2018 Chicago Heroes Breakfast

Each year, the Heroes Breakfast honors local heroes who step up to save lives or help those around them. The American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois held its 16th annual Heroes Breakfast on Thursday, May 3. Our youngest hero this year was seven-year-old Olivia Shorter, who received the Blood Services Award and proved that anyone can be a hero.

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Shorter’s story starts in the hospital where she was born and diagnosed with sickle cell disease, a genetic disorder that breaks down her red blood cells. So far, Shorter has had over 100 blood transfusions and even had to have her spleen removed.

Despite what she has been through at such a young age, Shorter still wants to help others. For her seventh birthday she told her parents she wanted to have “a party for the children with sickle cell.” But that’s not all they did. For Olivia’s birthday, the Shorter family hosted a joint party and blood drive with the American Red Cross, drawing in more than 200 people.

Throughout the morning, the heroes stories only continued to impress and there was a sense of humbleness about those honored. Like Dr. Leona Di Amore, recipient of the Emergency Medical Assistance Award, who insists, “it wasn’t heroism, I’m just a mom who had great skills.” Indeed she does, Di Amore is a doctor and is a former Navy medic.


Di Amore was visiting her daughter for Mother’s Day at the University of Texas at Austin when they heard a commotion as students began running through the campus. She ran toward the situation to find that a man was attacking individuals on campus with a machete-like knife. One student was the victim of an attempted beheading and had a cut on his neck that was so deep his spine was exposed; she packed his wound and kept him safe during the chaos.

While Di Amore happened to be the right person at the right time, she says, “Anybody can be a hero, they just have to have courage and kindness and compassion.” Which describes the situation Kate Dzierzanowski, who received the Good Samaritan Award.

Dzierzanowski was working at an insurance agency in St. Charles and head home soon, when she heard a loud noise and found a car slammed into the guardrail outside the office. “I was the first person on the scene… I couldn’t alert him, so I ran over into traffic [to reach the driver’s side],” and when she couldn’t find a pulse, Dzierzanowski said she performed CPR and ultimately saved his life.

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Now, she sees CPR as an essential, life-saving skill everyone should learn. She recalls another workday when her employer scheduled a mandatory CPR class for all employees. At the time, Dzierzanowski was annoyed and felt that she had too much work to take care of for a CPR class, but now she is grateful she took the time for it.

Dzierzanowski said, “I don’t feel like a hero by any means, I think I did what anyone would do.” That’s just the message the Heroes Breakfast left us with once again this year. Our heroes plan to continue their good work. The Shorter family is planning to celebrate another big event this year for Olivia’s birthday. On September 15 they will hold a blood drive in Madison, Ill and are hoping to attract and even larger crowd than last year. To find out more information about the Shorters and their work, you can go to sickleschmikle.org.

Written by Eleanor Lyon, American Red Cross Communications Volunteer


Life in the Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Irma & Maria

On September 5th I went to bed after calling my family back home, not realizing that it would be the last time I would hear their voices for the next three days. A Category 5 hurricane would knock out the phone signals for the next few days, making it impossible for me to know what condition my hometown was in. Hurricane Irma barreled through the Caribbean on the 6th of September, affecting over 35 of my family members, leaving some homeless with nothing left but the clothes on their back. As a girl born and raised in the Virgin Islands, I knew the impact of a hurricane, but most of the ones I lived through never had this much of an effect.


Since most people aren’t from an area completely encircled by water, its difficult to understand what islanders have to deal with, right before, during, and after a hurricane. Being on an island isn’t like being in the states. It isn’t as easy as just driving up north for safety a day or two before the storm. No matter where you are, you’re surrounded by water. Overnight, the not-so-threatening category 3 turned into a category 5. A hurricane the size of Ohio and almost 5,000 times bigger than my hometown, was going to pummel through my tiny 32 square-mile island, and there was nothing that I could do to help from this far away. Even the last few flights leaving the island in the afternoon on the 5th, right before the hurricane hit, were outrageously priced. Prices for a flight to Florida, which usually are less than $500 during peak season, were going for more than $1,200 per person due to extremely high demand.

