Red Cross Volunteers — Connecting Family Members Across the Globe

Red Cross Volunteers — Connecting Family Members Across the Globe

There are countless of ways to get involved with the Red Cross. You may see Red Cross volunteers responding to disasters in your neighborhood or across the country. Perhaps you are a blood donor and you’ve been greeted by a blood ambassador, maybe you had a free smoke detector installed in your home through our Sound the Alarm program, or maybe you took a First Aid Training Course. In addition to the more visible volunteer roles at the Red Cross, there is a core group of volunteers that dedicate their time and expertise in the Red Cross Restoring Family Links program and you don’t often hear about their work.

For more than 150 years, the Red Cross’s Restoring Family Links program has helped reconnect separated families and address the issue of missing persons as a result of armed conflict, natural disasters, migration, and other situations. Families suffer greatly when their loved ones remain unaccounted for, and families must learn to live with uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that Red Cross Restoring Family Links caseworkers work ardently to resolve.

The Red Cross of Illinois is proud to have a stellar group of volunteers whose behind-the-scenes work brings joy and closure to families around the world. Meet Restoring Family Links Caseworkers Margo Dudewicz, Susie Mazaheri, Monica Agler and Mallory Smith.

Monica Agler has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for over 12 years. Monica started with the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and moved to Restoring Family Links when this program evolved.

“Every role I’ve had with the Red Cross has been gratifying. Through Restoring Family Links, I have had the opportunity to resolve cases by locating loved ones and providing closure to families who’ve lived in anguish over not knowing what happened to their family member. Most currently, I was assigned to a case of a family who fled Iraq and they lost touch with their son who went back to Iraq to retrieve his grandmother. I have 15 years of tracking to follow, but I’m determined to bring this family peace.”

Susie Mazaheri is the Restoring Family Links Regional Lead for the Red Cross of Illinois. Susie has been with the Red Cross since 2008 with the majority of her time as a Disaster Mental Health professional. You can find Susie volunteering locally or across the country aiding those affected by disasters, but her work in Restoring Family Links is always in the back of her mind and part of her days. See more from Susie here.

“Our work through the Restoring Family Links program is so important and can be done from any part of the country. My motivation is knowing that the people we help have been through so much trauma, yet they maintain that glimmer of hope of locating and reuniting with their loved one. Like the mother in Honduras who lost touch with her young son as he migrated and found himself in a detention center. Because of the incredible Red Cross network, we were able to give that mother the closure she had been waiting for, for so long. I put myself in her shoes and can only hope that someone would want to help me find the ending to my story if ever I found myself in a similar situation.”

Margot Dudewicz has been a volunteer with the American Red Cross serving the Quad Cities and West Central Illinois since 2017. Margot, whose husband is a member of the U.S. Army, first joined the Red Cross through its Service to the Armed Forces. Margot’s love for research, genealogy, and helping people connected her to Restoring Family Links.

“The Red Cross is so much more than what people think they are — globally, the Red Cross cares about families — especially families who become separated. Like the Ugandan sister living in DeKalb whose brother was missing for 20 years. After connecting her with her brother who she thought deceased – the emotions and joy I witnessed when they connected is something I will never forget and are my motivation to do everything I can when I get a case to make the connection or find that family more information. The stories and people I get to work with are so powerful and inspire me to give back.”

Mallory Smith has been a Red Cross volunteer since 2019. Mallory is an aerospace engineer and contractor with NASA. During her free time, Mallory works on reconnecting families and uses her engineering and love of data mining to help connect families. Hear more from Mallory here.

“Working in Restoring Family Links takes perseverance—not giving up on a lead because you know that your work, when successful, will have a massive impact on someone’s life.”

“We could absolutely not do this work without our volunteers. The passion and dedication they have for helping families is incredible. The creativity and resourcefulness shown by our entire Restoring Family Links team makes a huge impact in the lives of families all around the world,” shares Crystal Smith, Service to the Armed Forces/International Services Regional Program Director.

The American Red Cross Restoring Family Links program assists individuals and families who are separated internationally by war, disaster, migration, political events and other humanitarian circumstances in re-establishing contact.

