“When I joined the Red Cross and saw how much good this organization does, I thought, ‘This makes sense’ and I am glad to be a part of it.” -Darlene Huntinghouse
Home fires are not new to Darlene Huntinghouse. As a retired firefighter, she helped battle numerous fires in the Chicagoland area during her career. Now, she helps the people who have been affected by them, as a disaster volunteer for the American Red Cross in the South Central Illinois chapter of the Illinois region.
“When we would have big fires there, the Red Cross canteen would come out. I was amazed by that and thought, ‘They are here for us?’ I thought, ‘When I retire, I’m going to look into helping out,’ because it just amazed me, and still does,” Darlene said.
Darlene joined the team as a volunteer in September 2022 and enjoys having the opportunity to help the people she meets.
“I’ve been on the other side of it, going to put out a fire,” she said. “Now, I see how devastating it is to people. They’ve lost everything, and I just see the need to offer people something.”
In addition to responding to disasters, Darlene recently helped organize volunteer recruitment events scheduled for April 5-6 in the Marion, Illinois area, in an effort to bring new volunteers on board. Please click the link to sign up for these events. She also has recruited several new volunteers from her personal network.
We are grateful for Darlene’s dedicated efforts as a Red Crosser! Visit redcross.org/volunteer to join Darlene on the volunteer team.
Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen
“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 RedCross.org/fire to learn more.
Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza
“It’s such a great organization. It has been the most fulfilling time of my life. I really encourage anyone – if you’re looking for something to do, please check out the Red Cross. You won’t be sorry.” -John Ramsey
John Ramsey of Decatur started volunteering for the South Central Illinois chapter of the American Red Cross in 2016. One of his favorite roles is installing smoke alarms with fellow Red Cross volunteers, as part of the Sound the Alarm program.
“A lot of people don’t know all the things Red Cross does, and installing smoke alarms is a big one,” he says.
In addition to installing smoke alarms, John serves on the disaster team and responds to home fires, helping people with their immediate needs. Seeing both sides of this process has been a powerful experience for him.
“You can’t understand the fulfillment it gives you, the gratification to help somebody else and know that you may help them avoid a terrible situation,” John says. “We invite you to come help us. It’s great fun and camaraderie with people. I have developed really good friendships from it, and it’s a great experience.”
John’s dedicated efforts have helped produce significant outcomes. Watch this video to find out how he helped save two lives, by installing smoke alarms with another volunteer at a home in Decatur.
Thank you, John for volunteering your time and talents! Visit redcross.org to sign up as a Red Cross volunteer.
Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Brian Williamsen
Steve Meisler of Niles, IL has been a Disaster Action Team volunteer with the American Red Cross for 32 years. Spending over half of his life with the organization, he’s responded to more fires than he can remember.
Of the 60,000 disasters the American Red Cross responds to each year, home fires make up the majority. Volunteering at these types of disasters feels natural to Steve, who grew up around firefighters and police officers.
“My mom was a schoolteacher for 40 years in Chicago Public Schools and she babysat for many of the firefighter and police officer kids who went to her schools,” Meisler said. “To return the favor when she needed a babysitter for my sister and I, it would often be firefighters and police officers on their days off.”
Steve said the firefighters took him in the firetruck teaching him about fire science and safety. That knowledge was crucial when Steve was a teenager and an apartment building caught fire and spread to his family’s house. Everyone safely got out of both buildings, but during the evacuation Steve noticed responders he hadn’t seen before.
“My parents were over by a Red Cross truck, and it piqued my interest about what these people do,” he said. “I started investigating it, and I thought, ‘wow that sounds great, I want to help the community, that’s right up my alley.’ I started training and when I was done, I joined the Red Cross and here I am 32 years later.”
As a Disaster Action Team volunteer, Steve takes calls throughout all hours of the day and night. He acknowledges it’s not an easy job to do for decades but says the mission of the organization is what keeps him motivated to respond to whatever disaster that day might bring.
He also says volunteering helps put things into perspective, allowing him to give back and help others who are going through one of the toughest times of their lives.
“I’ve got a job, I’ve got a place to live, and then I think back to my family’s fire and how I felt then,” Steve said. “So, if I get called to a fire at three in the morning, I just think about how those affected may not know what the Red Cross is or how we can help. The Red Cross does something unique that nobody else does, and that’s what I love about volunteering.”
The vital work of the American Red Cross is made possible by volunteers like Steve who contribute their unique backgrounds, talents, and skill levels. Our needs change based on current events, adding flexibility to get you involved in an area that inspires you! Visit RedCross.org/volunteer to learn more about volunteer opportunities in your area.
Written by Illinois Communications Manager Mara Thompson
There are countless of ways to get involved with the Red Cross. You may see Red Cross volunteers responding to disasters in your neighborhood or across the country. Perhaps you are a blood donor and you’ve been greeted by a blood ambassador, maybe you had a free smoke detector installed in your home through our Sound the Alarm program, or maybe you took a First Aid Training Course. In addition to the more visible volunteer roles at the Red Cross, there is a core group of volunteers that dedicate their time and expertise in the Red Cross Restoring Family Links program and you don’t often hear about their work.
For more than 150 years, the Red Cross’s Restoring Family Links program has helped reconnect separated families and address the issue of missing persons as a result of armed conflict, natural disasters, migration, and other situations. Families suffer greatly when their loved ones remain unaccounted for, and families must learn to live with uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that Red Cross Restoring Family Links caseworkers work ardently to resolve.
The Red Cross of Illinois is proud to have a stellar group of volunteers whose behind-the-scenes work brings joy and closure to families around the world. Meet Restoring Family Links Caseworkers Margo Dudewicz, Susie Mazaheri, Monica Agler and Mallory Smith.
Monica Agler has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for over 12 years. Monica started with the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and moved to Restoring Family Links when this program evolved.
“Every role I’ve had with the Red Cross has been gratifying. Through Restoring Family Links, I have had the opportunity to resolve cases by locating loved ones and providing closure to families who’ve lived in anguish over not knowing what happened to their family member. Most currently, I was assigned to a case of a family who fled Iraq and they lost touch with their son who went back to Iraq to retrieve his grandmother. I have 15 years of tracking to follow, but I’m determined to bring this family peace.”
Susie Mazaheri is the Restoring Family Links Regional Lead for the Red Cross of Illinois. Susie has been with the Red Cross since 2008 with the majority of her time as a Disaster Mental Health professional. You can find Susie volunteering locally or across the country aiding those affected by disasters, but her work in Restoring Family Links is always in the back of her mind and part of her days. See more from Susie here.
“Our work through the Restoring Family Links program is so important and can be done from any part of the country. My motivation is knowing that the people we help have been through so much trauma, yet they maintain that glimmer of hope of locating and reuniting with their loved one. Like the mother in Honduras who lost touch with her young son as he migrated and found himself in a detention center. Because of the incredible Red Cross network, we were able to give that mother the closure she had been waiting for, for so long. I put myself in her shoes and can only hope that someone would want to help me find the ending to my story if ever I found myself in a similar situation.”
Margot Dudewicz has been a volunteer with the American Red Cross serving the Quad Cities and West Central Illinois since 2017. Margot, whose husband is a member of the U.S. Army, first joined the Red Cross through its Service to the Armed Forces. Margot’s love for research, genealogy, and helping people connected her to Restoring Family Links.
“The Red Cross is so much more than what people think they are — globally, the Red Cross cares about families — especially families who become separated. Like the Ugandan sister living in DeKalb whose brother was missing for 20 years. After connecting her with her brother who she thought deceased – the emotions and joy I witnessed when they connected is something I will never forget and are my motivation to do everything I can when I get a case to make the connection or find that family more information. The stories and people I get to work with are so powerful and inspire me to give back.”
Mallory Smith has been a Red Cross volunteer since 2019. Mallory is an aerospace engineer and contractor with NASA. During her free time, Mallory works on reconnecting families and uses her engineering and love of data mining to help connect families. Hear more from Mallory here.
“Working in Restoring Family Links takes perseverance—not giving up on a lead because you know that your work, when successful, will have a massive impact on someone’s life.”
“We could absolutely not do this work without our volunteers. The passion and dedication they have for helping families is incredible. The creativity and resourcefulness shown by our entire Restoring Family Links team makes a huge impact in the lives of families all around the world,” shares Crystal Smith, Service to the Armed Forces/International Services Regional Program Director.
The American Red Cross Restoring Family Links program assists individuals and families who are separated internationally by war, disaster, migration, political events and other humanitarian circumstances in re-establishing contact.
When families are separated internationally by armed conflict, disaster, migration and other humanitarian emergencies the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network can help to do the following:
Locate missing family members
Restore and maintain family communications
Provide war-time documentation of internment and/or documentation on the fate of missing family members
If you live in the United States and are seeking information about someone you’ve been unable to contact due to a recent disaster in the United States, including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, please visit American Red Cross’s Contact and Locate Loved Ones page. This information is also available in Spanish to search for your loved one.
If you are looking for a family member living abroad who is not a US citizen, please submit your inquiry here.
To all of our dedicated Red Cross Volunteers, thank you. Your dedication, compassion, and willingness to give your time and service upholds the mission of the Red Cross to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.
Doug Harrison of Peoria has volunteered for the American Red Cross as a Blood Transportation Specialist for the past 15 years.
As a Transportation Specialist volunteer, Doug is the critical link between blood donors and blood recipients by delivering blood, platelets or other blood products to hospitals.
“This is a lifesaving job,” he says.
Formerly a printing press operator, Doug decided to start volunteering when his full-time job was eliminated. On average, he is called to deliver blood products two or three times a week – it’s a call he is always happy to take.
Doug also volunteers at blood drives and says, he just likes being able to do something for other people.
“I enjoy it. I’m giving back to the community; that there, in itself, makes me feel good.” -Doug Harrison
Now, Lily volunteers for the Red Cross in the Quad Cities and West Central Illinois chapter, where she is very involved in chapter activities and disaster responses.
“It’s my way of giving back to the Red Cross, because the training I got at that time was so valuable and it made life better for my father and myself, when he was living with us. So, that’s really my ‘why’ is to give back because I felt they gave so much to me,” said Lily.
Lily has deployed three times since joining the Red Cross as a volunteer in 2021. Most recently, the former resident of Florida returned to that state to help people affected by Hurricane Ian.
During her two-week deployment, Lily served as a supervisor for teams going door to door in Estero Beach, looking for people to offer assistance to, whose homes had been heavily damaged or destroyed.
“It’s like nothing really you’ve ever seen. You could smell the mold and mildew, as you came up to the houses,” she said. “You find people and they just want to tell you their stories, and we just heard some terrible stories.”
Lily recalls the story an 83-year-old man told her, of climbing into his attic with his two cats, to escape the rising water. “He rode that out for 20 hours, he watched his wife’s ashes float off. Just terrible stories – they just want to talk and they’re just glad to see somebody.”
Lily described her deployment following the tragic event that took place in Highland Park, IL this past summer as her most difficult one.
“To hear the people talk and you could feel the fear they were trying to relay; it’s just unimaginable, you can’t even wrap your head around it,” said Lily about her role as a caseworker, talking with those affected by the event.
“If I was in that situation, I would want someone there for me. That’s what I get back out of it. I just think, if that was me, I would want someone to be there to help me when I need help.” -Lily Leduc
While the experiences can be challenging, Lily enjoys volunteering for the Red Cross and enjoys meeting new people as part of the experience.
“I love new volunteers, and I just want to tell them, ‘Hey, there’s so much you can do.’ A lot of people don’t realize what the Red Cross does,” Lily said. “When we get a new volunteer, I’m like, ‘Look at all of these things you can do. There’s just so much you can do.'”
Brett Batts of Norridge prefers to be called Mr. Christmas not just during the holiday season, but all year round. When asked why, Mr. Christmas shares, “We all need the holiday spirit all year round, not just in December. Cheer and joy are what I have set out to give everyone, everywhere I go, all the time.”
Joy, good cheer, and compassion are few of the sentiments Brett shares wherever he goes, and it is these sentiments that add to the feeling of hope and comfort to those he serves when he responds to local disasters or as he delivers blood.
Mr. Christmas has been a volunteer with the Red Cross since 2020 as a Transportation Specialist delivering lifesaving blood to area hospitals, in addition to being a loyal platelet donor himself. Always aspiring to do more, Brett trained, and currently also responds, to area disasters with the Disaster Action Team. “I have the time and desire to do more, and this is my way of giving back. I view my time with the Red Cross as a whole new volume in my life story and I’m working on making sure this volume has many chapters and that the stories in those chapters convey the spirit of joy and hope I’ve set as goals for myself.”
Not only is he holding himself accountable to spreading good cheer all year round, Brett is proud of his work with the Red Cross and has set his sights on soaring far and wide for many years.
“I hope to retire early so that I have time and energy to dedicate my retirement years to the Red Cross. From the first time I wandered into the Red Cross of Greater Chicago headquarters, I knew that’s where I needed to be. Reading about the history of the Red Cross displayed throughout the building is inspiring and the humanitarians that work and volunteer here are, as I like to put it — ‘the cherry on the banana split’! I’m honored to be part of the team and I hope to be part of the Red Cross for many years to come.”
Cheer and joy are indeed the feelings received when talking to Brett. Most recently during Operation Cookie Drop, Mr. Christmas serenaded area fire departments with Christmas carols. Operation Cookie Drop engages Red Cross volunteers to deliver cookies to area fire stations in appreciation of their hard work and dedication.
Singing Christmas carols during Operation Cookie Drop.
“The Red Cross always needs more volunteers. Everywhere I go I talk about the Red Cross and how people can play a key role even from home. In the meantime, as much as I can, I’m available to respond to wherever I’m needed the most.”
Thank you, Mr. Christmas for sharing your dedication, skills, and humanitarian spirit with the Red Cross.
The vital work of the American Red Cross is made possible by people like Brett who contribute their unique backgrounds, talents and skill levels. Our needs change based on current events, adding flexibility to get you involved in an area that inspires you! Visit RedCross.org/volunteer to learn more about volunteer opportunities in your area.
Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager, Connie Esparza
It’s one of the calls one wishes never to receive, but when it does, the immediate thought is—where is my family and are they okay? For retired Theresa Reed, now Red Cross volunteer, these were the thoughts that raced through her head when she got the call that her house was on fire.
“For years, my family and I practiced getting out of the house. I can’t stress enough how important it is to talk to your children, show them what they need to do in case of emergency. Show them the ways out of the house and how to get out and get out fast! I am so proud of my son who was home at the time of the fire. He remembered our home fire drills and jumped into action and made sure he got himself safely out of the house,” states Theresa.
As Theresa watched the house she had made a home with her loved ones go up in flames due to an electrical fire, along with all the treasures she had collected over the years from her international travels, Theresa remembers being at a complete loss as to what to do next. What stands out from that day, even to this day is the Red Cross who showed up to comfort, provide access for a safe place to stay, and helped Theresa outline a recovery plan. “I had no idea what to do or who to call for help. I will never forget the Red Cross volunteers in their red vests who told me I was going to be okay and that they were there to make sure I knew where to go and what to do next. I vowed that one day, once I was back on my feet, I would pay it forward and become a Red Cross volunteer. Despite seeing my house going up in flames, I felt incredibly blessed to be hugging my son and that I had the incredible support of the Red Cross.”
Theresa’s son who was home at the time of the fire is currently in medical school after many years as a successful pharmacist.
Walk into the Red Cross of Greater Chicago headquarters and Theresa will be meet you with a warm smile and the utmost desire to make sure you are well taken care of. “I see and welcome people who walk through the doors of the Red Cross that have just gone through what I went through, and I know what they’re feeling. I know the suffocating feeling to see everything you own gone and the desolate feeling of not having a home to go to. I tell people, you’re okay. You’re going to be okay. The Red Cross is going to help you with your recovery plan. I am so proud to be part of the organization that stands behind their mission. The Red Cross was a great big light during a part of my life that went completely dark in an instant. If I can be a little bit of a glimmer and reassure anyone that is going through what I experienced, I will proudly do so until I can’t,” explained Theresa.
Theresa, thank you for your dedication and commitment to the Red Cross. We are so proud to count on you to help carry out the Red Cross mission.
Most of us don’t realize we have just two minutes to escape a home fire — which is the nation’s most frequent disaster. That’s why the American Red Cross is preparing families to act quickly through our Home Fire Campaign. Since launching the campaign in 2014, we’ve helped save 1,414 lives across the country by installing free smoke alarms and helping families create escape plans.
Visit redcross.org/fire for more information, including an escape plan to practice with your family. You can also download our free Emergency app and free Red Cross First Aid app for instant access on how to control bleeding, help someone who is choking and other scenarios. Search “American Red Cross” in app stores.
Written by Illinois Communications Manager Connie Esparza
Helen Jackson is a Facility Service Volunteer at the Illinois Red Cross’s Headquarter office in Chicago. If you’ve stopped by, there’s a good chance you’ve been greeted by Helen at the front desk – welcoming visitors, answering the phones, and serving everyone who comes in the doors during business hours. She gets to see a little bit of everything – and all kinds of people.
Visitors come for many reasons, and that reflects so much of what the Red Cross does: they come to donate blood, to take CPR and First Aid classes, to request smoke detector installations in their homes, and to apply for recovery assistance if they’ve recently experienced a home fire or other natural disaster. Helen refers volunteer inquiries to Volunteer Services, and she recommends local charities that accept household donations if the Red Cross cannot take them. There’s also the business side that Helen facilitates: sorting the mail, responding to vendors, fielding calls from around the state, and directing blood pick-ups to Biomedical Services in the back of the building.
Every day’s different, and Helen likes it that way: “I’m their first point of entry. I talk to everyone and try to help them. I see visitors who are happy, angry, distraught if they’ve just been through a disaster. And despite this, they are friendly because the Red Cross can offer help. That’s why this work is meaningful to me.” Helen refers callers to other social services and charities beyond what the Red Cross can provide. She connects people to what they need, and where they need to go.
Helen started at the Red Cross in 2019, about a year before COVID-19 closed down the office. She was recommended to the Red Cross by Easterseals, an organization that places seniors and those with disabilities in volunteer positions. “I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life and I didn’t know about the Red Cross before I came here. It makes you want to volunteer at the Red Cross when you see all that they do.”
When the office re-opened in July 2021, Helen was back at the front desk, greeting all who enter. The post-COVID world is different, not as many people are in the office each day as before. But the Red Cross mission is just as important. “Anyone who volunteers for the Red Cross will be helping, and possibly saving a life.”
We are grateful for all you do, Helen!
Written by Communications & Marketing Volunteer, Virginia Hopley