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They considered if their current alarms were sufficient but determined they had to be at least 20 years old and likely outdated technology, so they welcomed the volunteers.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 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.
Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager, Connie Esparza
CHICAGO, IL (March 25, 2022) — The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago announces the 2022 class of heroes – individuals who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to build and maintain better communities, and who have made a lasting impact on others in the process.
This is the 20th year the Red Cross has honored a class of heroes at our Heroes Breakfast, typically attended by nearly 1,000 individuals. This year’s event is scheduled for Wednesday, May 11 from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Hilton Chicago.
“For twenty years, the Red Cross has honored the heroes among us. In 2022, it is a great privilege to celebrate these outstanding individuals who selflessly give of themselves with no expectation of gain, yet who have made a tremendous impact in their communities and beyond,” said Celena Roldán, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Illinois. “It is inspiring, seeing the good they have done and continue to do. We look forward to honoring them in person at this year’s Heroes Breakfast.”
Heroes in 12 community service categories are being honored this year. Honorees were chosen by an independent committee of leaders in the business and civic community. Get to know the 2022 heroes by reading more about them, below.
Michael A. McGee, M.D., M.P.H. of Crown Point, IN is the Blood Services Hero. As an emergency room physician and CEO of Chicago’s first Black-owned urgent care clinic, Dr. McGee sees the need for blood every day. Last fall, he partnered with the Red Cross and 100 Black Men of America, Inc. and coordinated a multiple city tour of sickle cell awareness blood drives beginning in Chicago and moving across the country. In the process, Dr. McGee and the 100 Black Men organization generated awareness across the country for the importance of blood donations and the need for African Americans to participate, specifically for fighting trauma and diseases including sickle cell. Dr. McGee is passionate about educating the community about the need for blood and continues to advocate for individuals, particularly young people, to give blood.
Ruthann Richardson, RN of Tinley Park, IL is theDisaster Relief Hero. Ruth has a servant’s heart and has volunteered for us since 2017, after a 40-year career as a nurse. Last year, as a nurse volunteer, she worked day and night and gave almost 2,000 hours of her time to the Red Cross. She has responded to numerous disasters, both here in Illinois and elsewhere in the U.S. Hurricane Florence in North Carolina was her first major deployment; more recently, she deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Ida. When you speak with Ruth, you can tell she truly cares about others, and it shows in her volunteer efforts. “My life is a gift and what I bring to others can be a gift, too. If I can provide a positive experience to someone’s life, particularly if they’ve been through one of the worst experiences, then I have done something right,” she said.
Dorothy L. Gaters of Maywood, IL is the Education Hero. A teacher at Marshall High School, after Title IX was created in 1972, Dorothy agreed to be the first girls’ basketball coach. 45 years later, she is the winningest high school basketball coach in Illinois history, but beyond winning games, she built an empowering, education-focused culture during her tenure as the Marshall High School girls’ coach. Dorothy became the first-ever girls’ basketball coach at the school and led her team to more than 1,100 victories and 10 state championships. Behind the success on the court was a successful mentality off the court. Dorothy made sure education came first for her players and is proud to say most of her students went on to go to college. She is a firm believer in creating structure and goals, to help steer young people in the right direction and prepare them for life. Dorothy enjoys interacting with her former players and continues to encourage and mentor them and provide a positive example with the way she lives her life.
Stephanie Esterland BSN, RN, OCN of Sandwich, IL is the Healthcare Hero. Stephanie is an oncology nurse at Rush Cancer Center who was driving her son to work on a dark July 2021 morning. On the side of the road, she came upon what she thought might be a yard fire, but instead realized it was a blazing car fire that had just occurred as the driver slammed into a tree near IL 47 in the Sugar Grove area. Stephanie saw someone trying to get out of the vehicle, and then falling to the ground near the flaming car. She jumped out of her car to help. While assessing the individual’s injured condition, Stephanie heard what sounded like fireworks. Concerned the vehicle may be on the verge of exploding, Stephanie cautiously got the individual moved away from the fire to a safer location and continued rendering assistance until emergency response arrived. Stephanie then continued to drop off her son and head to work at the Rush Cancer Center. She has received a DAISY nursing award from the Rush community for this act of bravery and the individual in the crash credits her with helping save his life.
Fire Chief Tracey Steffes of Morris, IL is theFirefighter Hero. In June 2021, Chief Steffes faced his biggest challenge as the leader of the Morris Fire Department, when nearly 200,000 lithium batteries exploded, and a massive fire with toxic fumes erupted, posing a serious threat to the health of his community. Chief Steffes led the effort to evacuate thousands of people from the area; nearly one-third of the city’s residents. Managing this large battery fire presented complexities as traditional fire extinguishment methods would exacerbate rather than extinguish the large, growing fire. Chief Steffes consulted with agencies around the world to coordinate the unique response to the fire and to continue operations in the days and weeks to come. At one point, more than 40 firefighting companies were on hand helping to battle the blaze. Chief Steffes now receives calls from other agencies when they face similar situations and provides insights to help protect their citizens. Chief Steffes is credited with staying calm during a situation that could have escalated further, without proper leadership and swift action.