When families are separated internationally by armed conflict, disaster, migration and other humanitarian emergencies the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network can help to do the following:

  • Locate missing family members
  • Restore and maintain family communications
  • Provide war-time documentation of internment and/or documentation on the fate of missing family members

If you live in the United States and are seeking information about someone you’ve been unable to contact due to a recent disaster in the United States, including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, please visit American Red Cross’s Contact and Locate Loved Ones page. This information is also available in Spanish to search for your loved one.

If you are looking for a family member living abroad who is not a US citizen, please submit your inquiry here.

To all of our dedicated Red Cross Volunteers, thank you. Your dedication, compassion, and willingness to give your time and service upholds the mission of the Red Cross to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

To volunteer with the Red Cross, visit RedCross.org/volunteer.

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza

Volunteer Spotlight: Doug Harrison

Doug Harrison of Peoria has volunteered for the American Red Cross as a Blood Transportation Specialist for the past 15 years.

As a Transportation Specialist volunteer, Doug is the critical link between blood donors and blood recipients by delivering blood, platelets or other blood products to hospitals.

“This is a lifesaving job,” he says.

Formerly a printing press operator, Doug decided to start volunteering when his full-time job was eliminated. On average, he is called to deliver blood products two or three times a week – it’s a call he is always happy to take.

Doug also volunteers at blood drives and says, he just likes being able to do something for other people.

“I enjoy it. I’m giving back to the community; that there, in itself, makes me feel good.”
-Doug Harrison

Thank you, Doug! Visit redcross.org/volunteer to sign up as a Red Cross volunteer.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen

Giving After Receiving: Emery’s Story

Twelve years ago, Emery Taylor underwent organ transplant surgery which impacted him in many ways. Most significantly, because of his double organ transplants, Emery was inspired and has become a dedicated blood donor.

“I needed blood transfused during my surgery. Afterwards, all I could think was ‘someone selflessly donated their blood without knowing who it was going to and how it would save their life’. That someone who needed it to live was me and now it’s my turn.

Emery who is legally blind, makes arrangements with a ride share service to take him to and from his blood donation appointments and very little stops him from making his appointments, “We make time for the things we really care about. Donating blood is a simple thing to do and I urge everyone to give of themselves. I make it a priority because I was on the receiving end, and I know the difference it made in my life. Make it a priority. Donating blood is such a simple thing to do and you don’t know when you may be on the receiving end.”

Emery enjoys time with family when not advocating for the sight impaired or promoting blood donations.

Every two seconds someone in the United States needs blood as a result of surgery, an accident, cancer, sickle cell disease, a mother during labor, and many other instances. The blood on the shelf is what doctors count on during these times and the Red Cross counts on the generosity of blood donors to maintain a steady supply of blood on the shelves.

“I don’t let my vision loss stop me. Please, don’t let anything stop you from giving the gift of life.”

In addition to being a blood donor advocate, Emery dedicates his time with Sights Unlimited of Chicago Heights, a community-based support group for those who are blind or visually impaired and, in the near future, aims to host blood drives accessible to the visually impaired.

It is important that the Red Cross has a sufficient blood supply on-hand to meet the needs of patients every day and be prepared for emergencies of all types, including those that can disrupt blood drives, or require blood or platelet transfusions. Visit RedCrossBlood.org to find a blood drive near you or to learn how you can host a blood drive of your own.

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza

Heroic Actions to Help Save a Life: Sasha’s Story

Sasha-Welch Moore’s heroic actions helped save a life. She performed CPR on a man at her gym in Peoria who had stopped breathing. As a result, the man survived and continues to have an opportunity to live his life.

Sasha is one of our valued team members here in the Illinois region. Recently, we had the honor of presenting her with the Certificate of Merit, the highest award given by the Red Cross, for her lifesaving efforts – Red Cross Illinois Region CEO, Celena Roldán presented the award to Sasha during a staff retreat. Congratulations and thank you, Sasha!

Visit redcross.org/take-a-class to sign up for a CPR training class.

Unicorn Blood: Why my blood is extra special and so is yours

“The Red Cross keeps calling me to get me to sign up to give blood.”