On the 7th, around 5a.m. in the morning, I got my first glimpse of the disorder and chaos. Looking through Facebook, I saw a picture of the police station, with a part of the building left with no roof and two walls missing. Following that I saw a video Waterfront, completely submerged in water over 2.5 feet above ground. My heart broke to see this and I automatically felt sick, I hadn’t heard from anyone from home for what felt like a lifetime. As the day went on, I desperately stayed on Facebook to check for any activity from neighbors, friends, or anyone I knew could easily get in contact with my family. It’s difficult knowing that the place you called home for the first 17 years of your life, now looked completely unrecognizable. What hurts even more is constantly living in the fear, not knowing who was okay, and if the places I walked by every day were still standing. I was hopeful, but terrified to know the answers to the questions that popped in my head. I wondered if my family and friends were safe, if my neighbors were alright, and if the school I went to was still standing.  Following that, other pictures surfaced the internet of our airport, fire station, our only hospital completely destroyed and flooded. Nothing was left.


You always hear about people who aren’t able to get in touch with their loved ones, but it is a completely different story when it happens to you. On the 8th early in the morning, I woke up from my sleep, to a 6 a.m. call from my mother. This was the first time she had received phone signal in two and a half days. We had yet to hear from our uncles, aunts, and cousins. She told me that she hadn’t slept for the past two days because the wind was so strong and the shutters kept banging on the windows. She told me how one of our big window downstairs cracked and caused over 4 inches of flooding in the house, but other than that, our home was in tact. She told me how some trees fell were blocking our driveway and how she couldn’t get out until the neighbors moved it. She told me how the trees fell on one of our cars, and shattered one of the back windows, but that it would all be okay since we have insurance on it. Through out the day she updated me on our other family members, and how our neighbors were doing. She also told me about how they couldn’t leave the neighborhood because the curfew still hadn’t been lifted.

At this time, we still hadn’t heard from my dad’s younger brother and his family, all that we knew was that their area had been impacted very hard. We prayed together over the phone and my mother told me to only think positive thoughts. Since my parents had lived through Katrina, Hugo, and Maryland, they knew how to be strong in even the hardest situations. We didn’t hear about their safety until almost half a day later. Through the shutters, one of their windows had completely shattered, causing massive flooding in the guest bedroom. They wind was banging on the door so loud that they feared it would burst open the door to the room, so they took furniture to block it from breaking open. My mother told me about how my uncles house was completely leveled in St. Martin. She told me how one of my cousins, his wife, and his new born baby, were trapped with 11 other family members (including another aunt who was pregnant) in the master bathroom, as they deemed it to be the safest room in the house. Their roof was partially gone, they lost a wall and their living room and dinning hall area, but the important thing was that everyone was safe.

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Family Friend’s House

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Cousin’s House


For the next few months, people back home were living with no power, no clean water, no internet. The island was completely damaged, with 90% of water and power distribution lines and poles down, and almost every road was blocked. The beautiful green lush place I called home looked like a war-zone. The Virgin Islands were a place that used to entice people with it’s white sands, and beautiful clear beaches, but no one would be visiting for the next few months. Since our economy is heavily influenced by tourism and most hotels were damaged, Tourism had been held at a halt, causing an increase in the unemployment rate and forcing many people to leave their homes and migrate to the states. Many of my family members and friends now permanently live in the states, as a result of these disasters. The curfew made it impossible for people to leave their houses, but some people with corrupt intentions broke it. During this time violence broke out within the islands, as people were desperate. A family member told me about how my other cousin’s house was broken into, and they stole his generator and MacBook.

Following that day, I called my parents every single day to see how they were doing, even though coverage was spotty. Since our generator broke during the hurricane, my parents stayed at my aunt’s house. My dad told me how my old school was closed because the FEMA and government personnel was using our school as a base to help shelter and mobilize federal supplies and support, and that it would be at least another month or so until my brother would be able to go to school again. My dad told me about how condensed milk was going for $3, and a can and a pack of bread for $8, due to price grouching. My mom updated me on my younger cousin, who was a senior, and how she was doing. The college application process became a lot harder for her, as she had no internet and was typing her college essays in the dark using her cell phone. My mom told be about how they had organized a prayer in my aunt’s house to keep them safe for the next Hurricane Jose, which redirected its path. In this time, they knew that hope was the most valuable item that they could hold on to.


