Rochelle Family of 4 People & 4 Pets Alerted to Basement Fire from Smoke Alarms Installed Just 8 Days Earlier

A Fire Below

On the afternoon of May 22, 2022, Clarence Weber and his family stood outside the Rochelle, Illinois home he has lived in for 41 years and watched as local firefighters arrived and starting putting out a fire raging from the basement. Clarence says it was the smoke that he remembers most; thick, dark that he couldn’t see through and toxic, especially after he got a few whiffs of it.

Clarence had heard a small explosion in the basement followed by the high-pitched tone of two smoke alarms going off. At first, he used a fire extinguisher to attempt to put out the fire growing in the basement but soon realized it was getting too big too quickly for the small hand-held extinguisher alone to smother.

“All I saw was flames that I thought I may have been able to put out but the things that were on fire became toxic smoke immediately,” Clarence remembered.

He quickly got himself and his wife, daughter and granddaughter out of the home safely. The four pets of the family including two dogs, a cat and a lizard also all got out with the help of of the firefighters.

Smoke Alarms Above

Just eight days before, on May 14th, 2022 Clarence and his wife had been at home when a knock at the door revealed several volunteers offering to install some new smoke alarms in the house at no cost. They considered if their current alarms were sufficient but determined they had to be at least 20 years old and likely outdated technology, so they welcomed the volunteers.

“I saw it as a gift,” he said. “As a homeowner for many, many years there’s so many different things you keep up on and you’ve got to remember and sometimes the files get crowded [in your mind] ….did you change that battery?”

Red Cross volunteer Jan Fulfs and a partner volunteer from the city of Rochelle installed two 10-year smoke alarms and reviewed some home fire safety information with the family as part of the national Red Cross initiative “Sound the Alarm” where volunteers canvas neighborhoods across the country providing fire safety education and installing new, free smoke alarms.

“I saw it as that, something brand new for me that I didn’t have to pay for at my own cost to upgrade it to brand new technology. That caught my ear right there and it had a ten year battery life,” he said.

Clarence says he feels grateful to have had the new smoke alarms, unsure if the old ones would have gone off in the same situation or if the family had been asleep when the fire started in the basement, where fires often burn for a while undetected.

Resilience Within

During the fire, paramedics, firefighters and neighbors arrived to help including a pair of Red Cross volunteers; Tracy and Tony Bustos, a husband and wife team from Freeport, IL. The Red Cross provided emergency financial assistance, basic essential items, medication refills and connections to many resources to make sure the family had what they needed while dealing with the aftermath of a home fire.

Though mostly contained to the basement, much of Clarence’s house was damaged by either fire, heat, smoke or water including many of the family’s materials related to hobbies. Through it all, Clarence maintains that his whole family and all their pets are safe and he’s thankful for the outpouring of support from the community.

“This little fire is just a bump in the road. We’re blessed at the response and all the things that have fallen into place.”

Rochelle Fire Department Chief Dave Sawlsville says having working smoke alarms and knowledge of multiple ways to escape your home could be the critical difference for families who experience a home fire which is why partnering with the Red Cross for “Sound the Alarm” aligned with their goals for the community. He says it was “eye-opening” to see how many families did not have smoke alarms that worked or did not have any at all.

“Today’s fire house fire is so much different than the house fire of ten years ago or 15 years ago. It’s it’s so much hotter and so much faster and and the black smoke is so much thicker, you know, that it’s it’s an entirely possible for you to get turned around in your own house and that’s the message we’ve been trying to tell people,” Chief Sawlsville said.

The Rochelle Fire Department and the Red Cross continue to install smoke alarms, a small device that can increase a person’s chances of surviving a home fire by 50%. In the event of a fire, you may only have 2 minutes or less to get out of a home.

“It makes a difference; it could have been my entire house without them and possibly the loss of a life or a pet,” Clarence said.

Clarence and his family are staying with a relative until they can move back into their home and says he is “thankful for not only the gift of the smoke alarms but the relief that was brought forward immediately,” he said. “It raised my level of belief in humanity quite a bit that day and the following weeks after that; all the surrounding people and the support from this incident has been overwhelming and I’m grateful, very grateful.”

To learn more about the “Sound the Alarm” initiative or to get involved as a volunteer with the Red Cross, visit www.redcross.org/soundthealarm

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Holly Baker

Red Cross provides basic needs, shelter after Calumet City Memorial Day Fire

The American Red Cross has volunteers on the ground in Calumet City continuing to provide support after a large fire broke out on Monday at an apartment building on Park Avenue. Volunteers responded to the fire and provided comfort and hygiene items, snacks and food, mental health support and resources including helping people get basic items they need like medications and eye glasses.