I can remember laughing with my college roommate sometime in 2010 at the fact it seemed like the only time my phone ever rang anymore it was someone from the Red Cross asking if they could sign me up for an appointment to give again.

It had been a few weeks since the first time I ever actually did it; rolled up my sleeve and let a phlebotomist draw blood. A friend’s fraternity was hosting the drive on my college campus at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and I remember wanting to help them reach a donation goal.

Even though I didn’t like needles (who does?) and always felt squeamish at even the thought of what I had to do — I gave it a shot. The pros outweighed the cons, I thought; a few minutes of slight discomfort for the opportunity to save someone’s life? It didn’t seem like a big deal to me.

Soon after that first donation a donor card arrived in the mail for me and told me my blood type was O-. Some more information helped to educate me on what that meant and I quickly took in the value attached to blood like mine:

  • O negative is the most common blood type used for transfusions when the blood type is unknown.  This is why it is used most often in cases of trauma, emergency, surgery and any situation where blood type is unknown.  O negative is the universal blood type.
  • Only 7% of the population have O negative  blood. Due to the its versatility for transfusions, it is in high demand.  In an emergency, it is the blood product of choice. For example, just one car accident victim can require up to 100 units of O neg. Meeting the demand for O negative blood is always a priority for the Red Cross. 

I understood the importance, and I thought I’d try to give when I could; when it fit into my life. It wasn’t always easy though, often taking many attempts to donate just once due to so often being iron deficient. I once went to a standing blood drive 8 Fridays in a row until I finally passed the “iron test;” even with loading up on iron-rich foods during the week between attempts. Any excuse for a burger, right?

After each successful donation, I was met with so many “thank yous” and so much gratitude for an event that took less than an hour and came with great snacks! “Why don’t more people do this?” I thought.

Now I knew my O- blood was important, but I started getting notifications that not only was my type the universal donor but there was something else that made it even more special: I was CMV negative.

Ok … what is that?

I doubt many people know what CMV is or have ever heard of it — I certainly hadn’t.

Cytomegalovirus (good luck pronouncing that) or CMV is a flu-like virus that MOST people are exposed to at some point in their life. As with most viruses, once you have it the antibodies stay in your body. Magically, I have never had it.

When a baby needs a blood transfusion, their little, fragile bodies often need blood free of some of those “extra” antibodies. Actually, receiving those antibodies can be harmful to them. So the fact that I was CMV negative AND O- was kind of a big deal, maybe even “unicorn status”…

Some donation moments over the years

The Red Cross calls us “Heroes for Babies” and very graciously offers a few extra incentives to encourage us to donate our unicorn blood; t-shirts, lunch boxes, gift cards, etc. But honestly, isn’t being the provider of special baby blood enough? According to the Red Cross, the CMV virus is in about 85% of adults by the time they’re 40, so there are only a small group of us who fit this very specific medical need. So the free t-shirts are cool, but I do this expecting nothing in return- except the satisfaction of knowing a little baby somewhere is probably going to get my blood.

My blood is the safest blood to transfuse to immune deficient newborns. Wow, read that again.

Listen: having special, unique blood is awesome and I try my hardest to give blood as often as I can. I didn’t do anything extra to have this, you could probably chalk it up to sheer dumb luck. But the reality is, every person’s blood is important. Every single drop of it. No matter what type you are: your blood is special.

And if more of the people who are eligible to give blood donated on a consistent basis, the blood supply wouldn’t be as vulnerable. Only about 3% of the population gives blood. For me it has been a journey longer than a decade at this point, and I’ve donated around 4 gallons, but I have no plans to stop and I’ll continue to be a blood donation advocate.

Some of the “Heroes for Babies” swag

I’ve never needed blood, but it is actually a very common medical procedure. Statistically it’s only a matter of time before someone I love (or me!) will need it. And when that time comes I just hope there is someone else out there who took the time to give blood so it was there, waiting on the shelf to help save a life.

Not sure if you can donate? Check out the eligibility criteria here.

Sign up to give today at www.redcrossblood.org and follow your blood’s journey from your arm to a patient’s arm in the Red Cross Blood Donor App!

Written by Illinois Communications volunteer Holly Baker

Giving Back: Lily Leduc

Lily Leduc’s father came to live with her in 2017. She wanted to learn how to best care for him, so she took a certified nursing assistant training course, offered by the American Red Cross.

Now, Lily volunteers for the Red Cross in the Quad Cities and West Central Illinois chapter, where she is very involved in chapter activities and disaster responses.

“It’s my way of giving back to the Red Cross, because the training I got at that time was so valuable and it made life better for my father and myself, when he was living with us. So, that’s really my ‘why’ is to give back because I felt they gave so much to me,” said Lily.

Lily has deployed three times since joining the Red Cross as a volunteer in 2021. Most recently, the former resident of Florida returned to that state to help people affected by Hurricane Ian.

During her two-week deployment, Lily served as a supervisor for teams going door to door in Estero Beach, looking for people to offer assistance to, whose homes had been heavily damaged or destroyed.

“It’s like nothing really you’ve ever seen. You could smell the mold and mildew, as you came up to the houses,” she said. “You find people and they just want to tell you their stories, and we just heard some terrible stories.”

Lily recalls the story an 83-year-old man told her, of climbing into his attic with his two cats, to escape the rising water. “He rode that out for 20 hours, he watched his wife’s ashes float off. Just terrible stories – they just want to talk and they’re just glad to see somebody.”

Lily described her deployment following the tragic event that took place in Highland Park, IL this past summer as her most difficult one.

“To hear the people talk and you could feel the fear they were trying to relay; it’s just unimaginable, you can’t even wrap your head around it,” said Lily about her role as a caseworker, talking with those affected by the event.

“If I was in that situation, I would want someone there for me. That’s what I get back out of it. I just think, if that was me, I would want someone to be there to help me when I need help.”
-Lily Leduc

While the experiences can be challenging, Lily enjoys volunteering for the Red Cross and enjoys meeting new people as part of the experience.

“I love new volunteers, and I just want to tell them, ‘Hey, there’s so much you can do.’ A lot of people don’t realize what the Red Cross does,” Lily said. “When we get a new volunteer, I’m like, ‘Look at all of these things you can do. There’s just so much you can do.'”

Thanks for all you do, Lily! Visit redcross.org/volunteer to join the team as a volunteer.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen

Spreading Good Cheer All Year Round

Spreading Good Cheer All Year Round

Brett Batts of Norridge prefers to be called Mr. Christmas not just during the holiday season, but all year round. When asked why, Mr. Christmas shares, “We all need the holiday spirit all year round, not just in December. Cheer and joy are what I have set out to give everyone, everywhere I go, all the time.”

Joy, good cheer, and compassion are few of the sentiments Brett shares wherever he goes, and it is these sentiments that add to the feeling of hope and comfort to those he serves when he responds to local disasters or as he delivers blood.

Mr. Christmas has been a volunteer with the Red Cross since 2020 as a Transportation Specialist delivering lifesaving blood to area hospitals, in addition to being a loyal platelet donor himself. Always aspiring to do more, Brett trained, and currently also responds, to area disasters with the Disaster Action Team. “I have the time and desire to do more, and this is my way of giving back. I view my time with the Red Cross as a whole new volume in my life story and I’m working on making sure this volume has many chapters and that the stories in those chapters convey the spirit of joy and hope I’ve set as goals for myself.”

Not only is he holding himself accountable to spreading good cheer all year round, Brett is proud of his work with the Red Cross and has set his sights on soaring far and wide for many years.

“I hope to retire early so that I have time and energy to dedicate my retirement years to the Red Cross. From the first time I wandered into the Red Cross of Greater Chicago headquarters, I knew that’s where I needed to be. Reading about the history of the Red Cross displayed throughout the building is inspiring and the humanitarians that work and volunteer here are, as I like to put it — ‘the cherry on the banana split’! I’m honored to be part of the team and I hope to be part of the Red Cross for many years to come.”

Cheer and joy are indeed the feelings received when talking to Brett. Most recently during Operation Cookie Drop, Mr. Christmas serenaded area fire departments with Christmas carols. Operation Cookie Drop engages Red Cross volunteers to deliver cookies to area fire stations in appreciation of their hard work and dedication.

Singing Christmas carols during Operation Cookie Drop.

“The Red Cross always needs more volunteers. Everywhere I go I talk about the Red Cross and how people can play a key role even from home. In the meantime, as much as I can, I’m available to respond to wherever I’m needed the most.”

Thank you, Mr. Christmas for sharing your dedication, skills, and humanitarian spirit with the Red Cross.

The vital work of the American Red Cross is made possible by people like Brett who contribute their unique backgrounds, talents and skill levels. Our needs change based on current events, adding flexibility to get you involved in an area that inspires you! Visit RedCross.org/volunteer to learn more about volunteer opportunities in your area.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager, Connie Esparza

September Nott: Hall of Fame Platelet Donor

“It’s really important to give if you can do it. I don’t have a lot of money to give, so I just give myself.”
-September Nott

September Nott started giving blood in 2012, shortly after going with her son to his blood donation appointment. September was notified that she has a high platelet count in the days following her initial blood donation and she has been donating platelets, ever since.

Ten years later, September has made 187 donations, for a total of 490 units. She comes in every two weeks, and says she just enjoys being able to give back.

“There are so many people who need blood and platelets and plasma. It’s a part of my life that I can give selflessly to. It’s easy to do, and I love it,” she says.

September lost both of her parents and a close friend to cancer. She says, she likes to donate platelets in honor of people she knows who are battling cancer. Often times, September will bring a photo of those individuals with her to the donation center, as she makes her donation.

Beyond her gift of life, September found a unique way to help protect and connect the platelet donor community during the pandemic — donating roughly 1,800 hand-sewn masks to platelet donors and platelet collection staff members.

On Monday, Dec. 12, 2022 in Peoria, September was inducted into the Fresenius-Kabi Donation Hall of Fame for her efforts.

Congratulations, September and thank you for your contributions! Every 15 seconds a patient in the U.S. receives platelets, and nearly 50% of all donated platelets go to cancer patients. Click here to make an appointment to donate platelets.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen

A Second Chance at Life: Erin’s Story

“You just never know when it’s going to make a difference in someone’s life. Don’t hesitate to give blood. It’s such a worthwhile thing to do, and it can be life-saving – it saved my daughter’s life. People need blood.”
-Stephanie Brown

Stephanie Brown knew something wasn’t right. Her newborn daughter, Erin, was listless and rarely opening her eyes. Stephanie asked her pediatrician to run a blood test.

This particular blood test was familiar to Stephanie. She had worked as a lab tech at Duke University Medical Center’s neonatal unit, and the outcome often times was not a good one, in these types of scenarios.

The blood test confirmed what Stephanie had feared. Erin’s bilirubin level was 22, which is considered extremely high and dangerous. It was higher than any level Stephanie had seen, during her professional experience. Brain damage for Erin was a possibility at that moment; the condition also carried potentially fatal consequences.

Neither Stephanie nor her husband had a matching blood type. That’s when donated blood changed the narrative.

“Nobody’s blood matched hers, so we had to get emergency blood, said Stephanie. “Thank God someone had donated some A negative blood, and that’s when she got the total transfusion at four days old. It was a lot to go through.”

Erin stayed five days in the hospital after the blood transfusion, but the blood products used in that transfusion were instrumental in turning things around for her.

“It was truly an emergency. If we had waited any longer, who knows? We had a great outcome, but it didn’t have to go that way. If that blood wasn’t available, it wouldn’t have gone that way,” said Stephanie.

Now, Erin is a successful television news broadcaster, healthy and thankful for the people who chose to give the blood that helped save her life.

“Everyone deserves a chance to live. Blood donation can give someone that second chance at life, whether that’s a sick baby, or a cancer patient or someone who got into an accident,” she said. “We deserve a chance to live our lives and be the people we’re supposed to be.”

Erin understands some people are hesitant to give blood, but offers her real-life example of why it is so important to do so.

“A number for some people isn’t enough for them to take that step to donate blood, but there are people and families behind those numbers. In my situation, there was a really traumatized and heartbroken mom. I wouldn’t want any parent to go through that, and I definitely wouldn’t want any parent to experience what could have been my outcome, if that blood were not available.”
-Erin Brown

Visit redcrossblood.org to find a blood donation appointment near you. Thank you for giving the gift of blood!

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen

The Jones Family: Recovery After a Home Fire

The Jones Family: Recovery After a Home Fire

The Jones Family went to bed on a Thursday night following their normal routine. Lights off, devices put away, everyone in their respective rooms. At about 1 AM, a beeping sound woke Paula and she noticed her room was in complete darkness. When she exited her room she smelled smoke, noticed that the house was completely dark and without power, and there was a strange crackling coming from the ceiling.

When Paula confirmed that no one was in the kitchen burning popcorn in the microwave, she made her way outside to try and pinpoint where the noise and smell was coming from. Once outside she was convinced someone’s house was on fire and this is when she noticed smoke coming from the roof of her own house. Paula instantly went into action and ran back in the house to mobilize everyone out of bed and out of the house.

“I usually watch my tablet in bed and wear headphones so as to not interrupt my husband’s sleep since he wakes up very early to go to work. On that night, I don’t know why I put my device away and I never put my headphones on which now—what a blessing I didn’t because the strange crackling and beeping woke me up and I was able to get everyone safely out of the house,” remembers Paula.

The strange crackling turned out to be an electrical fire that started in the attic of her home. Paula, her husband, mother, and three children quickly exited the home, and all Paula could think was, “There are oxygen tanks in my house!” Her mother, who suffers from COPD, needs oxygen constantly and her oxygen machine was in fact the cause of the beeping that woke up Paula. “My mother’s machine has a piercing and constant beeping when its power source is interrupted. On this night, that was our smoke alarm. We all watch movies and TV shows and we see on the news how others are affected by home fires and you never expect it to happen to you. When it does, it’s surreal and just incredible how one reacts. I was fixated on collecting my mother’s oxygen to prevent a bigger disaster meanwhile, I was running around in my nightgown and no shoes.”

The hours following her house fire are a blur. While resting at her aunt’s house, her husband off to work, Paula’s sister suggested she contact the Red Cross for help. Within hours she was meeting a Red Cross caseworker at her house, and this is when they noticed that her house was once again on fire. This second fire finished destroying the home and all that was in it.

“I was so grateful to have the Red Cross caseworker there. She stayed the entire time and walked me through next steps. This is what I needed because my family and I were at a complete loss. We had no idea where to start. How does one begin to recover from a house fire?”

“When you hear that the Red Cross shows up to provide comfort, care, and immediate needs—that’s exactly what happens. The Red Cross helped get my mother’s and son’s prescriptions refilled. They gave me a voucher to replace my glasses, through funds provided by the Red Cross we found a hotel that has been incredibly kind and generous and who has made us feel at home and even welcomed our beloved dog,” continued Paula.

“Not only did the Red Cross help us materially and with a recovery plan, but they also made sure we were well health-wise — mentally and spiritually. That above all is what we will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. The holidays are coming up and we have a tight knit family and groups of friends, and we will celebrate and give thanks together. As for Christmas, we don’t want gifts. We have asked our family and friends to instead, donate to the American Red Cross. There will be other families in the same situation we found ourselves in and we want to make sure we pay it forward,” stated Paula.

Paula and her family are getting ready to move into a rental property while they sort out rebuilding their home. In the meantime, Paula works remotely from her hotel room, and together, they make plans for this next phase of their family’s story.

The American Red Cross responds to more than 60,000 disasters a year and most are home fires.

As part of the Home Fire Campaign, the Red Cross is calling on everyone to take two simple steps that can save lives: practice fire drills at home and check existing smoke alarms. Increase your chances of surviving a fire:

  • Create a home fire escape plan that includes at least two ways to escape each room and a meeting spot to reunite after escaping.
  • Practice the plan until everyone can get out in less than two minutes.
  • If someone doesn’t have smoke alarms, install them. At a minimum, put one on every level of the home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Local building codes vary and there may be additional requirements where someone lives.
  • If someone does have alarms, test them today. If they don’t work, replace them.

 Learn more about Home Fire Preparedness and access free fire safety resources.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager, Connie Esparza