Unfortunately, 2 weeks later, Hurricane Maria hit my hometown again, drowning everything that Hurricane Irma did not destroy. The government did a great job at warning citizens that another category 5 was going to hit. Most people were aware though word of mouth, and were able to prepare. Once again the same process occurred, where I couldn’t hear from my family for a few days, and it felt like I was living the same nightmare over again. This time, our supply sister islands, Puerto Rico and St. Croix, were more directly impacted which left the rest of the Caribbean in the same boat. Some islands were impacted even harder, and were considered to be inhabitable. During this past hurricane season in 2017, over 90% of the infrastructures in the Virgin Islands were impacted. To say that my immediate family was lucky for only facing minimal flooding in our house, and a few broken windows to our car, is a major understatement, after seeing how two Category 5 hurricanes affected some of the other people on island.


Forward to December 18th, more 4 months after the first hurricane hit, I went back home to visit my parents for winter break. Part of me didn’t want to go home, because my parents still didn’t have power and the hot water only ran for 3 hours of the day in the morning from 5am-8am. It made me sad to know that we still didn’t have power and that this Christmas was not going to be as bright as the last one. I’m not sure how my family lasted like this for over 4 months, when I couldn’t even last 4 days. Two days after I landed, I began seeing linemen working on my street, and with less than 5 days left to Christmas, you can definitely say Santa gave us the best present we could have. It’s funny to think how much we take for granted until it is taken from us.



Since September, the lushness of the island has been restored and is more beautiful than ever. Power was 100% restored by early February. Hotels are now being reconstructed to attract more tourists. My parents were finally able to go back to work in early December, as tourists started to come in again. My brother is finally back in school and no longer constantly feels “bored” since our internet is finally back. My cousin updated me on how she was accepted into her top choice, and will be attending Princeton University in New Jersey next fall. Although it might take some more time, life is slowly but surely going back to normal.

Being back home helped me realize how much I wanted to work with an organization that helps others in times of need. One of the biggest reasons I felt so compelled to join the American Red Cross was because they were there for my people when they needed it the most. With the out pour of support, the United States Virgin Islands has received, following the 2017 Hurricane season, they are finally able to pick themselves up and rebuild again. I am extremely grateful and proud to know that I come from such a small but strong community.

Written by Lavita Totwani, Communications Intern for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago

Volunteer Spotlight: RJ Castro

American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois volunteer, RJ Castro, will be unveiling a bronze statue this June. RJ has been sculpting “Captain Abraham Lincoln, Black Hawk War,” a seven foot version of a smaller sculpture that was given to the Lincoln Presidential Library in 2015. The sculpture will be unveiled June 23, from 1-3 pm at the Black Hawk War Monument, 14109 W Blackhawk Rd, Pearl City, IL.  We encourage everyone to check it out! Pictures of RJ and the smaller copy of the sculpture are shown below.


How the Red Cross Helps Veterans

Why the Red Cross Helps

I remember visiting Washington D.C. with my family in high school. We went to the Vietnam War Memorial, and I felt dwarfed by the long black wall with so many names engraved into it. At that time, I did not grasp the immense significance of the names; how each represented a soldier with a family, memories of home and childhood, and plans for what they would do if they returned home. As I get older, approaching college graduation, I learn more and more about everything soldiers risk when they choose to serve our nation. On the Vietnam War Memorial, each name is a reminder of those who died because of the war, who paid the greatest sacrifice a person can make in life.

Our nation goes to great lengths to honor our soldiers, fallen heroes and veterans. Both government programs and non-profit organizations provide aid to veterans throughout their life. One of these non-profits is the Red Cross, and we are so thankful for the opportunity to serve those who have served us first, risking their lives for our safety.

How the Red Cross Helps

Emotional Support

The Red Cross serves our nation’s military in multiple ways. One of these ways is through emotional support. When a soldier leaves home for deployment, both the soldier and his/her family are likely to experience some sort of emotional distress. The soldier may experience the pain of separation from their family or anxiety over their own safety and transitioning into a new realm of life. Many times these soldiers have spouses and children and may fear for their beloveds’ well being. Likewise, the family may experience the pain of separation and fear for their loved one’s safety.

To help people through this, the Red Cross offers workshops to help people cope with deployments, PTSD and trauma. The Red Cross also offers workshops specifically geared towards helping children deal with the deployment of a parent or sibling. The Red Cross has many volunteers who are trained to reach out to and care for soldiers, veterans, and their families when tough times come.

Working with Veterans Affairs

The Red Cross also works together with the Veterans Affairs Health Care Centers, which are government-run clinics dedicated to serving veterans. The Red Cross goes to these locations and helps with weekly food pantries for veterans, in addition to running the No Veteran Dies Alone program. In this program, the Red Cross ensures that veterans without families are not left alone in a hospital, but instead sends volunteers to talk with and care for the ill veterans. Being stuck in a hospital alone is an awful experience, and the Red Cross ensures that this does not happen.

Emergency Communications

The Red Cross also works with the government to help families communicate with their soldiers in a time of emergency. Even when soldiers are overseas, problems can arise back home. Loved ones may become sick or pass away, for example. In these times, the Red Cross gives information to the military about the emergency. This allows the soldier’s commander to make an educated decision about whether emergency leave should be given to the soldier to return home.

Military Entrance Processing Help

The Red Cross also helps at Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) for soldiers preparing to serve the country. These are locations where soldiers go to swear in and complete the enlistment process. When soldiers and their families come, the Red Cross also come and informs the families of the services they offer, as discussed above. The Red Cross also provides details about how families and soldiers can communicate (good days and times for phone calls, for example) and informs every one of the Hero Care App, a phone app that allows the Red Cross’ services to be accessed easily.

How to Volunteer or Get Help

You can see volunteer opportunities for the Red Cross by going to www.redcross.org. Those interested in volunteering with the Red Cross’ Service to the Armed Forces Dept. should contact Breanna Rodriguez at breanna.rodriguez@redcross.org. Dedicated volunteers are the only way that the Red Cross is able to offer the amount of services that it can to those in need, and we are extremely thankful for their help, and love having new people join our team.

Those who need help can call 1-877-272-7337, the phone number for the Red Cross Emergency Communication Services. This dispatch service will connect you with the people that can help you in the way you need most.


Written by Gordon White, Communications Intern for the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois 

“Sound the Alarm. Save a Life”

A Story to Learn From

Less than a year ago, some family members of mine woke up in the middle of the night. Outside, their dog barked over and over again, and for a moment, they tried to ignore the dog and go back to sleep. But he kept barking, until finally one of them got up and looked out of their window. In their backyard, a huge pile of wood had caught fire.

The two of them rushed outside and they threw bucket after bucket of water onto the fire, narrowly avoiding the rusty nails sticking out of the wood. They kept the flames at bay until the fire department arrived. The next day, the fire extinguished, they learned that it had been started by some ashes and embers that were thrown on the wood. Their young child had assumed that the ashes had cooled down enough to be safely disposed of, but they were not.

In this instance, everyone was fine, and nothing besides some old wood was damaged. Still, the story is a reminder that fires start and spread quickly, and nobody can fully insulate themselves from the risk of such a tragedy.

Misunderstanding House Fires

Still, people often don’t accurately predict their own safety from fires. House fires constitute the majority of disasters that the American Red Cross responds to. The danger of house fires is heightened by the knowledge that forty percent of people admit to having forgotten to turn off a stone or oven, which are the leading cause of fires. And more than a third of people use stoves, kerosene lanterns, or space heaters, and heating equipment is involved in a fifth of all home fire deaths.

To add to this, the majority of people overestimate how much time they will have to flee a burning home. According to experts, some people will have as little as two minutes to safely exit. When a house is burning, every second matters, especially when babies, children, or the elderly are involved. Every day, seven people die in the United States as a result from a home fire. Tragically, many of these happen in homes without working smoke alarms.

Many of these deaths would have be preventable if victims had working smoke alarms in their house.  The sound of a smoke alarm can make the difference when warning people within moments if a fire had started in their house. Smoke alarms give people time to gather their children and ensure that everyone leaves the house quickly. Property may be damaged, but people will survive.

How You Can Help

The Red Cross is teaming up with local fire departments and other agencies to Sound the Alarm, installing free smoke alarms across the country in homes that need them. It is part of the larger Home Fire Campaign, which since beginning in 2014, has installed over one million alarms nationwide. And it has been credited with helping to save over 400 lives.

This Spring, you can help be a part of this. Sound the Alarm is only made possible by volunteers. It is our volunteers who installed one million smoke alarms, and our volunteers who have helped save over 400 lives. We are so thankful to anyone who signs up to volunteer to help Sound the Alarm.

The event kicks off on April 28 in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, and volunteers will be installing smoke alarms for the next five Saturdays. For more information on how to volunteer for Sound the Alarm, you can contact visit www.soundthealarm.org/northernIL.

Thank you for serving and saving lives with us.

Written by Gordon White, Communications Intern for the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois

Where Your Blood Goes After You Donate

In the Chicago Red Cross office, there is a poster stretching down the length of a wall. On the right side of the poster, printed in white text on a red background, a paragraph tells the story of Amy. At the age of ten, Amy was told that she had leukemia. As she battled this, she went to chemotherapy every six weeks. Also during this time, Amy received over 100 pints of blood from donors to help as she fought the disease.

Heidi Reed sits in a chair after her donation

When people donate blood to the Red Cross, it can be easy to forget the impact that their blood is having. Volunteers give their blood at a blood drive, and once the drive ends, the Red Cross packs up and leaves. The donors walk away and continue on with their normal day, and they do not get to see where their blood has gone or, more importantly, to whom. Part of the nobility of blood donation is that those giving blood, without knowing where their blood will go or whom it will help, give anyways.

At the Chicago Red Cross building, I learned about the great lengths the Red Cross takes to maintain the integrity of their blood services branch.

For instance, after donation, donated blood is given a unique identification number, and samples of the blood are sent to a national testing center. There, the Red Cross catalogs the blood type of the donation and ensures that it is pure of disease. While the sample is being tested, the donation is spun in a centrifuge and divided into three parts: The red cells, the platelets, and the plasma. Each of these three can be donated to different people for different situations. In this way, one blood donation can save the lives of three people. Once the testing center confirms that the donation is free of disease, it is delivered to a hospital, where it is given to people who need it.

Nicole Thompson finishes her donation

Every two seconds, someone in America needs blood. This could be a mother experiencing complications in childbirth, a car accident victim, or someone, like Amy, who require regular blood transfusions to battle cancer. Donations save these people. Donations saved Amy.

After many rounds of chemotherapy and many transfusions, Amy defeated cancer. She has been cancer-free for almost twenty years now, is married, and has a son. “I hope people realize that blood and platelet donations cannot only help a patient in need, but can have an impact on future generations,” she once said. “My family and I are living proof of that.”

It is unlikely that any of the people who donated to Amy know of the effect that they have had. And Amy is not alone. Everyday, there are people who require blood to survive, people who have been diagnosed with cancer, or undergo a medical emergency. It is donations from normal people with normal lives, who may never meet the people they donate to, that save lives.

To all of our blood donors, thank you.

Written by Gordon White, American Red Cross Communications Intern

Remembering Bonnie Knight

The Red Cross of Chicago would like to share loving memories of Bonnie Knight, who passed away Friday, March 30, of this year. Bonnie Knight was an exceptional volunteer who served alongside her husband, Marty Knight, since 2010. She originally focused on disaster relief but quickly transitioned into volunteering in the Services to the Armed Forces (SAF) department, her true passion.

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Bonnie is pictured here with her husband, Marty, volunteering at the Manteno Veterans Home.


Bonnie and Marty went above and beyond in their participation in the SAF program. Each month, they drove 140 miles round-trip from their home to the Chicago Military Entrance Processing Station. There, they spoke with newly enlisted service members and the members’ families. They prepared soldiers for the difficulties of entering the military, and also prepared families for a life where their loved one has moved away from home and into the armed forces. They also taught the families how to use the Red Cross emergency communication service in the event of an emergency at home.

Bonnie and Marty served as SAF Leads for the Manteno Veterans Home and Prince Home, a position that included shopping with veterans for items like winter clothing. Bonnie also volunteered as a Site Lead at the 2017 Warrior Games, where wounded Service Members participate in athletic events.

As Bonnie’s health grew worse, she maintained an indomitable passion and a positive outlook on life. Michelle McSweeney, formerly with the SAF program, said, “We often got pictures of Bonnie and Marty with the veterans while they were passing out the items, and every person – especially the veterans – has a beaming smile on their faces. Bonnie always had such a bright and positive personality and smile on her face.”

Thank you, Bonnie, for helping us serve our military, their families, and veterans. Your service will not be forgotten.