Lynn Coleof Chicago is theGlobal Citizenship Hero. During a 1998 trip to Angola with her husband, Andrew, the Coles witnessed the devastating effect of 27 years of civil war in the country and were moved to help. They learned that the after-effects of the civil war in Angola had prevented many children from access to basic education. Believing every child has a right to education, in 2003, the Coles built their first school in Angola, and committed to building five more. Together, the Coles, founded RISE International an organization dedicated to building primary schools in rural Angola to educate children, empower communities, and contribute to the rebuilding of the country. In 2004, Andrew died unexpectedly, and Lynn was left to carry out and expand their mission. Today, Lynn leads RISE International and the organization has built 192 schools and helped more than 138,000 children in Angola receive an education. In Angola, the organization works in partnership with local leaders and provides children with a safe place to learn. In the process of building schools, jobs are created, including construction workers, teachers, principals and more. Lynn is now leading a project along with a team in Angola to build a 10-classroom school in an area where 1,000 children have no access to education.
Evelyn Figueroa, M.D.andAlex Wu, M.D. of Chicago are theCommunity Impact Heroes. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu are a husband-and-wife team of family physicians with a passion for reaching patients where they are. In 2018, they founded Pilsen Food Pantry next to a health clinic to destigmatize food insecurity and distribute healthy, high-quality and culturally appropriate foods. It is their mission to provide critical social services to address food insecurity, homelessness and poverty while serving patients. Pilsen Food Pantry served 6,000 visitors in its first year and now services more than 22,000 clients and provides two million pounds of food annually. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu saw a need beyond food and are expanding their vision into the Pilsen Health Initiative. Their organization now distributes clothes, medical equipment, hygiene items, books and more to underrepresented individuals and families. Spanish and Cantonese interpreters are available as part of the services provided, and the organization hosts large community events on holidays. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu have plans to further expand and to include mental health and housing assistance.
Officer Jennifer Maddoxof Chicago is theLaw Enforcement Hero. Officer Maddox is a 26-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. Working on the south side as a police officer, she developed a strong bond with the community and noticed that so many children were fearful to go outside and did not have a safe space where they could be kids. In 2011, Officer Maddox started Future Ties, to provide a welcoming place for children to gather and get off the streets. Future Ties is an eleven-month afterschool and summer camp program that has provided support for more than 1,000 of Chicago’s children. During the pandemic, when parents’ resources were extremely challenged, the Future Ties organization offered e-learning opportunities, meals and other services to young people. Officer Maddox’s organization soon will be moving into a former pharmacy building, providing more space to further support the community’s needs. Officer Maddox continues to work her police beat with a passion for making a difference and serving the people in the community.
Lewis Medinaof Aurora, IL is theLifesaving Rescue Hero. At about 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2021, Lewis was driving his daughter and grandson home just a short distance from his house. As he crossed railroad tracks, he noticed a vehicle stuck on the tracks, with its wheels spinning. Lewis safely parked his vehicle and then called 911. He then headed for the car on the tracks, to see if he could help the person inside. When he got there, he discovered a driver who was in distress from a medical emergency. Lewis could hear the horn and see the lights of the train coming and knew he had to act fast. Lewis pulled the driver from the vehicle, then got him safely down the ravine and out of the way of the railroad tracks. Seconds later, the train barreled into the vehicle, crushing it. Lewis saved the man’s life by removing him from the vehicle and getting him out of the way of danger, just in time.
Captain Scott Friedland of Chicago is theMilitary Hero. Captain Friedland is a member of the Indiana Army National Guard and has been in the military for 11 years. He is also the owner of Timeless Toys in Chicago. His military background taught him that life was about more than himself and his surroundings, and so he works to give back to the community in big ways, through his heart for helping others via toy drives and other programs in both the Chicagoland area and beyond. Last year, Captain Friedland organized a massive toy drive for Afghan evacuee children which provided $30,000 worth of toys in just the first couple of weeks. Understanding the impact receiving a new toy has on a child, he substituted new toys when used toys were brought into his store for the children, donating the used toys to a local organization. Captain Friedland continued the generosity, sending numerous toys to children impacted by the Kentucky tornadoes last December. Captain Friedland continues his service to our country in the National Guard and is scheduled to deploy overseas, this year.
Quilen Blackwell of Chicago is the Social Justice Hero. Quilen has a passion for empowering young people in the community to learn the skills they need to succeed in life. He is founder of Southside Blooms, an organization that creates sustainable, off-grid, urban flower farms, training local youth to cultivate them and deliver the flowers to Chicagoland. In the process, Quilen is providing job and life skills to young people in high-risk areas on the south and west sides of Chicago and showing them how to use their talents to have a positive impact on their communities. Quilen has also partnered with the Cook County juvenile probation services program and adult services to provide opportunities to high school-age individuals and young adults. He even has developed a sustainable urban farm on Cook County Jail property, providing inmates with the experience of working the farm. He believes his urban flower farm model is “…a viable solution that is scalable and replicable; it is solving problems with gangs, sustainability and blight and it represents a realistic end game to the ghetto as we know it.”
Benjamin Kagan of Chicago is theYouth Hero. Benjamin was in 8th grade when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Like many other students, he found it difficult to adapt to life without being around his classmates and friends. More than that, he felt a need to help other people who were struggling as the pandemic continued, specifically his grandparents. Due to technological challenges, they were unable to sign up for a vaccine, missing out on the online openings when they came up. Benjamin took action. He got his grandparents a vaccine appointment online. He then joined the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, and used his technology skills to get vaccine appointments for senior citizens who were in the same position his grandparents had been in. Ultimately, Benjamin started his own group, Chicago Vaccine Angels, and worked around the clock to secure appointments for senior citizens. Leading a team of 50 adult volunteers, his organization helped thousands of senior citizens, even arranging for people on his team to join medical teams for in-home vaccination visits to home-bound citizens. “I got the satisfaction that I helped people who would have had to wait months, living in fear, get back to their lives,” he said.
2022 Heritage Award
The Heritage Award acknowledges the demonstration of long-term commitment to improvement of the lives of others through actions, deeds, and philanthropic works in the corporate and civic communities.
We are honored to present the 2022 Heritage Award to Helene D. Gayle, M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Gayle is president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, a prominent, longstanding community foundation. The Chicago Community Trust is working to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicagoland area. Under Dr. Gayle’s leadership, The Chicago Community Trust helped raise more than $35 million for the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. These efforts provided resources to help communities impacted the most by the pandemic.
Dr. Gayle has been honored numerous times, including being named one of Non Profit Times’ “Power and Influence Top 50” and one of Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women”. She has advocated on behalf of alleviating poverty, gender equality, social justice and public health issues.
“Dr. Gayle is a visionary public servant who through her leadership of The Chicago Community Trust is compassionately making an impact by recognizing and assisting people who experience inequities in our community daily. Her significant work both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic is aimed at investing in population health and prevention,” said Roldán. “It is our privilege at the Red Cross to highlight her significant work and honor Dr. Gayle and The Chicago Community Trust with the 2022 Red Cross Heritage Award for her community dedication and service.”
Thank you to the generous sponsors of the 2022 Illinois Red Cross Heroes event, including Presenting Sponsors: Better, the Edwardson Family Foundation and Susan and Nick Noyes; Champion Sponsors: JLL, KPMG LLP and Packaging Corporation of America; and our media sponsors Better & Make It Better Media Group and CBS 2 Chicago and numerous other organizations who have made this program possible.
About the American Red Cross of Illinois The American Red Cross of Illinois serves 12.4 million people in 88 counties in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri including Adams, Bond, Boone, Brown, Bureau, Carroll, Cass, Champaign, Christian, Clark, Clay, Clinton, Cook, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, DeKalb, De Witt, Douglas, DuPage, Edgar, Effingham, Fayette, Ford, Franklin, Fulton, Green, Grundy, Hamilton, Hancock, Henderson, Henry, Iroquois, Jasper, Jefferson, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Knox, LaSalle, Lake, Lee, Livingston, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Marion, Marshall, Mason, McDonough, McHenry, McLean, Menard, Mercer, Montgomery, Morgan, Moultrie, Ogle, Peoria, Perry, Piatt, Pike, Putnam, Richland, Rock Island, Sangamon, Schuyler, Scott, Shelby, Stark, Stephenson, Tazewell, Vermillion, Warren, Washington, Whiteside, Will, Williamson Winnebago, Woodford. Iowa: Lee, Muscatine, Scott and Van Buren. Missouri: Clark, Lewis, Marion and Ralls. The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit us at Redcross.org/Illinois or visit us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @RedCrossIL.
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
We are very grateful for Dr. Mack’s contributions to the board and the American Red Cross. He has been a crusader in treating patients with Sickle Cell Disease and a strong proponent of blood donation, particularly within ethnic communities. Dr. Mack and his colleagues started the Blue Tie Tag Program with the Red Cross in the Chicago & Northern IL area which collects and earmarks blood for patients with sickle cell disease who are in need of constant blood transfusions. With high demand and limited sources for these rare blood types, Dr. Mack has reached out to local businesses, faith-based institutions and schools to host blood drives in African-American communities in the Greater Chicago area to match donors with the same blood type as his patients and recruit new donors. His ongoing support has helped the ABC 7 Great Chicago Blood Drive continue to thrive and expand over the last several years.
Dr. Mack also donates blood regularly and experienced a moment when he believes his blood came full circle as he followed his donated blood right back to the hospital where he works. Follow his blood’s journey here: https://bit.ly/3ugXQ4R
We are grateful for Dr. Mack’s dedication and willingness to support the Red Cross and encourage blood donation on behalf of the organization. He has regularly spoken to local media and national media to help encourage donors to give and to help answer questions and dissolve myths about giving blood including appearing on national panels as a blood expert.
The need for blood donations has not stopped amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Red Cross is facing a national blood crisis – its worst blood shortage in over a decade. Blood donations are critically needed to help prevent further delays in vital medical treatments.
The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago and local CBS-2 Chicago teamed up for another successful Day of Giving Telethon. Through the generosity of the public, corporate donors and sponsors a total of $316,380 was raised!
Telethons with CBS date back to 2010 when several local news stations all got together to help raise money after the devastating earthquake in Haiti for a “Chicago Helps Haiti” telethon.
Since then, there have been no lack of natural disasters to dedicate the day to alongside the 5 lines of service of the Red Cross: Disaster Relief, Biomedical Services, Training Services, International Services and Service to the Armed Forces.
We are grateful to CBS-2 for sharing so many heart-warming stories of the impact of the Red Cross; from the Chicago doctor who laced up her running shoes to run the Chicago marathon for Team Red Cross, to the local father who turned to the Red Cross after a tornado last summer left his home wrecked.
Division ChiefMichele Pankow is being recognized with the 2021 Red Cross Disaster Services Hero Award. Michele is an everyday hero in the true sense of the word. As Division Chief of Operations at the Rockford Fire Department, Michele oversees the fire department’s 250 uniformed firefighters, and their responses to nearly 30,000 service calls each year. For 28 years, Michele has dedicated her career to disaster response by working through the ranks as a firefighter, emergency medical services operations chief, lieutenant, captain and district chief.
Michele also has an uncanny ability to manage and communicate across agencies, serving as the emergency services disaster coordinator for the City of Rockford and Winnebago County. When any type of large-scale disaster strikes, whether it be a tornado, civil unrest, or even a pandemic, Michele centralizes regional response and rescue agencies at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The needs for each event are different and must be assessed and acted upon quickly.
“The fire service has prepared me for this because I can piece it together in my head to think of how we function as a fire department,” Michele said.
Her actions during the COVID-19 pandemic are just one example of how Michele’s flexible and fast-paced thinking helped so many individuals in a crisis.
“Starting out, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Michele said. “Who knew we’d end up a year later this way? Early on, our focus was to support the Health Department on gatherings. There wasn’t really one thing with the pandemic. It was one thing after another after another.”
Michele and her team opened the EOC on March 12th, 2020 and have offered community assistance on many fronts including reaching out to school districts to feed kids who previously relied on school meals, distributing critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and now, supporting local COVID-19 mass vaccination sites.
In disasters both large and small, Michele’s connections to the American Red Cross are frequent. At the scene of home fires, she works with Red Cross responders to find immediate shelter for displaced families and individuals. In her disaster coordinator role, Michele partners with the Red Cross on large-scale and longer-term recovery projects. A recent example of this partnership is the 2019 flood in Rockford that damaged over 500 homes in the area. Emergency responders aren’t there only in the face of disaster. They partner with the community to ensure a forward path to recovery, which is something that can take years of planning and committed teamwork.
“I really enjoy being a part of this,” Michel said. “I feel extremely humbled and extremely fortunate to be in the company of such good people. I’m constantly surrounded by creative, good, and innovative folks that want to help. It’s infectious. It’s contagious. Whether I’m in the Emergency Operations Center or at the fire department, I feel great being a part of that team.”
Michele shines as a role model on the job and outside of work. She volunteers with the Young Women’s Leadership Organization through the Rockford Public School District. There, she mentors students one-on-one about career opportunities and talks frankly about the challenges of her own career, including what she enjoys most, and how she made the choices to get where she is today. Michele has no shortage of inspiration to share.
“I feel great when we’re able to save a house or pull somebody out on an EMS call. Even just bringing down cleaning buckets to help someone clean out floors from a flood. Being able to help people, you’d be amazed how appreciative people are of the smallest gestures,” Michele said.
Written by Communications and Marketing Volunteer, Virginia Hopley
Sergeant Joseph (Joe) Danforth is one of our 2021 Red Cross Law Enforcement Heroes. As a sergeant with the Rockford Police Department, Joe says the job comes with its challenges, but also comes with many rewards.
“It’s a fun job,” said Joe. “The most rewarding part about being a police officer is … knowing that a lot of people still need you.”
He has served the Rockford Police Department for 25 years. As a kid, Joe was inspired to become a police officer after watching Shaft movies and the TV series SWAT.
“To see those shows and to see black officers — I wanted to do that,” Joe explained.
Raised by a single mother on the west side of Rockford, he experienced gang activity in his neighborhood growing up and the effects that violence had on his community.
After joining the police force, Joe decided to stay on the west side of Rockford. He said that in order to better serve a community, it helps to live there and experience what they are experiencing.
“I grew up on the west side, so I was going to stay on the west side,” added Joe. “I’m from here. I’ve seen a lot of stuff growing up. I wanted to stay on the west side where my people were at.”
After working with the police force for a while, Joe wanted to do more. He noticed that basketball was keeping his son away from gang activity and wanted to spread this to other children. Joe decided to start a program that would help.
In 2005, he founded Rockford Five-0. It started as a youth basketball training program for kids that could not afford to be on a travel team.
“We help a lot of single parents’ kids, [and] boys with no father figure at home. In the beginning I just thought it was something you were supposed to do. I didn’t look at it as ‘I’m saving the world,’” said Joe. “I didn’t look at it like that at first,” he explained.
In the beginning, he struggled financially to provide everything needed to have a team, often having to pay for things himself. However, as time went on, the program grew and so did the volunteers.
Since starting the program, Joe has helped over 300 kids, some of whom have received scholarships for their athletic performance. One of his alums, his own son, Rockford basketball star Fred VanVleet, now plays for the Toronto Raptors.
Joe sponsors about 10-15 kids at a time, helping with meals, shoes, travel costs, tournament fees, and uniforms. He stays in touch with many of the kids that were in the program. Some have gone on to college at Kankakee, Carl Sandburg College, Illinois Valley College, and North Alabama.
“We try to find those kids that really want to do something. No matter what background you come from, [or] economic situation, we find a way to help you out. It’s got to be kids that really want to do something, that want more for themselves than what’s right in front of them,” said Joe.
The majority of kids start in the program around third or fourth grade, and usually remain throughout high school. However, the organization sees themselves as a family and once you enter, you never truly leave.
“If this sport can help kids stay out of gangs and stay out of trouble, and they’re dedicated to what we do, then I got you. But if you want to stay on the streets and mess around and not go to school, then I can’t mess with you. I never looked at it as an outreach program, but I guess it kind of is,” explained Joe.
Joe thanks his wife, Sue Danforth, for being his number one supporter, and for helping him and the organization be successful.
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco
Roy Webb-Education Hero Roy Webb is the superintendent of Quincy Public Schools (QPS) in Quincy, Illinois, and one of our Education Heroes. Throughout the pandemic, he has worked alongside QPS families, staff, and the community to keep schools open for the 2020-2021 school year.
Due to the pandemic, the spring 2020 school semester was switched to remote learning, causing sports and many events, including the in-person graduation ceremony, to be canceled. Instead, a virtual ceremony was held for the seniors and Roy personally delivered a special blue devil coin to every senior’s home. The coin is meant to remind students of the special memories made at QPS.
As a superintendent, Roy believes in a hands-on approach when it comes to education. During the school year, you can find him visiting classrooms and games, and interacting with students and parents. He says leading the school district comes with tough challenges and criticism, but he aims to always make the best decision for the students and staff.
“The best part of my job as superintendent is… getting to go see teachers at work, principals at work, and then seeing our students. We have 6,700 students. I take great pride in the fact that most of them from pre-K all the way through our 12th graders at least know who I am,” said Roy.
Roy was the recipient of the KHQA Hometown Hero Award in October 2020. In addition, he was named Administrator of the Year for the 2020-2021 school year by the Illinois Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Now, he is a 2021 Red Cross Education Hero.
When notified about his award, he humbly said he could not accept the recognition without emphasizing the amazing team that he works with every day.
“I’m thankful for our Quincy team, from the school board, to the directors, to the principals, to the teachers, bus drivers, nurses, cooks, and educators. I am blessed to be in Quincy Public Schools. I feel that every day we have a very strong team and I appreciate all their work and support.”
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco
Joshua Smith and Marcus Sweeten–Lifesaving Rescue Heroes
Joshua Smith and Marcus Sweeten are two of our Red Cross Lifesaving Rescue Heroes. They are both students and resident assistants at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. Marcus is a senior, majoring in history and Joshua is studying law enforcement and justice administration, as well as security management and administration.
On September 15, 2020, a student was shot on campus. Joshua witnessed the shooting in the dormitory and was able to get the student to a safe spot, with the help of Marcus. The pair began performing lifesaving measures and following instructions from a 911 dispatcher. They were able to administer first aid and keep the victim stable until first responders arrived on the scene.
“The dispatcher instructed us to hold pressure on the wounds, count the wounds, see where all the blood [was] coming from,” recalled Joshua. “[I was] just going through the motions, checking arms, back, abdomen, and everything.”
Marcus and Joshua said it was a surreal experience because all of this was happening while a shooter was still on the loose.
“It was really hard to ever conceive of something like this happening, even when going through the situation. I didn’t really have time to process the situation until after the victim was taken from our care,” Marcus explained.
The student who was shot survived. Even under extreme circumstances, both advisors stayed committed to their role by protecting their residents.
Western Illinois University presented Joshua and Marcus with letters of commendations for their actions. In addition, the Red Cross is honoring both with the 2021 Lifesaving Rescue Hero Award.
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious
Lori Camacho is a hospice nurse supervisor at Carle Foundation Hospital, and one of our 2021 Red Cross Lifesaving Rescue Heroes.
On October 22, 2020, Lori’s daughter and family came to visit. That morning, as her son-in-law opened the blinds, he saw a car in the 29-foot-deep retention pond outside Lori’s condo. Immediately, Lori went to help.
“I first thought, is there anyone in the car?” Lori said. “I ran outside and asked. People said, ‘yes, there is a lady in there.’”
When Lori got to the pond, without a thought of hesitation, she got in the water and swam over to the car. The woman was still sitting in the driver’s seat, as water quickly filled up that side of the car. Holding onto the open windows, she asked the lady in the car if she could swim. Unfortunately, she could not.
“You have to come over to the passenger’s side of the car,” Lori told the lady.
As soon as the driver moved to the other side of the car, Lori pulled her out of the passenger window.
“I knew as soon as the water started filling up, I had to get her out of the car if there was any chance of her making it. That was just instinct there,” Lori said. “She had to come out, so I went to get her out.”
Immediately after getting the driver out, the car began to sink to the bottom of the pond. The suction from the submerging car pulled the woman and Lori under with it. Lori was able to swim to the surface with the driver, and another neighbor arrived to help. After they were both safe, Lori waited with the driver, comforting her while she cried, until help arrived.
Lori says the scariest part of the whole situation was not the fear that she would drown, but the fear that her family would be there to witness it.
“I could’ve very easily died and so could she,” Lori said. “My two granddaughters, daughter, and son-in-law were watching, and the fact that I could’ve died in front of them [is difficult to think about.] …What tempers that a bit is that they saw me do something selfless. I didn’t think about anything, I just did it because it had to be done.”
Lori went about her day after the incident, as she jumped on a Zoom meeting directly afterwards with her hospice team. The seriousness of the whole episode did not register to Lori until a police officer came to her door to talk to her. When she looked outside and saw the commotion, she realized, “Wow, something significant just happened here.”
“I tend to shy away from the spotlight, but when I was talking to police afterward, one of the firemen had me stand with three other firemen and said, ‘Guys, today you’re with a hero.’”
Later that evening, the woman’s husband stopped by, explaining to Lori that his wife had suffered a heart attack behind the wheel and regained consciousness when she was already in the water. He thanked her from the bottom of his heart.
“I’ve been a nurse for 42 years. I’ve encountered a lot of stuff,” Lori said. “I’ve attended countless codes, that’s kind of what I compared it to. It’s like you go on autopilot, you get done what needs to be done, and you fall apart later.”
Decades ago, Lori paid her way through nursing school by lifeguarding and took all of her swimming lessons with the Red Cross when she was a child. She used the lifesaving skills she learned to save this woman’s life.
“I would tell everybody to take swimming lessons,” Lori said. “All my grandkids can swim, my kids can swim, it’s one of those things. It’s like walking and breathing. You have to know how to do it. Anybody can end up in that situation. Especially if you have children, you need to know how to get them out of the water.”
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco
Lynn Ehmen–Essential Services Hero
Lynn Ehmen is one of our 2021 Red Cross Essential Services Heroes. Throughout the pandemic, she has dedicated her time to helping her community.
Lynn is a mother of four from Springfield, Illinois and has always been inspired to help others. She grew up poor in her small country community and remembers how other people helped her family by offering boxes of food to drives at her school.
Their generosity inspired Lynn to give back and decades later, she joined the Springfield Families Helping Families Facebook group. The group has allowed hundreds of people to connect to help each other during the pandemic. Families can reach out online for items like food, laundry detergent, toilet paper, and any basic needs.
“It’s people asking for help and people giving help. That’s it,” Lynn said.
She would check the page, keep track of people who needed food, and deliver meals to residents in her local area. After seeing the overwhelming demand, Lynn wanted to make the process easier for families. The gentleman who started the Facebook group built a small micro-pantry outside of his office. The pantry looked like a tiny house and was set up like a neighborhood library, except instead of books, it was filled with food. As Lynn got to know him, they became friends, and she started filling the pantries with food.
“When I was filling it, and there were people waiting in line to use it, I thought, ‘Hey, this is a thing I can do.’ I’m pretty handy. My contractor friend took me into his shop, and I made 11 more of them,” Lynn added.
She raised nearly $20,000 dollars to create more micro-pantries during the pandemic.
“Take what you need and leave what you can. That’s the whole philosophy. I don’t own them or monitor them. It’s just a community place where people can drop stuff off and anybody can take what they need,” said Lynn.
These micro-pantries are open 24/7 and people do not need any paperwork to receive food, which allows for anonymous pickup. The pantries operate on an honor system, encouraging families to only take what they need. The Facebook page keeps track of the pantry locations and people can go to the page to view a list of the nearest micro-pantries
“They can walk up to their community micro-pantry, the one that’s closest to their home, and get what they need. If they don’t have something to eat for one particular night, and the food banks are not open, they have the option of going to the micro-pantries. That’s why I chose to build them,” explained Lynn.
Due to the pandemic, many stable families found themselves out of work and struggling financially. The situation inspired Lynn to create a resource that anyone could access to avoid food insecurity.
“All I could think about [were] the kids,” said Lynn. “There’s a lot of low-income poverty kids that count on breakfast and lunch at school. Those are the only meals they get in a day. How are they going to get food? How are their parents going to teach them at home?” recalled Lynn.
As of October 2020, Lynn had established over 30 micro-pantries to serve those in need. She also started a community garden at Washington Middle school last year. The garden continues to expand, and its produce is donated to the micro-pantries.
Although Lynn is being honored as a hero, she thinks that the real heroes are the teachers who are getting the children through this, online and in person. However, she is grateful for the recognition.
“A hero is somebody who can see a bad situation… and help, or solve the problem without hurting anyone else and without asking to be paid for it,” Lynn said. “[A hero sees that] action needs to be taken and they take it, without any concern for their own situation.”
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco
Jeni has been a nurse for more than five years at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington, Illinois. For her, every day at work is different. She works 12 hour shifts in the surgical unit, in addition to attending graduate school at Maryville University, with plans on becoming a nurse practitioner.
“We’re trained to do a little bit of everything. I can’t say I have a typical day as a nurse, but it’s nice not doing the same thing over and over,” Jeni explained.
On June 10, 2020, during her shift, she noticed a colleague, Gregg Pensky, who worked at the pharmacy, hunched over and not breathing on a chair.
“As soon as I walked off the elevator and turned, I was probably no more than 15 or 20 feet away, and I could tell instantly something was wrong. When I’d walked past previously, he was upright and on his phone. And when I came off the elevator on the way back up, he was slumped over, and his phone was on the ground. He was not awake, not responding to anything,” remembered Jeni.
She immediately began CPR and asked a passerby to contact the hospital operator to call a Code Blue, which is a cardiac or respiratory arrest emergency that cannot be moved. Thirty seconds later, another nurse arrived to assist Jeni. They continued to alternate doing chest compressions until the response team could arrive.
When the doctor came to the scene, the man was quickly intubated for oxygen and hooked up to an IV, while lying on the floor.
“There was a lot going on at 7a.m. It was the first thing that happened in the morning,” Jeni said.
She had a very small window to act, and before she knew it, the whole situation was over.
“We had 20 people available to help, so it was very quick. I would say less than a minute and a half,” Jeni recalled.
A few days later, she received a text from one of the doctors who had treated Gregg, letting her know that he was off the ventilator and breathing on his own.
“Being able to give his family another birthday, another Christmas, another holiday season, I think that’s very, very special,” Jeni said.
She received a Daisy Award for extraordinary nurses because of her heroic action.
Jeni has been awarded the 2021 Red Cross Healthcare Hero Award for her lifesaving act and is very grateful for being nominated by the family.
“It’s an honor that anybody views me as a hero. I just did what was right and was in the right place at the right time.”
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious
Jerrylee Murphy-Wiles–Lifesaving Rescue Hero
Jerrylee Murphy-Wiles was walking to his bus stop in Peoria, when he heard someone shouting for help in the distance. After examining his surroundings, he identified where the yelling was coming from and found an elderly woman pounding on the window of her home. It appeared she had fallen and wasn’t able to get up on her own. Jerrylee could tell she was in desperate need of assistance, and immediately dialed 911.
“Before I called, I tried to get in the front and back door, but they were both locked,” Jerrylee said.
