her breakfast.

After I took his picture, Mozell asked to use the camera and, with my help, he was able to take pictures of his sister.

Of course little sister, seeing what big brother was doing, wanted to review the picture and was excited to see herself and her brother on the camera.


Zyiomna  insisted in taking his picture as he had taken hers.

With a little help, she was able to snap the shot of her brother and push the buttons to take a look at her efforts.

The Red Cross shelter was a safe and warm place for families to stay.

The Red Cross will continue providing immediate recovery assistance, such as shelter, food, clothing, and emotional support, to the families affected by this disaster.

Red Cross Disaster Dispatcher: Sopheak Srun

Red Cross Dispatchers Help Get Disaster Response Off the Ground

by Jason Viana, Red Cross Staff, Twin Cities Area Chapter

Sopheak Srun is a volunteer disaster response dispatcher for the American Red Cross Twin Cities Area Chapter. Photo provided by Sopheak Srun.

You won’t see them in pictures, they don’t grab headlines, and most of those they help don’t even know they exist.  Yet without Disaster Action Team (DAT) dispatchers, the Red Cross disaster response would have a hard time getting off the ground.  While they may never set foot on the scene, the decisions they make and the moves they orchestrate are key to almost every Red Cross disaster response.

Twenty six-year-old Sopheak Srun recently joined the group of unsung DAT heroes as he chose to become a DAT dispatcher in the fall.  Srun spends the majority of his days working as a microbiologist and engineer at his family’s medical device assembly and packaging company in Bloomington and says he really enjoys his work as a Red Cross volunteer.  The Red Cross first crossed Srun’s radar while completing his graduate work in St. Louis and once he returned to the Twin Cities he completed training and became a DAT volunteer.

Having responded to numerous local disasters over the last two years as a DAT member, Srun already had a good understanding of the importance of dispatchers in disaster response.  However, after having become a dispatcher himself, he quickly gained a deeper appreciation of the role he now plays in coordinating Red Cross efforts.

As Srun coordinated the disaster response efforts in response to a recent house fire in St. Paul, Srun not only consoled a family who had just lost a child, but also connected them with all of the help and resources that the Red Cross had to offer.  The full-time microbiologist quickly and compassionately prepared each of the DAT members for what they were about to face and ensured that all of the proper team members were selected to respond.

“It was really sad, “Srun recalled.  “They had just lost their child and they were pretty incoherent.  I just tried to stay calm and get them all the help I could.”

Srun has learned since taking on the role of dispatcher that the key to the position is about more than calling other volunteers and passing along information, it’s really about judgment and leadership.  “We are the voice of the Red Cross to these people…we are pivotal in the response because we coordinate nearly everything,” said Srun as he looked back on his first six months as a dispatcher.  “After hours it’s just us.”

The thought of serving as a DAT dispatcher had crossed Srun’s mind on several occasions, but an email appeal from local disaster coordinator Ruth Talford convinced him to take the next step.  “It seemed like a logical extension to the work I was already doing, “Srun said.  “With my experience as a DAT first-responder I felt like I was ready for a leadership role.”

Srun has embraced his new role and found that he really enjoys coordinating the disaster response efforts of the DAT volunteers.  While the role of dispatcher has proven demanding, Srun said it also comes with its perks.  “It’s nice, I don’t really have to get up and leave in the middle of the night to actually help someone…I can do it from home.”  The smile was obvious in Srun’s voice as he described the convenience of being able to do a great deal of dispatching right from the palm of his hand…with his IPhone.

Srun says that all you really need is an internet connection, a telephone, access to the DAT list and the willingness to help people during exceptionally difficult times.  “The situations are all pretty heavy.  These people have usually lost their homes and most of their possessions.”   Srun stated matter of factly.  “But that’s the nature of our work.  I am just glad we are there to help.”

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