World Blood Donor Day: Gary’s Story

When you hear about the need for blood, what do you think about?

United States Air Force Major Gary Novak (Retired) thinks about the times he cared for wounded soldiers, while flying thousands of feet in the air and having no time to wait for administering lifesaving blood.

Major Novak completed several tours as a Critical Care Flight Nurse for the Air Force Nurse Corps. His dedication and talents helped keep injured service members alive, as did the blood kept on board the aircraft.

We always made sure we took blood with us. A lot of the patients, we had to give so much blood to keep them alive. I saw such a need for that and, because of that, I just feel it’s my duty now to give blood.”
-Major Gary Novak

Major Novak went on to a career as a nurse and continued to see the need for blood on a daily basis. He regularly donates blood, and recently did so at the Danyel Pitts blood drive in Springfield.

He says, “You just never know. The blood you give may save somebody’s life that you know and love. It’s always good to help out where you can.”

Thank you, Major Novak for your brave and selfless service to our country, and for giving the gift of lifesaving blood!

If you would like to give blood, please visit redcrossblood.org.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen

Meet Don Cusack, Military Veteran and Active Red Cross Volunteer

In 1999, Congress designated May as National Military Appreciation Month. At the Red Cross, we pause to recognize and celebrate our employee and volunteer military community and we’re proud to recognize and highlight one of our very own … American Red Cross of Greater Chicago volunteer, Don Cusack.

Don served in the U.S. Army for 41 years as an Intelligence Analyst. Inspired by his wife, Don was motivated to volunteer with the Red Cross and since 2017, he has deployed 12 times to disasters like Hurricanes Irma, Florence, and Ida and countless number of floods and tornadoes. At a very young age, Don felt the calling to service and even now, during retirement, he remains at the ready.

Why did you join The U.S. Army?

Joining the Army was born out of a competitive streak. Following my father’s footsteps, I have two other brothers who joined, and I thought to myself, “If they joined and made it, so can I!” That competitive streak led me to The United States Army Airborne School, also known as Jump School, which is one of the most difficult trainings you can imagine. Jump School is a 3-week intense training program … of the 800 of us that started, 400 didn’t make it after only 2 weeks! After many miles of running and five required jumps from moving aircrafts, I successfully completed Jump School and became a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. It is this type of competitiveness and determination that brings out the leader in us which gives us the motivation to step forward and help and care for people when they most need it.

Why after a 41-year military career, did you decide to volunteer with the Red Cross?

I volunteer with the Red Cross for self-satisfaction and my continued desire to serve and help people when they are facing the most vulnerable time in their life. I find that the training and experience I received during my time with the Army gave me leadership skills that are applicable beyond one’s time in the military. I am happy, and grateful, that my military training, to this day, is useful during disaster responses.

How has your military training been applied throughout your volunteer time with the Red Cross?

My military training has allowed me to take leadership roles when responding to disasters. Maintaining a level head and keeping priorities in order have ensured that I successfully direct and help people which at the end of the day, it’s what it’s all about. As volunteers we take our experience and apply it to help people. That’s why I volunteer. Not for fame or glory … simply to serve people when people most need it. And I’ll keep doing it until I can and hope that others find the inspiration to do the same.

We know that gratitude is not what motivates service. The employee and volunteer veterans and service members of the Red Cross are continually motivated by duty, honor, love of country and fellow citizens. And just like Don, there is a deep-seated responsibility, 24 hours a day, every day of the year, to be ready and prepared to take off when disaster strikes.

Don and fellow volunteers installed free smoke alarms during a Sound the Alarm Event in Joliet, IL

The Red Cross is grateful for the many military veteran volunteers like Don that come forward to dedicate time and talent during local, national, and global disasters. Thank you for your humanitarian service to our country and freedom.

During National Military Appreciation Month, and every day of the year, we listen, we remember, and we acknowledge their service not only during times of crisis in the world, but at all times.

When he’s not volunteering with the Red Cross, Don likes to travel to Hawaii with his wife, Linda, enjoys time with his four sons and their families including three grandsons and one granddaughter.

Services for Military and Veteran Families

The Red Cross helps members of the military, veterans and their families prepare for, cope with, and respond to, the challenges of military service. The American Red Cross provides critical services with a caring touch to men and women in all branches of the United States military, active-duty personnel, reservists and members of the National Guard, and their families. Through our Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program, the Red Cross serves service men and women, veterans, and their families.  From the day they enlist to providing emergency communications while they are deployed to serving at VA Hospitals across the country, Red Cross volunteers are standing by.

The Red Cross has been serving the military for more than 140 years and has deployed alongside military in every U.S. conflict since the Spanish-American War.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager, Connie Esparza

Knit Together for a Cause

Winter hats and mittens. These are necessary items during the cold weather months and can be taken for granted, sometimes. However, a group of American Red Cross volunteers in the Quad Cities do not take these items for granted. They are dedicated to using their talents for the good of other people, and have spent countless hours knitting these items together for children and military families who need them.

The knitting group meets weekly in Moline and got its start in 2011. The group donates an average of 200 sets of handmade mittens every year and, in total, these ladies have made and donated more than 2,000 sets of knitted items since 2011. The mittens and hats are provided to military members and their families through Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces.

“Hats, gloves, and scarves are distributed at stand downs for homeless veterans, helping them to stay warm throughout the winter. These knitted items provide not only for the physical needs of our veterans, but the personal nature of these handcrafted items show them that someone cares,” said Crystal Smith, regional director of Red Cross Service to Armed Forces & International Services.

Carol Van De Walle has been there since the beginning. She helped form the group and is glad to see it has continued through the years, even during the pandemic when they have met virtually on Zoom meetings or outdoors. None of the people in the group knew each other before joining, but consider each other good friends, now.

“I think the camaraderie of the people is what I enjoy the most. Our group, we just enjoy each other a lot and we’re very supportive of each other. We have very talented people, and we have beginners. It’s a very accepting group. I really enjoy having that connection, it has been very rewarding,” she said.

Carol and her fellow group members have worked with the Rock Island Arsenal in recent years, sending their handmade items to be distributed to military families. Items ranging from lap blankets to dishcloths to pet accessories all have been lovingly donated, through the years.

“We feel like we’re helping our community and that’s important to all of us,” she said.

Carol has been a Red Cross volunteer for 20 years, formerly serving on our disaster team. She loves giving her time and is thankful to still have the opportunity to do so.

“This is something I can do to still contribute. What’s nice about the Red Cross is there’s something for everybody. When you’re young and strong you can do some of the things and when you’re not, there’s other things you can do and you can still be useful and helpful to your community and the Red Cross in general,” she said.

Trish Burnett, our executive director for the Quad Cities and West Central Illinois chapter, has worked with these dedicated volunteers for many years and appreciates the efforts they make on a regular basis.

“Carol and the group of volunteers who selflessly give their time to knit these items by hand show true kindness and generosity, again and again. They are dedicated to serving members of the military, the Red Cross and the community and we are very appreciative of their continued efforts.”
-Trish Burnett

This month, we celebrated the knitting group for their efforts during a reception in their honor. Please join us in thanking this team of dedicated volunteers for all they do!

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen

Red Cross Month: Service to the Armed Forces

The American Red Cross helps members of the military, veterans, their families and caregivers cope with the challenges of service, providing more than 513,000 services each year through a worldwide network of volunteers.

Military and veteran communities face unique circumstances. The Red Cross offers a variety of resiliency workshops with effective tools for the whole family to help improve communications, face challenges and manage stress. These programs are free, confidential and offered in person or online by licensed mental health professionals.

The “Coping with Deployments” program helps military families to manage stress and communicate effectively while their service member is deployed. Participants learn how to help their children cope with stress, in addition to building a family communication plan and discussing psychological tips on handling separation. These workshops are available in person or as a self-guided online course.

Reconnection workshops are designed to help service members, veterans, their families and caregivers learn how to cope with military-specific challenges and are available for adults, teenagers and children. These discussion-based workshops encourage participants to share their experiences and practice resilience-building activities to help reconnect with family members, work environments and communities.

Mind-body workshops focus on how emotional, mental, social and spiritual factors can directly affect physical health, and provide tools to stay grounded and refocus during times of stress. One workshop teaches participants foundational techniques like mindfulness, breathing and stretching, which are proven to lower stress and improve well-being. Another workshop guides participants through techniques for personal and professional growth, such as drawing, journaling and meditation. These workshops were developed and reviewed by a team of experts in mental health, mind-body practice, military culture, and complementary and integrative healing.

The Red Cross Military and Veteran Caregiver Network offers peer-based support to those providing care to wounded, ill or aging service members and veterans. This is a global network created by caregivers for caregivers, supporting one another to decrease feelings of isolation and increase feelings of connection, hope and well-being. The network also supports veterans who are caregivers.

The Red Cross works with military aid societies to connect eligible military, retired military, veterans and their families with financial assistance in times of hardship. This assistance can include funds for emergency travel, food and shelter and more.

Volunteers are needed to support the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces mission. Please visit redcross.org/volunteer to sign up as a volunteer. Also, visit redcross.org/saf to learn more about how the Red Cross serves members of the military and their families.

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

Volunteer Spotlight: Pat D’Alessandro

Pat D’Alessandro of Le Claire, IA is the Regional Recovery Lead for the American Red Cross of the Quad Cities and West Central Illinois chapter, and has been a volunteer for almost 12 years. She has been deployed in many Operations Management roles as well as taken part in the Volunteer Leadership team for the Quad Cities. As a volunteer, she has been deployed to Superstorm Sandy, Hurricanes Matthew, Florence, and Irma just to name a few.  She has worked in many regional Disaster Reliefs such as the 4-month flood in the Quad Cities. Not only is she heavily involved with disasters, she also helps teach disaster classes, works on the Sound the Alarm initiative, and is part of the Quad Cities Service to the Armed Forces knitting group. Pat is always lending a helping hand wherever it is needed, and she puts the livelihoods of others before her own needs.

Pat says that she thoroughly enjoys volunteering because of the people she’s met and the sense of accomplishment she feels knowing that she is helping people during some of the worst times of their lives. Pat is an incredible individual and has no idea how much it means to those experiencing a crisis that she cares about them and wants to be of service.

“I tell people that this is the best job I’ve ever had. Where else can you get paid in hugs?”  -Pat D’Alessandro  

Part of her volunteer work includes helping with Sound the Alarm, the American Red Cross initiative to help install free smoke alarms throughout homes in the community. In the event that there is a fire, smoke alarms play a vital role in reducing fire deaths and injuries. They aid in alerting families and giving them time to get out of their homes safely. Pat says initiatives like Sound the Alarm are part of the mission of the Red Cross to help in prevention of disasters, as well as respond to them and help people recover from them.

The Red Cross mission spans across five lines of service: Biomedical Services, Disaster Relief, Training Services, International Services and Services to the Armed Forces. Pat has found a place for her skills as a volunteer in multiple lines of service and anyone can find a place at the Red Cross including virtual work, or in-person responses. Pat says that if disaster response doesn’t sound like your “thing”, we always need help with blood drives, fundraising, working with Service to the Armed Forces, and helping around chapter offices.

Pat had been looking to give back as a volunteer at an organization that provided opportunities to help those in need both at home and in other parts of the country. She identified a connection with the Red Cross because of what they had done for her community and she felt a strong need to be part of it. Ever since then, Pat has volunteered to a great capacity and the American Red Cross cannot thank her enough. Individuals that do what Pat does have such a big heart for others and never fail to bring a smile to those who need it most.

To find more volunteer opportunities at the American Red Cross click here: www.redcross.org/volunteer

Written by Communications Intern Alyna Morales

Volunteer Rick Daitchman reflects on time at Red Cross and milestone blood donation

Over the years, Rick Daitchman has dedicated a lot of time to the Red Cross through volunteering and donating blood. His parents inspired him to serve others.

“My father and mother were always helping people. That’s one of the things that I remember. They treated people right and helped,” Rick says.

Rick’s drive to help others stems back to when he was a college student during the Vietnam War.

“I got lucky,” says Rick. “I had a high number in the draft and didn’t get picked. I have a lot of friends who went to Vietnam and aren’t here anymore, so I just decided to give back to those people.”

Rick’s been volunteering with the Red Cross since 2009 but has been donating blood for almost 30 years. Most recently, Rick donated his 60th unit of blood!

“I don’t really think about it as a big deal anymore. I just think of it as something I look forward to. And I like the cookies! I like the experience and I like to joke around with the staff,” says Rick.

As a volunteer, Rick has worked with Disaster Cycle Services on the Sound the Alarm campaign and was also one of the first volunteers to be part of the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). This program provides information about Red Cross services to military recruits and families before they are deployed.

Thanks to the Red Cross, Rick is trained in first aid and CPR. And since he retired at the end of 2020, he looks forward to spending more time volunteering.

To become a volunteer like Rick, please visit redcross.org/volunteer. You can also make an appointment to donate blood at redcrossblood.org.

Written by Doreen Fosco, Communications and Marketing Intern

Veterans Week: Serving Those Who Serve Our Country

Through its Service to the Armed Forces program (SAF), the American Red Cross helps members of the U.S. military, veterans and their families prepare for, cope with and respond to the challenges of military service. One of its signature programs is the Family Contact Card program in which families of active military members are contacted by Red Crossers to make them aware of our military support programs, both at home and around the world. A case is opened for each family, and any follow-up activity can be monitored and noted in our client management system.

During our AmeriCorps Veterans Week National Service project in November, 14 Illinois Disaster Corps and Safe Families members were trained by SAF staff and through online classes to work with the Family Contact Card program. Three AmeriCorps staff members coordinated and facilitated this project with our SAF program.

“It was amazing to be a part of this outreach project,” explains Sara Stepanovich, an Illinois Disaster Corps member (pictured below). “To get to connect with military families, many of whom were first-time military families, was extremely impactful.”

Over the course of Veterans Day week, November 8th-14th, 13 AmeriCorps members contacted 638 military families statewide in Illinois and served more than 450 household members directly via telephone. Additionally, one member assisted with internal coordination activities in relation to these cases. This entailed validating 120 Family Contact Cards filled out by new recruits at Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) before they leave for boot camp. These cards provide the valuable contact information that is used for the Family Contact Card program and allows the Red Cross to connect with their families during their military service.

“We were not only able to extend our gratitude for their service member and their family, but also let them know the American Red Cross is there to support them 24/7 while their loved one is away,” Sara says. “You could tell that knowing the Red Cross is consistent and reliable support, when so much else was unknown, brought families comfort.”

Each AmeriCorps member committed at least eight hours of cumulative direct service time (in addition to training), totaling 112 hours served for our 2020 Veterans Week National Service project.

To learn more about our AmeriCorps program at the Illinois Red Cross, visit https://www.redcross.org/local/illinois/volunteer/americorps.html.

Written by Hannah Allton, Regional Communications Manager

Illinois to Djibouti: Staff Member, Kelsey Smith Deploys to Support our Armed Forces

The American Red Cross has a history of supporting our armed forces that dates back to our founder Clara Barton, who provided assistance to soldiers during the Civil War. Today, the Red Cross’ Service to the Armed Forces delivers support to over one million active-duty personnel and over one million members of the National Guard across the United States. The Red Cross also ensures that veterans and military families are receiving the proper assistance they deserve. Along with these services, the Red Cross also helps military installations around the world.

Kelsey during her 2018 deployment during California wildfires

Kelsey Smith is a staff member on the Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) team of the Illinois Red Cross region and is one of 200 mobile SAF personnel across the country. Kelsey is mainly involved in volunteer management and in her two years with the Red Cross, she has been working closely with over 130 volunteers who assist with Service to the Armed Forces. Kelsey, will be deploying to Djibouti to support our armed forces on the ground this August.

“My (current) job is making sure volunteers are happy, because the Red Cross work force is 90 percent volunteers and only 10 percent of paid staff,” Kelsey says. “We want to make sure that the volunteers feel fulfilled in their role and that they feel supported.”

Kelsey comes from a military family which is what prompted her to be interested in this role at the organization. This trip will be unique for Kelsey as it will be her first-time teaching CPR to soldiers. Although she is nervous about traveling far from home, she is excited about the opportunity to work abroad and provide support to members of our military.

Kelsey donating during a 2019 blood drive

“It will be really interesting to understand the experience of the service members,” Kelsey says. “Just because they have so many unique challenges and struggles that they go through, and I am very excited just to further the mission of the Red Cross while I am there.”

Kelsey leaves on August 23rd, flying from Baltimore to Germany on a military plane. But before she arrives in Djibouti, she will undergo orientation to prepare for her deployment. During orientation, she will receive her uniform, equipment for Djibouti, and will do casework training. She’ll arrive in Djibouti in mid-September and stay until mid-March of 2021.

While she’s there, Kelsey will assist with morale-boosting activities for service men and women such as 4K races, and movie nights. She will also be managing and distributing in-kind donations to soldiers, and providing emergency communication services for service members who may need to quickly travel home to a family member in need. Kelsey believes that the presence of the Red Cross on base will have a positive effect on soldiers during these critical times.

“Obviously during times of COVID-19, I think this process is probably even harder than usual because you don’t know if your family is safe, you don’t know that your kids are safe, you don’t know that you are safe, yourself,” Kelsey says. “I think, above all, just knowing that the Red Cross is there is comforting.”

While assisting active service members is a large part of the effort, the Red Cross also supports veterans and military families. This includes providing referral services for veterans and assisting with veteran appeals. During a difficult deployment, the Red Cross will provide military families with courses that allow them to cope with deployment, as well as pre-deployment preparedness information. The Red Cross also helps families stay in contact with an armed force family member wherever they are deployed. Kelsey believes the Red Cross offers more than just supplies or skills to soldiers. It provides trust.

“I think people count on the Red Cross for a comforting presence, and it also makes people feel better knowing they can be in communication with their family,” Kelsey says. “I think it is important that someone is there just so that the service members feel constantly supported.”

For more information on how the Red Cross supports the armed forces click here.

Written by David Astudillo, Marketing and Communications Intern

Rochelle Crump Honored as 2020 “Everyday Extraordinary” Military Hero

Rochelle Crump served in the Women’s Army Corps during the Vietnam War (ERA). She received the National Defense Service Medal for honorable service during a period of national emergency (Vietnam) and a Certificate of Recognition from the Secretary of Defense for military service during the Cold War. Rochelle has always had a heart for her veteran family and worked for 23 years for the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Having witnessed the difficulty facing many women veterans upon returning home, in 2005 Rochelle and several women veterans founded the National Women Veterans United (NWVU), a volunteer-based organization for women veterans and those in active duty, reserve duty, and national guard. The NWVU is one of few organizations across the nation with a mission that includes assisting women veterans in navigating the complicated systems of Veterans Affairs Hospitals and benefits.

“After a deployment, veterans do not come back the same (person), families don’t understand what they have been through or what they have seen. It is the role of the NWVU to help female vets understand they are not alone,” Rochelle says. “Veterans have VA benefits, but the bureaucracy is complicated to navigate, we ease this burden.”

The NWVU is a ‘voice for the voiceless.’ The organization also assists disabled women veterans through peer support programs and helps women veterans who are homeless or housing insecure to find housing, management services, and wellness support programs to help them get back on their feet. The NWVU also works with many women veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), Military Sexual Trauma (MST), depression and other mental health challenges, promoting hope, wellness and recovery. They also support military families, whose mother may be deployed or may have returned from active duty. The NWVU hosts a variety of programs including art therapy, plant-based healthy cooking, and financial literacy programs. In 2018, NWVU developed a partnership with the Women Business Development Center and the United Relief Foundation to assist military women entrepreneurs. 

In 2015, NWVU opened the only Military Women Veterans Center in the state of Illinois. On September 7, 2019, NWVU renamed the center in honor of Sergeant Simone A. Robinson, an Illinois soldier who died as a result of an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Sergeant Robinson’s daughter was two years old at the time, and the NWVU has mentored her and helped her family for the last seven years.

The ultimate goal of the NWVU is “to make sure female veterans maintain their independence, get the support and assistance they deserve, and ensure the women veterans who served so well are included as part of history – they all deserve that,” Rochelle states.

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.

You can support the American Red Cross during this Coronavirus outbreak at Redcross.org/ChicagoHero.

Marty Knight: A Veteran Who Continues to Serve through Volunteering with the Red Cross

Marty Knight has been a volunteer with the American Red Cross for the more than 10 years. However, his experience with the Red Cross goes back to the early 1970s while serving in the United States Navy.

In 1972,  Marty deployed during the Vietnam War aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga and a year later aboard  USS Kitty Hawk, as a jet and engine mechanic working on airplanes and helicopters.

Years later, while onboard USS Kitty Hawk, Marty crossed path with the American Red Cross, “In July of 1979, I was in Pattaya Beach, Thailand when I got the Red Cross message that my son was born in the city of San Diego” says Marty. Even though, he didn’t get to meet his son until February of 1980, Marty was very grateful to the Red Cross for letting him know that both, his wife and son were doing well.

Copy of the message the Red Cross sent to Marty Knight in 1979 notifying him of the birth of his son

However, this wouldn’t be the last time that Marty was going to hear from the Red Cross. While still on duty, he remembers receiving notification from the American Red Cross that one of the members of his squad needed to return home on emergency leave. “…we started the paperwork and a few minutes later the Red Cross called back to ask if he needed travelling money and I said yes…and so they gave him travel money, which I thought it was very nice of the Red Cross,” recalls Marty.

In 2001, Marty’s wife was gravely ill with cancer and once more the Red Cross was there to assist the family, helping his son, who was serving in the U.S. Navy, come home on emergency leave to be by his mother’s side.

Marty believes his familiarity and personal experience with the work of the Red Cross prompted him to become a volunteer. As a Red Crosser, Marty has been able to provide support to other veterans, delivering supplies from the Red Cross to a Veterans Home in Manteno whenever possible, adding that he does whatever he can to make their lives better.

As a member of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team, Marty responds to home fires, providing comfort and assistance to families during their toughest moments. He has also deployed multiple times during major disasters to help with relief efforts. Last year, Marty deployed to Alabama to assist with logistics in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, “I was distributing supplies like shovels, rakes and water to people,” explains Marty.

Marty during his deployment to Alabama in 2018

His past deployments also include North Carolina and New Jersey after Hurricanes Florence and Sandy, respectively. Both times, Marty assisted with mass feeding in Red Cross shelters and drove an Emergency Response Vehicle to bring food to those in the affected areas.

Marty is one of the many veterans who are making a positive impact in their communities through their volunteering with the American Red Cross, being there for others in time of need, lending a helping hand and shoulder to lean on.  Thank you, Marty, for your service and for supporting the mission of the Red Cross.

If you like to know more about the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces click here.

To find out more information about volunteering with the American Red Cross here.

Written by Isis Chaverri, Regional Marketing & Communications Manager