In May of this year, the Tate’s family residence became uninhabitable when, due to exposure to the Midwest elements, their roof collapsed destroying walls, furniture, appliances, and precious personal items. As they sat on the porch of their home trying to make sense of what happened and what to do next, Giovanni Tate’s phone rang and he says, “It was a call from an angel—it was the Red Cross.”
In a matter of hours, on that unforgettable Thursday night, the Tate Family found themselves at the American Red Cross of Illinois headquarters, meeting with two caseworkers who immediately went to work to make sure the Tate Family, including their puppy Loki, had a place to stay that night.
“We had only heard about stories of people affected by disaster or a home fire and organizations that show up to help. You hear about it, but don’t know how entirely true it is. I was humbled that the Red Cross, who knew nothing about me and my family, without asking, made that call that for us, was a rescue call. We are forever grateful to the angels from the Red Cross that worked with us and made sure we weren’t left homeless while we worked out what to do next,” stated Giovanni.
During the midst of it all, top of mind was the impending graduation taking place that Saturday. Shaniya’s graduation gown and decorations were all in the house under piles of rubble. “We were so concerned how this would affect my daughter’s special day. Luckily, we were able to go into the house and retrieve a few things—most importantly her graduation dress and gown. That brought a sense a normalcy to all of us during a very surreal time,” explained Giovanni.
Fast forward to today, with the help of neighbors who helped with repairs, the Tate Family is enjoying their refurbished home with plans to volunteer for the Red Cross. “The Red Cross was a real blessing. I want to be there for someone in their moment of need,” said Giovanni.
The angels on the phone who met with Giovanni and his family that Thursday night were Red Cross volunteers Cathy Dixon and Morrie Bowie. Volunteers are the lifeline of the Red Cross. For disasters big and small, our volunteers provide comfort during what can be the worst days of people’s lives. Thank you, Cathy, and Morrie, for being there for the Tate Family and countless others you have impacted with your compassion.
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone displaced by the fire and in need of shelter or additional resources can contact the Red Cross at 312-729-6100.
“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
Fire destroyed Debbie Barger’s Benton, Illinois home earlier this year. Jane Perr was there to help.
Take a look at this video to learn more about why Jane loves what she does as a disaster volunteer, and to hear why her efforts made a big impact on Debbie.
Volunteers like Jane make up 90 percent of our workforce. Please visit redcross.org/volunteer to sign up as a volunteer and to learn more about what we do to help people after a disaster. Thank you for supporting the American Red Cross!
Shelly Oliver started volunteering for the American Red Cross in 2018, shortly before Hurricane Michael made landfall in the U.S. She has traveled to Florida, Oregon, Louisiana and elsewhere to provide disaster relief after hurricanes, wildfires and other disaster scenes.
Shelly lives in Macon County, near Decatur and responds locally to home fires and other incidents, providing immediate assistance to people who have been impacted by disasters. She also helps install smoke alarms as part of our Sound the Alarm program.
“I like the disaster response work, being on scene with the clients. You take these people with you. I call to check up on them and they will call me sometimes,” she said.
Despite the challenges presented during the COVID pandemic, Shelly still has been able to assist in a virtual setting, and she is glad to have had to have been able to serve during this time.
“I love the virtual intake process because I am still able to meet with the clients, even though it has not been in person during the pandemic,” she said. “When we do intake over the phone, we’re able to connect a little deeper because we have more opportunities to talk after the initial response.”
Shelly has been a great asset to the Illinois region and beyond. Her positive attitude and strong work ethic have helped people in numerous situations during her time as a volunteer. For Shelly, it is something she enjoys doing.
“I love everything about Red Cross. I wish I had known what the Red Cross did a long time ago, I would have gotten involved long before I did. Four years ago, I had no idea all they did; it just amazes me.”
If you would like to sign up as a Red Cross volunteer, please click here.
In March, the American Red Cross of Illinois is honoring the people who make its mission possible every day during its annual Red Cross Month celebration – a national tradition started nearly 80 years ago when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the first national Red Cross Month proclamation recognizing those who give back through the American Red Cross. Each U.S. president has issued a proclamation ever since. Join Red Cross Month by visiting redcross.org to make a financial donation, sign up to give blood, become a volunteer or take a class in lifesaving skills, such as first aid and CPR.
Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen
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.”
For ten years, Dean Otta has volunteered with the Illinois Red Cross, and has deployed multiple times to respond to different disasters.
Dean recently deployed to Salem, Oregon where he was tasked with delivering food and supplies to communities impacted by the wildfires.
While in Oregon, Dean was sent as part of the first group of volunteers to Detroit Mountain to help with the devastation. He remembers speaking with one of the survivors, a veteran named Ed.
Dean recalls Ed sharing his story about sending his wife to evacuate their town first, and how he stayed back with another friend to gather as many personal belongings from his home into his pickup truck.
“They took off south down Route 22 and it was fire on both sides of the road. Trees burning, falling down on the road, the forest area was full of smoke,” Dean says.
Ed told Dean it was like a tunnel of nighttime and that he told his buddy, “We are either going to survive or we are going to perish in this fire.”
But Ed was later rescued by a military group who joined the Red Cross in assisting with relief.
Dean describes his deployment to Oregon to be his most impactful, and something he will never forget.
“We met a lot of the people that lived there, and I still get a little emotional,” Dean says. “To hear their stories of what they went through to survive that fire, I can’t imagine.”
Dean adds his motivation to become a volunteer comes from after he witnessed 9/11.
“When 9/11 happened, I knew I wanted to help people, to be a responder.”
As soon as he retired, Dean began to research ways he could get involved. He realized the Red Cross was the perfect opportunity for him to help others.
“That’s how I got started with Red Cross. Disaster Relief, I love it. I love going to a place where I feel I can make a difference,” Dean says.
For twenty-five years, Dr. Kaleem Malik has been a physician specializing in emergency medicine and trauma. In medical school, Kaleem decided to focus on emergency response to “do the most good and administer to the needs of many.” Trained early on as a Flight for Life physician, he witnessed the severity of emergency medicine and the sanctity of life each time he boarded a helicopter and administered to a critical needs patient. This vital work inspired Kaleem to dedicate his life to emergency medicine, and to focus on serving Chicago’s most vulnerable and providing critical and life sustaining care, where empathy is of the utmost importance.
As a volunteer for Humanity First USA, a nonprofit organization that provides disaster relief and development assistance in 52 countries across 6 continents, over the past 17 years, Kaleem has held leadership roles including Chief Medical Officer. He is currently the U.S. Course Director and Faculty lead for Medical and Global Disaster Relief Training. Kaleem is also a practicing emergency staff physician with the DuPage Medical Group and is the CEO of TriLab, an academic lab partnering with healthcare systems to combat the U.S. opioid epidemic, a crisis that Kaleem has witnessed firsthand impacting “a vulnerable population with a stigma that has dehumanized.”
Kaleem has volunteered for many global disaster emergencies with Humanity First USA, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2010 Pakistan floods, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, hurricane Katrina and more. Despite the tough medical disaster situations he has encountered, his time as Medical Lead for Humanity First USA in Coopers Town [Abaco, Bahamas] challenged all his disaster relief skills.
Hurricane Dorian was one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit the Bahamas, causing at least 70 deaths and widespread destruction. Kaleem and Humanity First USA were part of the first medical relief team invited to the Coopers Town Clinic on Great Abaco Island, one of the islands hit hardest. They were summoned by the Bahamian Ministry of Health, the Pan-American Health Organization and the World Health Organization, based on their ability to nimbly and effectively assist in the devastating humanitarian health crisis. Within 48 hours of the hurricane making landfall, Kaleem and his team of 10, spent all night packing four tons of medical equipment and flew to the Bahamas where the death toll was increasing, and the health crisis was escalating. Hundreds of people were trapped on the Abaco islands including many undocumented Haitians who were afraid to heed the evacuation warnings.
“This particular disaster, in my experience, contained all of the elements that we train for,” he said. “There was a paucity of resources, primarily communications, so no way to get word out. No power, running water.”
After a 13-hour boat ride to Abaco, Kaleem and his team, along with their four tons of medical equipment, were tasked with restoring a badly damaged clinic on Abaco Island. The team brought medicine, tents, food, generators, pumps and a desalination unit to help provide drinking water. The devastation, destruction and debris on the island was unfathomable. “you would think a nuclear bomb had gone off,” said Kaleem. The clinic had major roof and water damage, no water, power or cell signal and the team began near-impossible tasks of cleaning and sanitizing the flood damaged clinic, while prepping sterile conditions to see patients. Sleeping on the clinic floor, cleaning again and again after rain continued to pour in and caring for the many patients, was difficult, but Kaleem and his team persevered.
The need was so great, that Kaleem extended his initial 5-day deployment to nearly 12 days and returned only because he had to leave for Guatemala on another relief trip, where he and Humanity First USA had opened a hospital. Kaleem serves as the chair of the emergency department and administers medicine in remote Guatemalan villages.
In between disasters, Kaleem and his wife are raising three teenage daughters who have accompanied their dad on some medical missions and training programs. Kaleem also serves as Humanity First USA’s Course Director for Disaster Response Training, where he prepares others to deploy on humanitarian relief missions. What Kaleem is most proud of is “training (others)… It is the key to disaster response, scalability is what I have focused on the last 10 years, working to mobilize others and get them excited to go, to be that spark that may inspire empathy.”
For the first time in 18 years, coronavirus caused the cancellation of the Red Cross Heroes Breakfast, but stories of resilience and determination prevail. These “Everyday Extraordinary Heroes” live among us. Watch their stories every Tuesday & Thursday starting April 14 at 10 a.m. in social media.