The fire affected hundreds of units and nearby buildings have also had utilities shut down in the days following. Local officials from the city stepped in to provide lodging at a nearby hotel for many of the people displaced for two nights. Since their apartments sustained much damage, many people may be out of their homes for much longer and the Red Cross opened a shelter at a local community center to offer a safe place to sleep for more days ahead if people needed it.

Volunteers like Jackie, Thomas and Ruthann assisted in setting up and coordinating meals and connecting individually with people affected to provide casework and additional resources. As of June 1, seven people were registered guests at the shelter, but ultimately utilized additional resources provided by the city for alternate accomodations.

Sonia, Joy and Diane are three people who came to the Red Cross shelter. Sonia and Diane are sisters and neighbors. Joy is also a neighbor and cares for Sonia who has cancer. Sonia credits hearing the alarms for getting out safely. Her sister on the other hand was in a deep sleep and did not hear the alarms but woke up to a lot of commotion and fire on her balcony. They reunited and waited from 6 pm to 1 am before finally going to a hotel. Despite the circumstances they are in, they smile and laugh and are happy they are together and alive.

Sonia, Joy and Diane

Meet Agnes and Mel. Both residents of 300 Park Avenue. Agnes lives on the 2nd floor and Mel on the 5th floor. Agnes was sitting by her patio and saw the fires start in one section and pop over to the next. Her daughter was with her and ran out to alert everyone on the 2nd floor and ran up to the 5th to get Mel who is almost immobile. She found someone who carried Mel down from the 5th floor. They are both eternally grateful to the fire department for their professionalism and dedication. They wish to express their gratitude to them and to all who have the calling to serve. And they’re still smiling because they have today and they are alive.

Agnes and Mel

Those interested in helping the people affected should coordinate with the Illinois COAD by emailing neilcoad@gmail.com.

Anyone displaced by the fire and in need of shelter or additional resources can contact the Red Cross at 312-729-6100.

Learn more about volunteering for the Red Cross here.

Volunteer Dave Boyles Dedicates a Decade to Disaster Response, Recovery 

When Dave Boyles retired 10 years ago, it marked the beginning of a new and exciting chapter for him. After a technical career, Dave wanted to find something that was meaningful and would also use the “people side” of his personality. The Red Cross was the perfect match! 

Dave volunteers as part of the Disaster Action Team, and over the years has served in many capacities: responding to home fires, completing client recovery casework, conducting damage assessments as the first boots on the ground post-disaster, and helping lead a team that installed more than 230 smoke detectors with the Red Cross’s signature Sound the Alarm events in locales near his home in Morrison, IL. 

Numerous Red Cross disaster deployments have also positioned Dave throughout the country and beyond. He deployed to California and Oregon for the wildfires, and worked alongside Canadian Red Crossers responding to their wildfires while in British Columbia. Disaster responses to hurricanes, tornados, and floods landed Dave in North Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. One of Dave’s most memorable deployments was to Saipan – twice. The first time was for immediate disaster response after Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, which led to a longer-term deployment working with FEMA to hire, train, and supervise local residents in recovery casework. The second time was for Typhoon Yutu, in 2018. Dave’s total deployment time to date equates to two and a half years (approximately 25% of his time, if you do the math!). 

The bottom line for Dave: “It’s all about the people, coming face-to-face with them, and helping them find solutions to their problems, often during a crisis. My eyes have been opened to different lifestyles and a diversity of people; you realize that not everyone lives a comfortable, Midwestern life. And the Red Cross helps everyone, in a non-judgmental way.” 

These humanitarian Red Cross principles are a huge driver for Dave, and they keep the Red Cross mission strong, credible, and recognizable around the world. Also appealing for him is the variety of volunteer opportunities. “No matter what your ambitions are, there’s something for you at the Red Cross.”  

Thank you Dave, for your decade of outstanding service! 

Written by Communications & Marketing Volunteer, Virginia Hopley  

Neuroscience Graduate Inspired by Red Cross Mission

Neuroscience Graduate Inspired by Red Cross Mission

“I thought I was going in for a routine internship … little did I know it would change my life.”

Joyce Ruan, a neuroscience Loyola University graduate, recently completed an internship with the Red Cross of Greater Chicago Disaster Relief team, but her connection to the Red Cross goes further back. While in high school, Joyce donated blood and participated in community events through the Red Cross, and she carried this practice through her college years.