He thought it was best to keep the woman distracted until first responders could arrive, so he stayed with her, keeping her company from outside her window.
“He is a very spirited 24-year-old who loves to interact with other people, so I’m sure he talked that woman’s ear off,” said Tim Lingenfelter, Jerrylee’s Mentor at EP!C, an organization of community members working to support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Paramedics told Jerrylee that if it wasn’t for his heroic instinct, the woman could have passed out and not made it.
“When they said I saved her life, I thought of my grandma. I was very proud of myself,” Jerrylee mentioned.
Jerrylee works in the kitchen for EP!C. A few days later, when his colleagues heard of what he did, he was greeted with a big surprise when he walked into work.
“Everybody was excited for him. When you walked down the hallway, it’s about two miles long and you could hear everyone talking about it. We couldn’t be prouder of what he did,” recalled Doris Hayes, chief operating officer of EP!C.
Jerrylee was given a plaque and coin from AMT and Pekin Police for his efforts that day. In addition, the Red Cross is honoring him as one the Lifesaving Rescue Heroes for 2021.
“It’s big to me. It’s very big to me because I love helping people,” Jerrylee said.
“I think it shows that Jerry cared more about somebody else than he did himself. He very easily could have just kept walking to work and never looked back and he didn’t do that,” added Hayes.
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious
Roger King–Lifesaving Rescue Hero
On November 26, 2020, Roger King, his wife Julie, and their two-year old grandson were driving through Pontiac, looking at Christmas lights. They noticed a house on fire, with flames coming out of one of the windows, and Roger’s wife recognized the home. She was familiar with the resident, and knew the woman who lived there was elderly, as she was her mother’s friend.
“I got out and I asked if anybody [had] knocked on the door. I asked [those at the site] if they knew if anybody [was] home and they really didn’t know for sure,” Roger stated.
At this point, Roger realized people were possibly trapped inside, so he started knocking on the door. Moments later, a woman came running down the stairs to open the door, saying she was the caretaker of the resident. Roger explained to the woman that the house was on fire. Without hesitation, he ran upstairs with the caretaker, woke the elderly woman, and assisted her out of the house.
“The smoke wasn’t super bad on the second floor yet. I was more concerned about the people upstairs than my own wellbeing,” Roger recalled.
It was chilly outside, so Roger’s wife took the elderly resident with her to the car to keep her warm and wait for help to arrive.
Shortly after, firetrucks arrived to put the fire out, and Roger was questioned about the situation from the fire department. A couple days later, he received a call and was told the house did not have working smoke detectors.
As a result of Roger’s heroic effort and quick thinking, he was able to save not one, but two lives that evening.
“I just did what I thought anybody else would do. I did what needed to be done,” Roger explained.
A few months later, he was notified that he had won the Red Cross Lifesaving Rescue Hero Award.
“I was pretty excited. I mean, it’s not something that happens every day,” said Roger. “It’s always easy to say what you’re going to do, but when it actually happens, it’s a totally different story.”
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious
Josh Railey–Lifesaving Rescue Hero
Josh Railey and his girlfriend Megan were out celebrating his birthday dinner on February 28, 2020. As they left the restaurant, Josh and his girlfriend noticed a burning car that had slammed into the median. Although the car was barely visible through the smoke, he noticed two people escape and run to safety. As Josh got out to further observe the situation, he saw a woman kick the door open and crawl out.
“I immediately ran over to help her, but she insisted I get her baby that was still trapped inside,” Josh said.
Thankfully, someone else had stopped their car to help the women get away from the vehicle while Josh searched. The car was engulfed in smoke and he struggled to see inside. He ran over to the other side, cut open the deployed airbags with his pocketknife, and patted around the back seats.
“At first, I was worried because I didn’t feel anything. I wanted to check the front seats just to be safe and sure enough, the baby was still in the carrier between the driver and passenger chairs,” Josh recalled.
He quickly grabbed the baby and ran far enough out until he knew they were safe.
“I didn’t really have time to think about it. The whole thing felt like a few minutes, and I had to act fast,” Josh said.
By the time he got down the road to return the baby, people had pulled over to see what was going on. Josh waited with them until police arrived. The mother of the child was unable to stand, so Josh handed the child over to one of the female police officers. He gave them a brief description of what happened, was thanked for his actions, and told he and his girlfriend could go home.
“My night felt kind of surreal after that.I don’t even think we watched TV. We were still trying to process what happened. It was a lot to take in,” Josh remembered.
Within days after the incident, word got around about Josh’s heroic act. A local news team showed up at his work and wanted to interview him about the story, and he was soon nominated for a Red Cross Hero Award.
“I don’t like to consider myself a hero. I’m a pretty humble guy and was just trying to help,” Josh said. “I hope to inspire people to do the right thing when the time comes.”
Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious