Lifelong teacher and radio show ‘Red Cross Minute’ creator celebrates 35 years with the Red Cross

Lifelong teacher and radio show ‘Red Cross Minute’ creator celebrates 35 years with the Red Cross

Career counselor, radio personality, teacher, first aid and emergency preparedness trainer, volunteer, humanitarian — the list goes on, but for the past 35 years the one constant for Steve Swett has been his dedication to being a Red Cross Volunteer.

“I’ve been around a very long time,” laughed Steve. “But you know what? In my 35 years at the Red Cross, it’s always been something different – the learning is constant and with learning comes power and responsibility. For me, learning has given me the drive and power to help, and it makes me feel so good when I connect with people and hear how the Red Cross and volunteers like me have made a difference.”

Steve during a severe weather preparedness training.

In addition to his commitment to learning, Steve has dedicated time to teaching for decades at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Illinois and for many years providing Red Cross training to youth groups, other non-profit agencies like The Salvation Army, and at Sheridan Correctional Center. Amongst his biggest accomplishments, Steve created and maintains a 30-minute segment on WCMY ‘Red Cross Minute’ which over the years has served to inform the public of resources, trainings, blood drives, safety preparedness, and other valuable information. Special recognition and much gratitude to Steve’s The Morning Mix on WCMY radio co-host, Margaret ‘Maggie’ Frost of LaSalle who passed away last month. Maggie, along with Steve, supported the Red Cross and over the years, both helped amplify the Red Cross message and what started as a 5-minute segment with special guest Red Cross representatives turned into a 30-minute program that LaSalle County residents have come to rely on.

When asked why he volunteers, Steve stated, “Volunteers like us have an important role and perform a lot of different tasks. We feed and shelter people, gather information, and coordinate with local government and community partners. We help clients and communities in the recovery process during and after a disaster. There is so much one can do. Bottom-line—we [Red Cross volunteers] are the line of hope for many and we have the responsibility to be there for each other when and where it’s most needed.”

Whatever your interests or abilities there’s a role for you as a volunteer at the Red Cross. What do you like to do? What gives you personal satisfaction?  There are many ways to be a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Join us! Visit redcross.org/volunteer to find out how you can support your community.

Thank you, Steve for your dedication of time and talent over the past 35 years! We look forward to many more years! We couldn’t do it without you!

Steve finds time for a much-deserved break with his beloved Annie.

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza

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

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

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

American Red Cross of the Illinois River Valley Honors Three Local Lifeguards

The American Red Cross of the Illinois River Valley was proud to present a Lifesaving Award for Professional Responders to three local lifeguards who acted courageously in the summer of 2021 when a patron of the Joliet Park District needed help.

On June 2, 2021, three lifeguards working at the Inwood Athletic Club in Joliet called on their American Red Cross lifeguard training to help save the life of Marge Bell, a Shorewood woman in her 70’s after she collapsed during a group water aerobics class.

Julia Castillo was the active lifeguard on duty who noticed a woman in the water unresponsive and immediately activated the Emergency Action Plan, which triggered fellow lifeguard Cole Kics to respond as well. Together the two lifeguards got Marge out of the water using a backboard and started to assess her as she was not breathing and had no pulse. The Safety and Aquatics Superintendent, Lauren Ryan, also responded and together CPR was started as an automated external defibrillator, or AED, was set up. The AED advised a shock, and the lifeguards continued CPR as she began to show signs of life and regain consciousness. Local EMS arrived and took over care of Marge who says she finally started to fully regain consciousness in the ambulance.

Marge says she is usually very active and had no signs of health issues before the incident. “I was lucky to be where I was,” she said reflecting on being surrounded by lifeguards.

The following day, Marge required heart surgery and has been recovering well in the time since. She hopes to get back to water aerobics soon.

The Lifesaving Award for Professional Responders is the highest award given by the Red Cross to individuals or group of individuals who save or sustain a life using skills learned in a Red Cross Training Services course.

“We’re extremely proud to be presenting a Lifesaving Award for Professional Responders to three outstanding lifeguards and members of this community,” said Brian McDaniel, executive director of the American Red Cross of the Illinois River Valley. “Their actions exemplify our mission to help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.”

See more photos here.


Red Cross training gives people the knowledge and skills to act in an emergency and save a life. A variety of online, blended (online and in-person skills session) and classroom courses are available at redcross.org/takeaclass.

If you or someone you know has used skills and knowledge learned in an American Red Cross Training Services course to help save or sustain the life of another individual, visit LifesavingAwards.org to nominate, recognize, or be inspired.

Hispanic Heritage Month: Erika Ochoa Serves Others Through AmeriCorps, Reflects on her Cultural Heritage

Erika is an AmeriCorps/Illinois Disaster Corps (IDC) member with the American Red Cross, and completes her 11-month term this September.

Before joining the Illinois Disaster Corps (IDC) in Chicago, Erika always connected to a community of people helping out, whether locally, nationally, or globally. She found a perfect fit for humanitarian work with the Red Cross.

As an IDC member, Erika experienced firsthand much of what our organization does on the ground: providing disaster relief for home fires in Illinois, teaching preparedness classes virtually, staffing COVID-19 vaccination sites with the City of Chicago’s Department of Public Health earlier this year, and assisting with client recovery casework. The most eye-opening experience for Erika was working with residents affected by floods in Tennessee. While deployed there, she went door-to-door with other Red Crossers to offer immediate assistance to those in need. “It was great to see how the Red Cross organizes and mobilizes on-site so quickly, while also working toward a bigger goal,” says Erika.

Erika (left) during her deployment to Tennessee

In addition to celebrating the completion of her AmeriCorps service, Erika will also celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month over the next several weeks. Erika’s father is from Huatabampo, Mexico, and that cultural heritage is important for her family to observe in the U.S. Some of her favorite traditions include Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in November, which commemorates the life and death of family members and loved ones and making tamales in Mexico for various holidays.

Thank you, Erika, for all of your impactful work as an Illinois Disaster Corps member this year. We are also grateful that you will continue as a volunteer with the Red Cross!

Click here to find out about how to serve your community through AmeriCorps.

Written by Communications & Marketing Volunteer, Virginia Hopley

Red Cross Helps Illinois Town with No Water

The town of Castleton, Illinois is a small unincorporated community in Stark County about 40 minutes north of Peoria consisting of just 4 blocks and is home to just over 30 people.

The small community of Castleton marked in relation to Peoria, Moline and Chicago.

Several wells provide water to this area, but recently problems with the wells left the residents without water to drink, cook with or bathe. Local emergency management estimated it would take 10 days for the problem to be fixed.

On Friday, August 13, 2021 the Stark County Emergency Management contacted the Illinois Red Cross looking for help with this issue.

Within hours, Red Cross volunteers were on their way to Castleton with over 1,000 bottles of water- enough to comfortably last the community until the wells can be fixed.

We are proud of our volunteers who never fail to step up when the need is there to help others.

Consider joining the world’s largest humanitarian network as a volunteer! Browse volunteer positions here.

Machesney Park Man Earns Red Cross Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action for Lifesaving Act

Emergencies can happen at any time: in the grocery store parking lot, at a family wedding, on a hot day at the community pool or even at the office and inside your very own home. But regardless of when and where they occur, emergency situations usually have one thing in common: a crowd of people standing around, staring at a victim—wondering who should act and trying to remember what to do. That is, until a hero emerges from the crowd.

On February 2, 2020, during church service at Riverside Community Church in Machesney Park, IL, a gentleman in the congregation appeared to be slumped over and unresponsive. Those attending church, and those sitting near him, called out for help. Pastor Cory Whitford calmly responded. He conducted an assessment and determined that the gentleman was no longer breathing.

Pastor Whitford placed the gentleman on the floor of the church pew and began administering chest compressions. After several cycles, the gentleman began to respond. Pastor Whitford continued to keep the gentleman calm and comfortable until EMS arrived. Pastor Whitford’s quick and calm action helped to save this man’s life!

“It was an honor to be able to do this and to be able to receive this award,” says Pastor Whitford. “I would do it again in a heartbeat because I would want someone to do the same for me or one of my loved ones.”

On behalf of the American Red Cross, Cory was presented with the Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action, awarded to individuals who step up in an emergency situation and help save or sustain a life. Cory exemplifies the mission of the Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

Written by Hannah Allton, Regional Communications Manager

Volunteer reflects on Red Cross memories after achieving huge milestone

Tess Sheil says being prepared is a skill she holds valuable, which has allowed her to help others in life from disaster response to helping people during medical emergencies.

She learned that at an early age, while in high school she took CPR classes through the Red Cross and  was able to help clear a woman’s airway on scene of a car accident in Moline, Illinois. That incident would blaze a long trail for her at the Red Cross.

Tess continued volunteering while in nursing school during the 70’s, and says she was inspired by one of her mentors and eventually went on to receive her Red Cross nursing pin.

 “My nursing instructor was a Red Cross nurse and I guess I just wanted to be like her, and I really did because she was just such a goodhearted person that I wanted to follow her footsteps,” she says.

Tess is a volunteer with the Red Cross Quad Cities and West Central Illinois and the Greater New York Chapter. She has completed more than 5,000 volunteer hours with the Red Cross!

She describes it as a pleasure to help educate and help those in need in both areas, while building memories that will last a lifetime.

While she has deployed multiple times over the last few decades, Tess shared some of her most memorable moments including helping after the September 11th attacks in New York City in 2001.

 “I went for the firefighters’ families,” she explained. “I went to the armory for the families there. That was part of my community that was impacted.”

During that time, she did anything she could to help survivors and their families including helping pass out water, made ribbons and simply had conversations with them.

“I wanted to help people feel that they had some sense of direction, because people didn’t know what was happening,” Tess says.

Her experience in New York has led her to focus more on mental health support at the Red Cross. She is currently the lead for the Red Cross National Staff Support Hotline, where staff or volunteers can call and receive any kind of help or advice they may need.

Aside from her role in the support hotline, she is also the Leadership Development Lead for the Illinois Region, and the Deployment Lead for the Greater Chapter of New York.

One of her most recent deployments was the Marshalltown, Iowa tornado is 2018. She remembers the huge sense of community and the many miracles that she was able to witness after the tornado.

Tess adds during her deployments, someone special always travels with her and that is Yokum. A stuffed animal monkey, who is a Red Cross volunteer with his own name tag and gear!

Over the years, Yokum has listened to children and even adults, who may not feel comfortable speaking directly to another person after a disaster.

With her background in mental health, Tess says Yokum has served as an outlet for dozens and provided comfort for people’s darkest moments.

Now, Tess volunteers virtually helping fellow volunteers and providing training through different Red Cross programs in both states. She makes sure people realize that they are making a difference in their communities.

“It’s a place I know where I can make the world a better place. The goal for my entire career was to leave the world better than I came into it and I can do that at the Red Cross.”

To learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer visit redcross.org/volunteer.

*All photos taken before the pandemic

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Justin Wang