During her final year at Loyola, Joyce wanted to find an opportunity within the non-profit sector in Chicago as it was part of her non-profit studies. Not only was Joyce interested in a local non-profit, but she was looking for something that incorporated service in emergency situations. That’s when it hit her — the Red Cross is a non-profit humanitarian services organization! Joyce quickly connected with the Red Cross through our Volunteer Services team and put her emergency medical response experience to work in Disaster Relief.

While Joyce enjoyed and appreciated the office work, the most fulfilling part of her internship experience was the field work. Showing up to a fire response to provide aid and being able to be there when someone needed it the most.

As was the case last January, when a man named William had a house fire in the middle of the night. He was taken to the Emergency Room and was evaluated and told that because he had no burns, frost bite, or smoke inhalation, he was free to go. William was discharged from the hospital wearing only pajamas and socks. He had no phone, identification, money, and it was frigid cold. Not only was he devasted … William did not know where to go.

Around the corner from the hospital came Joyce and Sophia, Joyce’s supervisor. Together, they helped William secure transportation to a warm hotel, saw to his basic needs, but most importantly, they were there to provide compassion and comfort.

Joyce pictured with her internship supervisor, Sophia Kluessendorf, Disaster Program Manager

“I was so moved and inspired by William. He was living through a terrible time in his life, yet he was so incredibly optimistic and appreciative that we were there for him,” states Joyce. “At that moment, William put so many things in perspective for me. I realize that I’ve been so fortunate, but disaster can happen to anyone and no matter what socioeconomic status or where you live, for the most part, we are not prepared, and we all would like to have someone lend a hand.”

Joyce has since completed her internship and moved on to pursue her Physician Assistant degree, but she remains committed to continuing to volunteer with the Red Cross. She credits her time as an intern and seeing how vital volunteers are to organizations like the Red Cross, as her motivation to add her name to the group of dedicated volunteers. Her biggest wish is to inspire her generation to volunteer.

Joyce and family at her graduation.

“We need to be there for our community. A disaster can happen to anyone and if it happens to be you, you’re going to want someone to help you. We can all learn more about ourselves and our community from volunteering and there are many volunteer opportunities within the Red Cross. Being a humanitarian is one of the best traits I have, and I hope everyone gets a chance to experience this side of themselves!”

Volunteers at the Red Cross carry out 90% of the humanitarian work. Joyce invites you to make a difference and be a volunteer. To join her, visit www.redcross.org/volunteer

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza

Volunteers “Sound the Alarm” in Joliet

Dozens of volunteers with the American Red Cross gathered on May 21, 2022 in Joliet to canvass neighborhoods installing free smoke alarms and providing fire safety education to families and helping them create a home fire escape plan.

“Sound the Alarm” is a national initiative by the Red Cross to make homes safer from fires across the country by installing more smoke alarms and making sure families know what to do if there is a fire. Studies show many people believe they would have five minutes or more to get out of a home on fire when in reality they have two minutes or less, and having a working smoke alarm increases your chances of surviving a home fire by 50%.

Don Cusack and Elsa Preciada are two volunteers who went to six homes on Saturday and installed over twenty smoke alarms. They were one of many teams out meeting people and installing smoke alarms for them in Joliet neighborhoods including a woman who was over 100 years old, families with many small children, multiple generations living together and more!

Volunteers replaced old, expired smoke alarms at Bob Lefevers’ home with brand new ones that last 10 years. He was glad to hear about the initiative as so often you hear about tragic fires where homes didn’t have alarms, so he thinks taking preventative measures like this is a good thing.

In total:

  • 269 free smoke alarms installed
  • 102 homes made safer
  • 363 people better protected against home fires

Thank you to all the volunteer and community partners like Exxon Mobile who helped make this “Sound the Alarm” event possible. Join the Red Cross and help “Sound the Alarm” in a neighborhood near you by signing up at www.redcross.org/soundthealarm.

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Holly Baker

Getting Involved: Beverly and Emilie

Beverly Tomita and Emilie Lemieux

Getting involved and helping other people are priorities for Beverly Tomita and Emilie Lemieux. Now, they are encouraging their peers to get involved and join them as volunteers.

Beverly and Emilie are medical students in the Champaign-Urbana area. Together, they are working to build up a base of volunteers at their school, with a focus on disaster and emergency medicine.

Both have volunteered with the American Red Cross before; most recently during a Sound the Alarm home fire safety event. The duo visited numerous homes in the Bloomington-Normal area this May, installing smoke alarms and sharing home fire safety information with residents.

