American Red Cross Celebrates 2023 Local Heroes 

American Red Cross Celebrates 2023 Local Heroes 

Seventeen extraordinary individuals to be honored at the 2023 Red Cross Heroes Breakfast

The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago announces the 2023 class of heroes to be honored at the annual Red Cross Heroes Breakfast. The class of Red Cross Heroes are an exemplary group of individuals who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to build better communities, and who have made a lasting impact on others in the process. 

The Heroes Breakfast was established to raise public awareness of local heroes who exemplify the values of the lifesaving mission of the Red Cross. Since 2002, the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago has celebrated more than 200 extraordinary individuals who have made a personal commitment to creating safer and stronger communities and providing help when disaster strikes.  

This is the 21st year the Red Cross is honoring a class of heroes at our Heroes Breakfast, attended by hundreds of individuals from across Chicagoland. This year’s event is scheduled for Thursday, May 11 from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m. at the Hilton Chicago. Over the past 21 years, through the generosity of the corporate and individual donor community, the annual Chicago Heroes Breakfast has raised millions of dollars for the humanitarian mission of the American Red Cross.  

“Each year I am humbled to hear the stories of incredible people who selflessly and altruistically help others. This year we have assembled another incredible class of heroes who have made an extraordinary mark in their communities and beyond,” said Celena Roldán Sarillo, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Illinois.  

The 2023 Class of Heroes 

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. The Red Cross pays tribute to the class of 2023 heroes through their stories of inspiration outlined below. 

Yvonne Blake of Chicago is the Blood Services Hero. This past November, Yvonne Blake’s 20-year-old son Jaden, a collegiate track and field athlete and student at Grand Valley State University, passed away after a terrible automobile accident. While fighting for his life in the hospital and in preparation for organ donation, Jaden required more than 60 units of blood. To keep her son’s legacy alive, she started a non-profit in his name, the Jaden Sebastian Blake Foundation, and a month after his death she led the Foundation to host a blood drive in his honor. Going forward, Blake and the Foundation have it as their mission to provide support and scholarships for African American youth who aspire to participate in non-traditional sports and to raise awareness of and participation in blood donation and organ donation for members of African American communities nationwide. 

Father Hernan Cuevas Contreras of Highland Park is theDisaster Relief Hero. During the 2022 Highland Park Independence Day Parade mass shooting, Father Hernan Cuevas Contreras, on his third day on the job as the pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, took immediate action and led his parishioners on their parade float and other parade onlookers in the area to run and take shelter in his church. He and the church sheltered more than 50 people for four hours while the shooter was at large. In the wake of the tragedy, Father Cuevas also dedicated himself to providing resources for the Spanish-speaking members of the community to support healing in Highland Park and Highwood. 

Shawn Harrington of Oak Park is the Education Hero. Shawn Harrington brings encouragement and inspiration every day to the students he teaches and coaches at Children of Peace Catholic School. A former Marshall High School stand-out basketball player and coach, Harrington was shot and paralyzed in 2014 in a mistaken identity shooting, while shielding his daughter from gunfire. Currently, Harrington is at Children of Peace Catholic School, where he prioritizes providing students a safe haven on the basketball court and serving as a mentor. He says, “The benefit of my experience is going to benefit these kids. Growing up in the inner city – about every adversity you can face, I’ve been through it.” Harrington works to help children face their own adversities and uses sports as a tool to broaden their horizons. He is known for teaching and coaching with genuine care and concern for the students’ overall well-being. 

Nicole Jackson of Richton Park is the Healthcare Hero. Nicole Jackson is an emergency room manager and nurse at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the south side of the city in Calumet Heights. On June 23, 2022, the emergency department was filled with patients and was experiencing limited nursing staff, when three gunshot victims needing care simultaneously arrived at the ER. Two of the victims required immediate transfer to a higher level of care for their injuries via critical care ambulance transport. Seeing the busy ER, the critical status of the gunshot victims, and the 90-minute wait before a critical care ambulance arrived, Jackson, already working beyond her shift to support her team, jumped into the ambulance to deliver lifesaving care in the fast-moving ambulance. Regularly going above and beyond as an ER nurse and patient advocate in a trauma setting is what Jackson is known for at Advocate Trinity Hospital.  

Captain Paul Burns, Firefighter Paramedic Michael Modjeski, Firefighter EMT Jeffrey Rich, of Chicago are theFirefighter Heroes. In April 2022, the three Chicago Fire Department firefighters responded to a major three-story apartment building fire in the Austin neighborhood. They arrived to find heavy fire emanating from the first-floor windows. Just inside the front door of an apartment on fire, they assisted a female victim who communicated that her ‘grand baby’ was inside. With zero visibility, heavy smoke conditions, and extreme heat, the interior search team entered the burning apartment. Within minutes, FF/PM Modjeski signaled to his partner, FF/EMT Rich, that he had discovered a female on the bed and needed assistance getting her out of the house. Subsequently, Capt. Burns entered the bedroom to complete the search. Under heavy debris from the closet, Capt. Burns discovered an unresponsive 3-year-old child and carried her out of the building. All three victims were quickly transported to the hospital. The search team of Capt. Burns, FF/PM Modjeski and FF/EMT Rich heroically ventured into a heavy fire situation to rescue individuals in a dire circumstance.  

Pastor John Zayas of Chicago is theGlobal Citizenship Hero. In early 2022, Pastor Zayas of the Grace and Peace Community Church in the north Austin and Belmont Cragin neighborhoods of Chicago participated in a City of Chicago taskforce to understand and support the Central and South American migrants anticipated to come to Chicago in fall of 2022. Pastor Zayas recognized the migrant need would be substantial and immediately mobilized his congregation to stand ready to provide humanitarian support. As a result, he provided thousands of migrants with resources and supplies collected from many partners and his church provided temporary shelter for families to keep them together. The Grace and Peace Community Church housed over 100 families for 3-4 months. While staying in their facility, his church also assisted by resourcing them with city programs, employment opportunities, and permanent housing. 

Keith Wallace of Frankfort is the Community Impact Hero. Keith Wallace is the Executive Director of the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association (LWSRA). LWSRA’s mission is to provide recreation and leisure services for individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities while also promoting greater disability awareness in the community. Wallace has led and coached adaptive sports for more than 20 years and works tirelessly to get individuals with disabilities into college and the workforce. Wallace has grown the Lincolnway wheelchair basketball program from one to five teams, all of which compete in the North American Wheelchair Basketball League he founded and the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. In 2022, LWRSA served 400 people. Wallace has also grown wheelchair softball opportunities, including bringing the Wheelchair Softball World Series to Chicagoland in 2022. 

Officers Alexander Lopez & Andrew Soderlundof Aurora and Yorkville respectively are theLaw Enforcement Heroes. The day before Thanksgiving 2022, Officer Alexander Lopez and Field Training Officer Andrew Soderlund of the Aurora Police Department were working in different patrol cars when a call came in that woman and a nine-year-old child had fallen through the ice on a nearby retention pond. The child had been playing with a football that landed on the ice and when he tried to retrieve it, he fell through. The woman saw the incident and tried to save him. The officers raced to the scene with Officer Lopez arriving first. He waded into the retention pond and began to chip away at the ice to rescue the individuals. Eventually the water became too deep for him to touch the bottom, so he swam out in the frigid waters, and proceeded to take hold of both the boy and the woman and tried to swim with both clinging to his back. This proved extremely difficult so Officer Soderlund ran into the water with a rope tied to himself so that their colleagues on shore could help pull them in and get the woman and the boy out of the water. After they were out of the water, Officers Lopez, Soderlund and those rescued were treated for hypothermia, but all made a full recovery. 

Nicole Collins of Sugar Grove is the Lifesaving Rescue Hero. On September 17, 2022, athletic trainer Nicole Collins was chaperoning the homecoming dance at Geneva High School when a senior collapsed. Collins recalls hearing the music stop and running into the gymnasium to see what was going on. Student Bridget Archbold had collapsed suddenly on the crowded dance floor and began to seize. Collins stepped in, placing Archbold onto her side. Once the seizure subsided, Collins rolled Archbold on her back and started chest compressions. Collins did two rounds of CPR and in the second round, Archbold started coughing and came to. She was taken to the hospital in Geneva and returned to school in good health that Monday. Collins says she learned CPR at a babysitting class when she was 10 years old and has maintained her certification since, though this was the first time she used her training to save a life. 

Melvin Bridgmon of Chicago is theMilitary Hero. Melvin Bridgmon, a U.S. Navy Veteran, and his late sister Margaret, founded Outreach Chicago, a veteran-led, faith-based organization to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness including families and veterans in Chicago. A veteran who experienced homelessness himself, Bridgmon seeks to provide resources, information, guidance and hope to those experiencing homelessness, drawing from stories of his own life and his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Outreach Chicago’s programs include nutritional bag lunches, hygiene products for men, women, and babies, as well as winter clothing distribution. Outreach Chicago estimates it has helped 16,000 people since 2010. “I’ve had PTSD so I know what trauma is and what roads it will take you down, so that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing because people need to come home,” he says.  

Berto Aguayo of Chicago is the Social Justice Hero. Berto Aguayo is a law student at Northwestern and is the Executive Director of Increase the Peace, an organization that develops young leaders and promotes peace through leadership development, community organizing, and advocating for solutions that tackle the root causes of violence. Aguayo uses his experience as a former gang member to rally youth to stay off the streets by incentivizing them though community projects, employment access, and civic leader preparation. Additionally, Aguayo mentors Increase the Peace youth and has them shadow his Northwestern Law School classes. Aguayo has also worked hard to bring Black and Latino communities together in the Black and Brown Unity Car Parade which advocates for peace and racial healing.  

Nayomi Melton and Caleb Johnson of Chicago are the Youth Heroes. Siblings Nayomi Melton and Caleb Johnson are just nine and six-years-old but are already seasoned volunteers. In the past two years, the siblings have prepared more than a thousand lunches that they have donated to shelters and handed out to people experiencing homelessness, often using their own allowance money to buy the supplies. They got the idea after they saw a man on the side of the road with a sign and a cup and asked their mom what he was doing. Once she explained he was experiencing homelessness, Melton and Johnson wanted to help because they recognize the importance of helping others in their community. Both children were recently honored with the President’s Volunteer Service Award for their work. 

2023 Heritage Award 
In addition to recognizing the exemplary 2023 Class of Heroes, the Red Cross of Illinois will present the prestigious Heritage Award. The Heritage Award is presented annually to a civic leader who exemplifies the spirit of heroism and humanitarianism at a distinguished level and demonstrates a long-term commitment to improving the lives of others. The awardee’s actions, deeds, and philanthropic works illustrate the spirit of humanitarianism and echo our mission: to help others prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies.  
We are proud to honor Tom Wilson, Chair, President, and Chief Executive of The Allstate Corporation.  

Tom Wilson has been CEO of Allstate since 2007 and Chair of their Board of Directors since 2008. He is a fierce public advocate for business with a proven track-record of voluntary action for the public good and improving the health and welfare of vulnerable populations. Allstate’s mission is tied to helping people and communities recover from disaster events and under Wilson many programs have been implemented that both prepare individuals and communities prior to a disaster and support those communities impacted by disaster. Over the past 20 years, under Wilson’s leadership, Allstate has also implemented many youth initiatives, building, and encouraging future leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow. 

Thank you to the generous sponsors of the 2023 Illinois Red Cross Heroes Breakfast event, including: 

Presenting Sponsor: Gallagher; Champion Sponsors: William Blair, ITW, Kirkland & Ellis, KPMG LLP, and Wintrust; Inspiring Action Sponsor: Make It Better Foundation; Hero Award Sponsors: Aon, BMO, Fresenius Kabi, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Motorola Solutions Foundation, Nicor Gas, United Airlines, Walgreens; Interactive Technology Sponsor: JLL; Media Sponsors: Better 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 or visit us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @RedCrossIL. 

Red Cross Club makes impact within first year at Naperville North

A group of students at Naperville North High School were inspired to make a difference in their community and wanted to do more than the extracurricular options that were available to them. After doing a little research about clubs that would check all the boxes of what they were hoping to accomplish, the Red Cross Club at Naperville North High School was founded in fall of 2022.  

“I wanted to make a club that would help others and was focused on humanitarian aid because I do a lot of volunteer work that centers around that and I’m passionate about it,” Isabel Yu, president of the Red Cross Club at Naperville North High School said. “I found out that the Red Cross had a ton of really good club resources that we could use to get started so those were really helpful.” 

She said these resources made it a smooth process to start the club, allowing them to get underway with impactful work immediately. In its first year, the club has about 25 students that regularly attend their monthly meetings. Their goal is to host events that highlight all five of the Red Cross Lines of Service, which includes: Disaster Cycle Services, Biomedical Services, International Services, Training Services and Service to the Armed Forces. 

“One thing that we did was write cards to veterans and drop them off at our local veteran center,” Yu said. “We also recently had a fundraiser for the Measles and Rubella Initiative where we were able to fundraise and donate all of those proceeds to the American Red Cross to vaccinate kids against Measles and Rubella.” 

“I think it’s really cool to see the impact that we’re making because that was a big thing for me that I wanted to do so,” Aali Khan, the club’s vice president said. “Since it’s organized by the Red Cross, they give us a lot of access to materials that we can use, so it helps out a lot.” 

Members of the club also volunteer at Red Cross of Illinois events, including most recently the Sound the Alarm event in Joliet where they helped install smoke alarms in homes. The club also hosted a hygiene kit drive, both securing all the items needed and assembling the kits themselves before delivering the kits to Church World Service. 

Beyond the impact the club is making in their community, members say it is helping them learn important skills they’ll bring with them to college and beyond. 

“This club has helped my leadership skills and my communication skills,” Khan said. “Especially because this is my first leadership position in a club.” 

“It’s definitely a really rewarding experience that not only we’re able to help those around the world, but also the students and our community,” Yu added. “We’re able to get volunteer experience and even some leadership opportunities, so it’s amazing that we get the best of both worlds.”  

The Red Cross currently has 30 active clubs in Illinois. If you want to become more involved in your community and gain leadership skills, please consider starting a Red Cross Club at your high school or college.   

Written by Illinois Regional Communications Manager Mara Thompson

In Memoriam – Jaylene Adams

The American Red Cross is a family, and we are deeply saddened that recently we lost a beloved member of our family. Jaylene Adams, affectionately known as “Jay” passed away suddenly last week.

Jay, a long-time phlebotomist in Peoria and a recently promoted Red Cross Biomed supervisor in Quincy, has led blood collections in that area. She was ‘one-of-a-kind’ with a big, sparkly personality. Most importantly, Jay was known for her positivity, kindness and compassion with both donors and her staff. Many donors looked for Jay when arriving at a blood drive, as she was fun and always was able to put a donor at ease.

Having a Red Cross career that spanned seven years, Jay was proud to be part of the mission of the Red Cross. She believed in not only the organization, but also in showing compassion and in ‘doing good’ for others. Jay took her role seriously, had a high level of integrity and was proud that each day she was helping to save lives. Always wanting her team to be the best, Jay was a kind coach and mentor.

While many describe Jay as a beautiful soul, all who knew her also describe her as always fun. A year-round lover of Halloween, Jay had a skeleton named “Bone Daddy” sitting upright in her car, causing other drivers to take a second look.

“I was always proud that Jaylene was a member of my team. She was dedicated to blood collection and to the larger mission of the Red Cross,” said Sonja Juric, Regional Donor Services Executive for the Illinois Region of the Red Cross. “No matter the day or time, Jaylene sparkled and evoked positivity. She executed her role with a smile and sense of fun. Donors and staff alike had significant respect for her.”

The Red Cross is a better place because of Jay’s contributions. Over the past seven years, Jay’s kind influence impacted thousands of blood donations, helping thousands of patients receive lifesaving treatments. Gone too soon, Jay will be missed by all who knew her, and we know that her influence made each of us a bit more sparkly. More can be read about Jaylene’s light in her obituary.

Written by Joy Squier

How a blood bank brought an Illinois couple together 

Supplying 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply, the American Red Cross consistently emphasizes the importance of giving blood and its lifesaving abilities. It’s something an Oak Park couple who both work in the medical field and regularly donate blood, not only know to be true, but it’s also a part of their love story. 

“My wife, Katie, and I met at Loyola University Medical Center working in the blood bank,” said Dennis Arocena. “We started on the same day and went to the same new employee orientation. We even had sequential tech code numbers assigned from our lab’s information system. I can’t think of any other techs in our blood bank that have sequential tech codes so it’s pretty fun that the only ones to have them ended up getting married.” 

For both Dennis and Katie Arocena, their interest in working for a blood bank comes from wanting a career that allows them to help people every day. 

“To me, the blood bank is the lab department where one can most directly help patients,” Katie said. “Yes, it’s very stressful and it’s a lot of pressure because someone’s life is on the line, but I thrive in that environment. I really found what I could do to help people from the lab perspective.” 

Working in a hospital blood bank, the Arocenas coordinate receiving blood products from the Red Cross, manage their hospital’s available supply, and ensue the blood products go to matching patients in need of transfusion.

“The blood bank is regulated by the FDA, so we’re basically a pharmacy and blood is considered the drug, and we are the dispensers of this,” Dennis said. “We have a lot of cancer patients, sickle cell patients, and patients who have been transfused many times and therefore can develop many antibodies. Then we must coordinate with our local American Red Cross reference lab to order and get specialized blood to our facility to try and transfuse the patients.” 

Dennis continues to work in the blood bank at Loyola, while Katie is now the blood bank supervisor at another area hospital. Though they no longer work together, it’s still a common topic of conversation at home. 

And because they know the importance of blood, they make it a priority to donate together. Through the Red Cross, Katie has donated 30 whole blood units, while Dennis has donated 130 units of whole blood, platelets, and plasma. 

“We try to bring more awareness to the importance of giving blood,” Katie said. “It’s not just victims of car accidents who need blood. It’s a grandma who has cancer or someone who has a baby. There are a lot of different reasons why someone might need blood, and there is no other substitute.” 

One of their favorite parts of donating is tracking where their blood ends up on the Red Cross Donor app. Katie says her blood has ended up as far away as California, Texas and Florida. 

“Since my blood type is O positive and can be given to almost anybody, my blood can go a lot of places and being able to have that conclusion to your donating experience is really cool,” Katie said. “Your unit might be the unit that saves someone’s life.” 

Download the American Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit or call 800-RED CROSS to make an appointment to give blood. Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood. Thank you for rolling up a sleeve! 

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Mara Thompson

CPR training gives a mother the confidence to act

Tresa Razaaq of Chicago is receiving a Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action from the American Red Cross of Illinois after jumping into action to help her four-year-old son who had begun choking at school. As scary as it was for her in that moment, it was something she says she felt confident to do as she had just come from a CPR training course that same day.  

The course was held on June 14th, 2022, and right afterwards Tresa headed to Mollison Elementary to pick up her kids from school. Tresa said she took the course wanting to get reacclimated on safety training after having another baby. As the president of the Parents Advisory Committee at the school, she also felt she had a responsibility to know CPR. She even talked with the principal that day about looking into hosting a training course at the school, in hopes that more parents and staff could get certified. 

As her kids were walking out of the school, she noticed a parent waving her down near her son who was already outside. Once she ran over, she noticed her son’s eyes bulging, face turning red, and his hands up to his mouth. It was clear that he was choking on the cupcake she saw him leaving the school with. 

“I looked at my son and told him, ‘Listen, don’t be scared, Mommy’s got you’,” Tresa said. “I turned him around and patted his back, the same number of times I had just learned in the class. A little bit came out and he started gasping for air. So, I used my fingers to dislodge more of the cupcake and open his airway. I turned him back around and started patting his back again then the rest came out and he was okay.” 

Tresa said she’s grateful for taking the training, and it goes to show how importance for everyone to have these skills, especially those who are around children often. 

“I was thinking about how glad I was that I had just taken the class, but at the same time, it was my son and I had never seen him like that,” said Tresa. “I couldn’t show how scared I was for his sake and for my other kids who were there watching.” 

She continued: “My mom worked in the medical field for more than 40 years and she was the one who encouraged me to take the class since I am around kids so much including my own. Now I am trying to get everyone in my household to be involved.”  

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

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

Lives Saved in Dixon, IL

Lives Saved in Dixon, IL

“If it wasn’t for the smoke alarms, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m still trying to get over this experience. I’ve been through hurricanes and tornadoes — this is probably the worst.”

Fred and his wife Gina were asleep when they were awakened by the shrill sound of the smoke alarm. To their shock, they woke up to complete darkness due to the dark heavy smoke that had already permeated their apartment.

“We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. We knew we had to get out, but we couldn’t find our cats and we were trying to put on shoes and coats because it was cold. My wife made it out. I stayed behind looking for our pets and quickly became disoriented and overcome by the heavy smoke. The sound of the beeping smoke alarm and the firemen led me closer to the exit, thankfully.”

On October 13, 2021, the Dixon Fire Department through the Red Cross Sound the Alarm program, installed free smoke alarms in Fred and Gina’s apartment. Fred credits these working smoke alarms with saving his and his wife’s lives.

“During a home fire, it’s important that the occupants of the house get out in a quick manner.  With today’s modern construction techniques and modern furnishings of homes the time needed to get out safely is much shorter than years past so smoke alarms are far more important than ever before,” shared Ryan Buskohl, Chief, Dixon Fire Department.

Working smoke alarms saved Fred and Gina’s lives. Working smoke alarms can cut the risk of death in a home fire by 50 percent.

“I am thankful to the Red Cross. Not only did we have working smoke alarms because of their Sound the Alarm program, but they have been so supportive. Make sure you have working smoke alarms in your apartment or your house – anywhere you live, have smoke alarms in case of fire.”

To help prevent fire-related deaths and injuries, the Red Cross launched the Home Fire Campaign with community partners in 2014 to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries. With support from thousands of community partners, the Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign has met its goal of installing 2.5 million free smoke alarms and making 1 million households safer across the country. So far, the Home Fire Campaign is credited with saving more than 1,583 lives in the U.S. – 45 of those lives right in Illinois. Because home fires remain a daily threat and the campaign has made a lifesaving difference, the Red Cross will be continuing the program with community partners as part of its standard services across the country.

Visit to learn more.

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza

Donated Blood Created a Family Legacy

Donated Blood Created a Family Legacy

“Six children, 13 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren, 2 great-great-grandchildren—that’s the legacy we would have missed out on had my mother not received blood when I was born.”

It was 1964 and Penny’s mother was facing a difficult childbirth and hemorrhaging which required 9 units of blood. Penny’s father was charged with replacing those units of blood his wife received so that the hospital had inventory for the next patient in need. “My father instantly rallied 27 family and friends to come forth and donate blood – ever since that day, my family became a family of blood donors.”

Penny grew up hearing the story of her birth and how she could have been deprived of growing up without her mother and subsequent younger brothers had donors not come forth. “My entire life, I’ve heard how donated blood saved my mother’s life. As soon as I was old enough, I started donating blood and haven’t stopped since. Donating blood is such an easy way to help people – so much easier than running a marathon and you’re saving and impacting lives and legacies!”

In the US, approximately 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When I see my mother surrounded by her children and 38 offspring, I can’t help but get emotional. My mother’s story could have easily not turned out the way it did, and we would have missed out on so much love and so many memories. I would not have the family I grew up with, she would have never had the chance to teach me how to cook and bake, play jacks and Yahtzee, or patch a bicycle tire because she would have died at the age of 24.”

Penny’s mother pictured with her great-great-grandson.

Penny, a Power Red blood donor who enjoys long walks with her husky, Bella, has an extensive career in building and testing clinical trial databases, “In my job, I work with medical treatment results and the impact those results have on patients. Blood donation not only impacts the person in need but the entire trajectory of a family’s story. I remain committed to honoring my mother by being a blood donor and telling my story as many times as needed to motivate others to save lives by donating blood.”

Every day, the Red Cross must collect more than 13,000 blood donations to help support accident victims, surgery patients, organ transplant patients, those receiving treatment for leukemia, cancer or sickle cell disease, and emergency obstetric care. There is no substitute for donated blood products.

Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza

Sound the Alarm: Saving Lives During Home Fires

Since the inception of the American Red Cross home fire campaign, more than 1,500 lives have been saved throughout the U.S. Five of those lives were saved during two fires in the South Central Illinois chapter of the Illinois region.

In Decatur, Red Cross volunteers previously had installed smoke alarms at this location that alerted the two residents to the fire and helped them escape safely.

In Springfield, smoke alarms installed by the Springfield Fire Department helped save three people’s lives during a home fire, there.

These smoke alarms were installed during Red Cross Sound the Alarm events. Numerous smoke alarm installation events are scheduled for this March. Click here to sign up as a volunteer for one or several of those events.

Check out these short videos, showing why it is so important to have working smoke alarms in your residence, and why our volunteers and community partners like local fire departments encourage you to get involved in the Sound the Alarm program.

Motivated by Pain

Motivated by Pain

“Sickle cell disease is the best thing that happened to me — I know people are shocked when I say that. Even though I wouldn’t wish this disease and its complications on anyone, I discovered my life purpose in dealing with my pain. I’ve set out to ensure that current and future sickle cell patients do not have to live with the hardships and misunderstanding of living with this disease alone and that understanding what blood donations do for my fellow sickle cell warriors is more widespread.”

Northern Illinois University Ph.D. candidate, Ronisha Edwards-Elliott is a Sickle Cell Disease Professional Patient Advocate and Pediatric Sickle Cell Program Developer with the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC). At one point, determined to be a doctor, Ronisha realized that you don’t have to be a medical doctor to impact the lives of sickle cell disease patients, “With my studies, I set out to research and understand the barriers of treatment and the burden of care for sickle cell disease patients. That led me to my sickle cell career and assisting with the formation of pediatric to adult group care programs. These group care programs help young people transition from pediatric to adult care which is a high-risk mortality time for patients because they are taking ownership of their care.”

Continues Ronisha, “The caregiver who may have been making sure that prescriptions are filled and taken and that made sure doctor’s appointments were met is no longer. Teaching young adults that their well-being and care are now in their hands is one of the most gratifying things I get to do in my role. I didn’t handle the transition from child to adult care very well and now I get to make sure others don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

Ronisha managed sickle cell disease during her youth mainly with just the care of her immediate family. Friends and teachers never knew that Ronisha managed her days through the pain and would claim to be on vacation when in fact she had been in the hospital managing a pain crisis.

“A combination of things led me to not share my condition with anyone until just 10 years ago. Lack of awareness and support from doctors and teachers, to just being a young person who didn’t want to be hindered from doing things or get singled out — I dealt with it quietly and not always well. My hope is that I can be that resource for other sickle cell patients so they don’t feel misunderstood and unsupported.”

Among her many goals, Ronisha is a steadfast advocate that encourages blood donors from diverse groups even though she has been unable to receive blood to manage her own pain. “There have been instances where I have wished for blood transfusions. Unfortunately, they are not a part of my treatment regimen due to the risk of iron overload but, if my life was ever in jeopardy, I too would be dependent upon a blood transfusion despite what those risks may be for me specifically. My fellow sickle cell warriors’ lives depend on donated blood and it pains me to see the lack of blood donors from minority communities. I can attest to what donated blood does for a sickle cell patient especially if that blood comes from a blood donor whose ethnicity matches that of the patient. We need our Black and Brown communities to be blood donors in larger numbers.”

Ronisha greets each day as another chance to not have sickle disease define her. Instead, Ronisha endeavors to stand firm for and with fellow sickle cell warriors by way of the work she counts herself lucky to do every day. She encourages Black and Brown communities to give the gift of life by donating blood. “Blood donations are a matter of life or death for sickle cell patients like me and so many others living with a chronic illness.”

Blood transfusions are a treatment for those with sickle cell disease, and diverse donors play a big part in helping those with this genetic blood disease. The Red Cross encourages people of all races and ethnicities to donate blood to help ensure the right blood product is available for those in need.

Eligible individuals are encouraged to schedule a blood or platelet donation appointment by using the Red Cross Blood Donor app, visiting, or calling 1-800- RED-CROSS (800-733-2767).

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager, Connie Esparza

Blood Collections Spotlight: Tesha Moore

“When I first applied here, I didn’t really understand what the Red Cross was. I found that after working here for a few years, this is where I would prefer to spend the rest of my career.”
-Tesha Moore

Tesha Moore started working for the American Red Cross at the age of 19. She is a collections team supervisor in the Illinois region, who regularly travels to different blood drive locations. We caught up with her at the blood and platelet donation center in Bloomington.

“I enjoy traveling and actually, prefer to travel,” Tesha said. “I like meeting new people all the time; being able to be supportive and communicate with our donors and build relationships with them is nice.”

As part of her role, Tesha gets to speak with donors as they arrive at the blood drives. Sometimes, donors are a little hesitant. Tesha reassures them, and says she enjoys the interactions with donors.

“I really enjoy seeing people I got to meet come back and become repeat donors, especially young people,” Tesha said. “We need the younger generation to donate. I like going to a high school blood drive and then seeing the students coming out in the future to donate blood.”

Tesha encourages everyone to give blood. Her role with the Red Cross has given her a firsthand look at the importance of donating blood, and she is a strong advocate for rolling up a sleeve.

“I always think about it like, ‘What if my family member had to go to the hospital and needed blood and there wasn’t any available?’ You just don’t know what your day-to-day life holds, and you could be the one who needs blood one day. So, it’s really just a simple task we can do as humans to donate blood – especially, because only three percent of the community donates.”
-Tesha Moore

Thank you for your hard work and dedication, Tesha! Visit to make an appointment – you just might see Tesha while you’re there.

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen