Thankful for Red Cross, thankful for each other

Two volunteers begin anew together after meeting on disaster deployment

Few people can say they met their beloved while helping people seeking refuge from a wildfire. Among them are Danielle Rodgers and Rod Winters – two American Red Cross volunteers.

They met in 2018 during one of the worst years for wildfires in California’s recent history. That year the Red Cross responded to multiple wildfires in the West.

Red Cross volunteers Rod and Danielle.

Danielle was new to the Red Cross. She’d just left her professional nursing role after 27 years when she got the call for her first major disaster relief deployment.

Rod was an experienced volunteer who was called to deploy in his regular role managing shelter relief for people displaced during disasters.

Both were sent from separate and distant states to the California mountain town of Weaverville – the “belly of the beast” as Danielle describes it – to help people affected by the Carr Fire. There, they met for the first time at the co-ed shelter for disaster responders.

“I just thought he was a really nice guy,” Danielle says upon reflection.

She’s referring to his exceptional ability to focus on people – strangers from all walks of life – who need help during some of the most difficult days of their lives. “I just couldn’t imagine where people like him came from.”

The Seattle area, it turned out, and known for asking shelter workers, especially those facing the powerful experience of their first national deployment, ‘why are you here?’.

Weaverville, California, where Red Cross had a shelter for people seeking refuge during the 2018 Carr Fire evacuations.

“Deployment can be extremely uncomfortable, rough conditions, hard,” Rod says now and said, in similar words, then. “Did you come here to take care of people? Focus on the purpose – be clear on your own motivation – deal with some hardship.”

He provided insight and context that helped Danielle navigate an intensity of situation many, including an experienced nurse, could find challenging their personal grit and resiliency.

“The first couple of days are always – be cool, deal with the first couple days until you get your assignment – then things settle out. Thankfully she stayed,” he says.

Their Weaverville deployments came to end. “We both went home and went about our lives,” she says.

“It just kind of deepens as you go along,” says Rod. “It was a fortunate meeting for us. I’m very lucky to have this wonderful woman.”

Danielle and Rod in Weaverville, CA, for their wedding ceremony.

This year they married. For their wedding, they returned to Weaverville and had a small ceremony at Trinity High School, which gave them use of a courtyard, chairs and a table. “It was perfect,” says Danielle. When friends and family asked, ‘why there’, she told them about the impact the town had on them and the perspective it provided.

While there for their wedding, two wildfires started raging. Roads were blocked just like the year they met. “It was difficult to see and hear,” Danielle remembers.

They didn’t have their Red Cross responder gear. But if they’d had it, it’s likely they’d have turned their celebration into doing everything towards alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies.

Story by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross. Photos provided by Danielle and Rod.

Cis Big Crow Recognized for 20 Years of Red Cross Service

Cis Big Crow (center) is the 2021 Volunteer of the Year for the American Red Cross serving Central and Western South Dakota.

Volunteering comes naturally to Cis Big Crow, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and an American Red Cross volunteer. “I guess volunteering just grew on me. And I didn’t realize how many years I was with the Red Cross,” she says.

Since 1999, when a deadly tornado struck the Pine Ridge Reservation, Big Crow has been a Red Cross volunteer assisting reservation residents affected by tornados, storms, floods and other natural disasters. She has helped Tribal members reach critical aid, assisting them with filling out emergency forms and connecting them with housing, food and other types of disaster relief.

Big Crow works in the Oglala Sioux President’s Office, which previously was the place people called when there was an emergency on the reservation, such as a house fire. The Tribe now has a dedicated emergency management team, she says. But Big Crow is still the point person people call when they need help when disasters happen. She ensures they get in touch with Tribal emergency management and the Red Cross.

In the past, Big Crow has filled a variety of roles during Red Cross disaster responses, such as setting up temporary shelters, preparing meals for people and finding temporary housing for them. During the past twenty-plus years, she’s become an essential disaster action team member for the Red Cross in South Dakota, responding to an estimated 300 local disasters.

Big Crow is the 2021 Volunteer of the Year for the American Red Cross serving Central and Western South Dakota

“Cis has been an exceptional volunteer,” says Richard Smith, executive director of the American Red Cross serving Central and Western South Dakota. “Cis is always positive and upbeat, even in difficult situations. Her guidance in working with the Oglala Sioux people and the Tribal council is invaluable.”

Big Crow has no plans to stop . Asked what keeps her going, Big Crow said she finds joy in assisting people in need. “You’re out there to help people,” she says.

New volunteers are always needed, especially with busy disaster seasons happening more frequently. People interested in applying for local opportunities should visit redcross.org/mndaks.

Story by Blair Emerson/American Red Cross

86-year-old Red Cross volunteer shows no sign of slowing down

Story by Karen Scullin, FOX9 News

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Vonnie Thomas, image provided courtesy of Fox9

Vonnie Thomas has spent virtually her entire life helping others through the American Red Cross and the National Sports Center for the Disabled. She’s 86 years old and shows no signs of stopping.

Thomas started volunteering for the Red Cross when she was 18 so she could get a free ticket to the state fair. But, she’s still offering her time and energy to this day and has stockpiled stories that range from highly emotional to simply surprising.

Thomas estimates she’s helped on almost 50 different disasters, from tornadoes and hurricanes to fires and floods. She’s been volunteering with the Red Cross for 65 years, helping with food, clothing and shelter, but also with hugs and understanding – likely the most important assets of all.

“It isn’t what we give, it’s our presence,” Thomas says.

But, Thomas says it’s not the natural disasters that impact her the most, it’s the manmade ones. She was there at the pentagon for 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing where a daycare was hit. She’s been back to Oklahoma City a number of times, but can’t bring herself to go to the memorial.

“I get about a block away and I think nope- not quite ready. It’s just that hard because I was right down in there,” Thomas says.

Thomas doesn’t just stop at disasters. The mountains call her every single year. She heads to Winter Park, Colorado, where she volunteers to teach downhill and cross country adaptive skiing to amputees, the blind, those with cerebral palsy, cancer, brain injuries and more.

“They come around and they’re like ‘wow I’m empowered I can do this’,” Thomas says.

Vonnie Thomas and a home fire survivor. Image provided courtesy of the American Red Cross

Thomas is rewarded by the smiles and the self-esteem that emerge from the people she teaches. She shares the story of a young boy with cancer whom she taught to ski. She was so proud of him.

“He said, ‘How come you’re crying?’ I said, ‘I’m not crying my eyes are watering because I don’t have my goggles on’,” she says. “About two weeks later, I got a package in the mail and a note from his mom and it said Jimmy wanted me to have his goggles so my eyes would never water again. He had passed away in the meantime.”

Thomas also volunteers to work with “at risk” youth. Several years ago, she taught a high school boy who showed up in a trench coat to ski and he told her he wished his mom was more like her.

“I said they know everything that’s going on… he said they have no idea what’s going on in the garage. And I didn’t pick up on it,” Thomas recalls.

Two weeks later, Thomas was called to Columbine, Colorado where 13 people were shot and killed. As she was helping families in crisis, she realized her high school ski student was Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters.

“He learned so much,” she said. “I bet if I’d had him another week we would have been okay.”

Thomas says she may be 86, but she doesn’t feel it. She plans to stay on her mission for to help and to heal for years to come.

For more information on how to volunteer with the Red Cross, visit redcross.org/mn and click on “Ways to Help.”

This feature story originally appeared on FOX9 online. The story is published here with permission. 

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