“This is a very valuable learning experience for us, because we are learning about fire safety as well as teaching the community about important disaster preparedness tips, and getting some life skills, too.”
-Beverly Tomita

“It’s awesome to see how excited people are to see you help them. It’s a very rewarding feeling inside, to see how the community opens their arms to you.”
-Emilie Lemieux

Beverly and Emilie hope to spark interest in volunteering in their fellow students, while continuing to serve others by helping the Red Cross.

For Emilie, volunteering gives her “valuable exposure and experience with different aspects of serving.”

Beverly enjoys the opportunities available to serve others, both locally and around the world. She says, “It’s a really great way to get involved and give back to the community, while living the student life.”

We are thankful for Beverly and Emilie’s time and efforts in supporting our mission! Visit redcross.org/volunteer to find a volunteer opportunity in your community.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen

Walsh Elementary Paraprofessional Jen Kerrigan Saves Kindergartener from Choking, Receives Red Cross Lifesaving Award

The American Red Cross of the Illinois River Valley was proud to present Jennifer Kerrigan with a Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action and a Red Cross Lifesaving pin for her heroic actions in the face of an emergency.

Executive Director Brian McDaniel presenting the award to Jennifer Kerrigan at Walsh Elementary

Jen Kerrigan has been a special education paraprofessional at Walsh Elementary School in Lockport, IL for over 7 years and easily develops close bonds with many of the children who attend. She oversees them in the classroom environment and also during non-classroom times like lunch in the school gym.

On January 18, 2022 Jen was watching students finish eating and encouraging them to line up to get ready for the next part of their day when she noticed a kindergartener in distress. In his rush to finish eating a bagel, he started choking on a piece of the bread.

Jen says she could see the fear in his eyes and immediately knew what to do. She was by his side in a moment and asked if he was OK, to which he shook his head “no,” and Jen gently picked him up and started doing back blows to dislodge what was in his throat.

It took several back blows and at least three abdominal thrusts but Jen was able to save the child from choking. Everyone was relieved to see the boy calming down and breathing thanks to Jen’s quick actions in both seeing him in trouble and doing something about it.

This was not the first time Jen stepped in to help a student choking. In 2018, she also saved a different young boy with special needs who had been choking on a taco. Again, even without any verbal cues she knew something was wrong and immediately took action.

In both instances, it took a combination of Jen knowing what to do and first recognizing what was happening even in challenging circumstances involving small children and a student with special needs. Jen says even when there is no verbal communication, sometimes you just know something is wrong and know you need to do something.

As someone who is surrounded by kids all day, she says its important to have those skills whether you’re around kids or not. She remembers taking the courses but its become more of an instinct she’s developed from years of supervising kids and having her own special needs son who passed away 18 years ago. She took trainings and learned skills from CPR to knowing what to do when someone is choking and more. Now, she’s the one you’d want to have around no matter what happens.

In the surprise presentation, both boys she saved were there to see her receive the award and be reunited with Jen who shed a few tears. For her, it’s just part of the job.

“I’m grateful that I can be calm about it,” Jen said. “To me, it’s all in a day’s work. If I can help you I’m all about it.”

Since the incident in January, bagels have been removed from the school’s lunch menu.

Jen truly embodies the mission and values of the American Red Cross, which has awarded over 1,800 individuals with Lifesaving Awards.

Learn how to save a life with Red Cross Training Classes: www.redcross.org/takeaclass

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Holly Baker

Mississippi Mud: A flavor that unites a community during disaster

When a catastrophe hit the Mississippi River in 1933, the Quad Cities suffered great loss to their community. With extensive damage to the area, the community came together to help those in need during this tragic event. 


Whitey’s Ice Cream shop has been a part of the Quad Cities community since 1933. With locations in Moline, Rock Island, and Davenport, people from all around come to eat the delicious flavors it has to offer. Becoming a true fan favorite in the community, Whitey’s strives to create and sustain an endless bond by caring for the needs of the Quad City area.           

Whitey’s decided to take action during The Great Flood of 1933 to help ease the burden of damages that were created by making a new ice cream flavor and donating the proceeds to the Red Cross.

Aptly named, the “Mississippi Mud” ice cream flavor was born: a coffee flavored ice cream base swirled with Oreo cookies and a fudge rumble. Even in the midst of disaster, people came together for something good that ultimately benefitted those affected by a disaster.

Decades later in 2019, when the Mississippi River flooded the Quad Cities area again, the Mississippi Mud ice cream fundraiser was back in full force. With endless damages to the city of Davenport, Whitey’s and the Red Cross were able to support those in need.

“Being able to have something that everyone can get behind while enjoying a dip of ice cream is a good thing,” Annika Tunberg, vice president of Whitey’s Ice Cream said. “It’s just a way that people can do something or feel connected to the situation and give back even in the slightest way.”

The Red Cross is grateful to Whitey’s for uniting the community and contributing to disaster relief. When disasters hit the area, it is so powerful to see the help that comes and the impactful way people want to help. And Whitey’s provides another opportunity to help in times of need.

“Being a part of this fundraiser has been so special, it has given both of us the opportunity to help the community in a creative way,” said Trish Burnett, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Serving the Quad Cities and West Central Illinois.

This fundraiser raised awareness and money for the American Red Cross while allowing the public to get behind something greater. 

“Over a few weeks’ time we were able to donate all profits from the sale of the flavor to the Red Cross,” Tunberg said, “We were able to raise $45,000.”

As the amazing relationship between The Red Cross and Whitey’s Ice Cream continues, so will the Mississippi Mud flavor. This fundraiser has made such a positive impact on the Quad Cities community and will continue for disaster relief when needed. Though this is a fundraiser for disasters and those in need, it will continue to be a way for the community to come together as one. Read more about the flavor’s origins here.

Written by Communications Intern Julie Piz

Volunteers and Partners Sound the Alarm in Richton Park

The Sound the Alarm program is part of the Red Cross home fire campaign, which has helped saved 1,275 lives since launching in October 2014.

Spring for many of us signifies renewal by way of home improvements projects, gardening, spring cleaning, and maybe even a fresh haircut! May at the Red Cross is dedicated to the annual campaign, Sound the Alarm, and with it a renewed commitment to fire safety awareness, a community-based campaign to install free smoke alarms to our most vulnerable communities.

On Saturday, May 7, 2022, we were excited and honored to kickoff Sound the Alarm in Cook County alongside Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle, 38th District State Representative of Illinois, Debbie Meyers-Martin, Cook County Commissioner, Donna Miller, County Board Commissioner, 6th District, and dozens of volunteers who dedicated their Saturday to Sound the Alarm in Richton Park. Smiles and dedication were palpable as the event was kicked off with a short address by Red Cross of Greater Chicago, Chief Executive Officer, Celena Roldán.

“Nationally, seven people are killed and 36 more are injured every single day due to home fires,” explained Roldán. “Our Home Fire Campaign has helped save over 1,200 lives nationally and in Illinois, we have saved 33 people because of this program. We couldn’t be prouder of our amazing partners, volunteers, and donors who make our work possible.”

In addition to smoke alarm installations, Red Cross volunteers worked on fire escape plans with Richton Park residents.

Richton Park and neighboring residents excitedly welcomed Red Cross partners and volunteers into their home who installed free smoke alarms and outlined fire escape plans. When asked why installing smoke alarms was important for her, Richton Park resident Carolyn Wright stated, “My granddaughter and great-grandchildren live with me, and it is very important for me to keep all of my little ones safe.”

In total, 136 homes, 171 people, were made safer in Richton Park and neighboring communities. Since launching the Sound the Alarm campaign in 2014, our volunteers have helped save lives by installing more than 2 million smoke alarms. We encourage Chicagoland community members to volunteer or register to have free smoke alarms installed during an upcoming event.

#EndHomeFires

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager, Connie Esparza

Red Cross and Partners Team Up to Sound the Alarm in Peoria

American Red Cross volunteers and community partners gathered in Peoria Thursday, May 5 to install free smoke alarms in dozens of homes and share home fire safety information with residents.

The event kicked off the 2022 Sound the Alarm campaign in the Illinois region. Volunteers will be installing smoke alarms in numerous communities in the region in coming weeks – 50,000 in total, throughout the U.S.

Volunteers gathered at the Red Cross chapter office in Peoria, where Peoria Fire Department officials instructed them on how to properly install the smoke alarms. Teams of two or three went out into the community from there, to educate homeowners on fire escape plans and complete the installations. Volunteers installed 74 smoke alarms in homes of Peoria residents.

“It is important that we partner with other community leaders to promote fire safety,” said Jesse Getz, CEO of Getz Fire Equipment. “It was very rewarding. Any time you can volunteer to help others in your community, it’s just a great experience.”

Click here to see more photos of the Peoria event.

Thank you to the following community partners for helping make this possible:

Ameren
ATS
Caterpillar
Commerce Bank
Getz Fire Equipment
Maxim Healthcare Services
Peoria Fire Department
Salvation Army

The Sound the Alarm program is part of the Red Cross home fire campaign, which has helped saved 1,275 lives since launching in October 2014.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen