Advance community outreach helps after disaster

Red Cross and African immigrant community field trip,  Minneapolis, MN, December 5, 2013. Photo credit: Jenn Vander Woude/American Red Cross.
Red Cross and African immigrant community field trip, Minneapolis, MN, December 5, 2013.

The tragic explosion and fire on January 1 in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis was a reminder for us that working ahead of disaster to reach out to diverse communities remains a top priority for the Red Cross. Most recently, on December 5, 2013, nine Red Cross volunteers and staff, representing multiple aspects of disaster prevention, relief, and recovery, met with five African immigrant community leaders to discuss the ways in which we could work together in a culturally sensitive manner. Together, we toured the Cedar Cultural Center, the Brian Coyle Center and areas around a Cedar-Riverside apartment building. Each step of the way there were conversations about the ways they could partner together on different projects including sheltering, cultural training, and preparedness. We know that connections made during this community walk-about, as well as previous community outreach activities, has helped lessen the stress of a tragic event and enabled the Red Cross and its community partners, both organizations and individuals, to provide emergency aid to people during a time of great need.

Story and photo from Jenn Hamrick, a preparedness coordinator for the American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Several community partner groups are taking donations for the Cedar-Riverside fire survivors. Click here for information about how to help. 

Dollhouses Spark Conversation about Fire Safety

Armed with screwdrivers and one page of instructions, Red Cross volunteers build dollhouses for fire safety instruction, July 31, 2013.
Armed with screwdrivers and one page of instructions, Red Cross volunteers build dollhouses for fire safety instruction, July 2013.

Upon walking into the Preparedness office at the Red Cross in Minneapolis late last July, you may have thought you had instead stepped into a preschool playroom.  You were, in fact, in the correct place. The confusion was caused by 10 pastel colored dollhouses, all of which include over 50 pieces of furniture and two dolls.  These dollhouses, built by Red Cross volunteers, and will be used throughout the region to teach families, especially children, about fire safety.

A new dollhouse was first used during National Night Out in Maple Grove, Minnesota.  At this event it was clear the dollhouse was a hit.  Children loved them. And conversations about what to do during a fire started easily with the dollhouse prompt.  Volunteers engaged both children and adults when they asked, “Do you have a plan if there’s a fire in your home?”

A Red Cross volunteer sparks the conversation about fire safety using a new dollhouse, Maple Grove, Minnesota, 2013.
A Red Cross volunteer sparks the conversation about fire safety using a new dollhouse, Maple Grove, Minnesota, July 2013.

The dollhouse project was adopted from our Safety Mobile Program. The next step for the dollhouses will be distribution around the Northern Minnesota Region, especially during October, fire safety month, when the dollhouses will be present at fire department open houses.   

If you’d like to help teach others about fire safety or would like a dollhouse to come to your city’s fire department open house, you can call the Red Cross at 612-871-7676. You can also download our First Aid mobile app with helpful information about preparing for home fires and other emergencies.

Story and photos by:  Ellie Decker, Preparedness Intern, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region

Low drama, big comfort

Jean Fisher (l) meets with Jenn Hamrick (r) in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Sometimes fires are small, but big. Sometimes flames die quickly, but people have to wait for the all clear from local officials. Sometimes dramatic pictures are few, but American Red Cross disaster responders help anyway because that’s what they do. And that was the case on Friday, April 5, when the Prior Lake Fire Department called for Red Cross help when dozens of people and their pets safely evacuated their homes. Sometimes we like to report on these low drama, big comfort fires because most fire are those not reported on major or local media.

Newbie Jenn Hamrick learns about Red Cross forms from veteran Jeff Skoog in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Most fires are the small flame, quickly extinguished type that happen around the block, across the street or next door all the time, every day. And while the building in Friday’s fire did not burn to the ground (phew!) and people recovered most of their personal belongings (yay!), Red Cross responders checked in with those who waited to return home, provided food during the hours passed for word of safe re-entry, and listened to people’s fire stories. Most of the time for the Red Cross the every day is just that, the every day.

Story & photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross.

Thankful in the wee hours

Dear Red Cross,

Sue & Jeff's home in Parker's Prairie, MN, after the fire on December 21, 2012. Photo credit: Larry Zirbes/American Red Cross
The remains of Sue and Jeff’s home in Parkers Prairie, MN, after the fire on December 21, 2012. Photo credit: Larry Zirbes/American Red Cross

In the wee hours of December 21, we had a house fire and lost everything, including many of our beloved pets.

I want to thank you with all my heart for being there to help us get through those difficult first days. Please also thank those who made the quilts we were given. I found it very comforting to wrap myself up in one when things got overwhelming.

We have been occasional contributors in the past, but from now on we will be regular contributors so we can help pay forward the wonderful work that you do.

Again, all our thanks–

Sue & Jeff

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

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
  • 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).

Hawkeye Fist Bump

Sarah Farr, Nick Stanley, and Carrie Carlson-Guest share Hawkeye spirit after meeting at a Red Cross shelter in Edina, Minnesota. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

No disaster is fun—seriously, we would all prefer doing something other than running or recovering from a flood, tornado, or fire.  But a positive-side of things short list might include “disasters, a chance to meet new people.”

Take Sarah Farr and Nick Stanley. We bumped into them the other day while they rested at a Red Cross shelter after a fire burned their Edina, Minnesota, apartment building. Sarah heard the fire alarm before Nick, “Sarah woke me up. And I said, is everybody else outside? Could this be a false alarm?” Then they saw lots of people standing on the lawn. Once outside, they watched and waited with the others. “It was the first time we talked to many of our neighbors,” says Sarah.

Among the important items grabbed during the escape, Nick Stanley’s computer, showing here a photo he took of the burned apartments. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

The fire spared their unit but no utilities meant no re-entry until officials gave the A-Okay sometime later. So, rather than coach surf with friends or family, the two slept in their SUV and eventually made their way to the Red Cross shelter. And yay for that! We got to meet two sweet peeps who turned out to be Hawkeye fans. (Some of us aren’t Hawkeye fans per se but Iowa farm family connections make us supporters in spirit.)

It was nice meeting you, Sarah and Nick, and we wish you the very best. But if we meet again let’s agree that it will under more fun circumstances.

P.S. We’d still like you bunches even if you’d turned out to be Cyclone fans.

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.

Apartment Fire Survivor “Worse than Back to Square One”

On Friday, March 9, 2012, a fire burned an apartment building in Minneapolis. That afternoon at the Red Cross service center volunteer relief worker Kevin Berger spoke with two people affected by this disaster and learned more about them.

Kimberlee Overvold and Carl Robinsen survived the March 9, 2012, St. George apartment fire in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Kevin Berger/American Red Cross

Kimberlee Overvold was at the temporary Red Cross service center just a few blocks from where she had lived for 11 months before a fire destroyed the St. George apartment building on 17thStreet. She was trying to collect herself and figure out her next steps. Overvold and her boyfriend were in the process of finding a bigger apartment but then the fire took it all away. Overwhelmed with the emotion of the situation she said,“I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be a dream.”

They had just gone to bed around 1:45 a.m. when the fire alarms sounded at 2 a.m. Kimberlee said at first they thought it was a false alarm because even as they headed out of the building there was no signs of smoke or fire. However, it wasn’t long before flames rushed through the building and they found themselves meeting up with their neighbors in a bus temporarily used as a shelter.

Before moving into the St. George apartments she had been homeless for nearly 2 years. Back then she said at least she had some possessions, but now “I’m worse than back to square one” as she’s lost everything. Pointing at herself with her mobile phone in hand, she said, “this is my living room now as all my stuff is gone.”

She reflected on some of her family pictures and watercolors she had from her late grandmother. “That’s the stuff I’m going to miss.”

The St. George apartments burned, displacing more than 30 residents of Minneapolis. Photo credit: Kevin Berger/American Red Cross

Her boyfriend, Carl Robinsen, was also considering how to move forward. “I’m not worried about what caused this to happen, we just need to fix it.” He said they were thankful that no one was seriously hurt or killed in the building that housed 32 units. “You can’t replace life,” he said.

One concern is replacing clippers and shears valued at more than $1500 and needs for the barber program he’s just four months from completing at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). As lunch passed by at the Red Cross service center Robinsen was wondering if he should make his way to his job as a janitor in Edina so that he could at least think about something else for a while.

The couple left the service center with information from the Red Cross and The Salvation Army for a temporary place to stay and getting some clothes before finding a new home.

Text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to American Red Cross disaster relief, helping people recover from this fire and similar disasters. Or go to to donate even more financial support. This story and the accompanying photos are by Kevin Berger, a volunteer American Red Cross disaster relief worker based in Minnesota.

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