Red Cross Helps Families Day and Night in Coal City

_MG_9805As dawn broke the morning after a tornado outbreak ripped across Illinois, residents woke with the challenge all survivors of devastating storms face. Where to turn for help?

The American Red Cross, Governor Pat Quinn and state emergency management officials banded together to tell people relief is coming, because help is on the way. “We’re all in this together, we’re a team,” said Quinn.

_MG_9759As the team fanned out across affected regions, the arm of the Red Cross reached out to families in Coal City. People were up early to begin assessing damage to their homes.  Red Cross emergency response vehicles carrying supplies like blankets, water and doughnuts winded through debris-lined streets. On board were volunteers Rich Arons and Diana Spathis.  They saw a lot of community strength under the rubble. Still, when the unavoidable fatigue settled over the neighborhoods later in the day, the two disaster mental health specialists provided a pivotal break to help people push through it by taking time to talk over a cup of coffee.

Inside Rachetti’s Café and Pizzeria downtown, Mark Evans was prepping for a special_MG_9789 Red Cross delivery. The day before, Mark was grilling burgers, one of his favorite dishes to cook. When he saw the funnel cloud, he forgot the food and hustled the handful of customers and employees though the kitchen to safety. Today, Mark took extra care and found new meaning in preparing dinner. The Red Cross was sending volunteers to distribute the food to families who no longer had working kitchens of their own.

For teenager Zach Hajduk that calzone never tasted so good. Zach is sleeping in the dining room until the roof over his bedroom is repaired. Now sleeping where he should be eating, and eating outside; Zach and his family were grateful the Red Cross found the path to his door and extend a hand to help.

Written by Patricia Kemp

Photos by Gerry Holmes

“You Rescued My Family”

It was more than 40 years ago, but Mary still remembers waking up to the orange glow at the top of the stairs. Her home in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago was on fire. Suddenly Mary, her parents, and seven brothers and sisters were standing outside in the dark night.

We were homeless. Nothing was salvageable from the house. We had only our pajamas—what we wore to bed. Our clothes left in the home were either burned or saturated with smoke. Then, the Red Cross stepped in to help us. It was the Red Cross that put us on our feet after that devastating fire. You rescued my family.

I tell this story to anyone who will listen. It is my effort to pay back the Red Cross—hoping it will encourage others to contribute to the Red Cross. Their help is so much more than all the tangible stuff, it’s knowing someone is looking out for you and will lift you from the ashes and put an arm around you when you think things are hopeless.

Written by: Mary, Wheeling, Illinois

Glen Ellyn Couple Celebrates 35th Wedding Anniversary Volunteering with the Red Cross

GramasphotoLee and Peg Gramas spent their 35th anniversary on June 24, 2013 together—just not in the way they planned. Yet, on the day they celebrated their commitment to each other, they also showed their commitment to the American Red Cross and the people of Chicago.

That day, the Glen Ellyn couple, who are both volunteers for the Red Cross Disaster Action Team, received a call to respond to a multi-unit apartment fire in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. 

 What was supposed to be a quiet, romantic evening turned into a long night. They planned to cook fresh salmon and vegetables, but dinner had to wait when Peg received the call from the Red Cross. Together, they agreed to say yes, saying “I’ll go if you go.” They put their anniversary plans and dinner on the back burner and set out to the fire.

Lee and Peg have been volunteers with the Red Cross since 2010. They are involved in their community separately, but wanted to find something they could do together. Joining the Red Cross as disaster responders allowed them to do that. They’ve each been to dozens of fires with other volunteers but because of their different schedules, they rarely respond to disasters together. This made the call that night even more unique.

Peg and Lee did get their dinner after all. When they returned home that night, the couple got out all the food they put away and began again, eating their salmon well after midnight.

“It definitely wasn’t the quiet night we had planned,” Peg said with a laugh. “But we got our dinner eventually.”

Why not turn down the call and celebrate privately? Lee says it’s the caliber of people at the Red Cross who keep them coming back.

“We’ll be volunteering at fires until we can’t do it anymore.”

Written by Lauren Lindstrom

Helping Victims of Fire Find “A New Normal”

By Jackie Nelson

“Terrible,” Cai said in English as she looked through her sooty and soaked belongings to try to find her mother’s prescriptions.  It would be the only direct exchange of words she and I would share today.

With her elderly parents, Cai Chen and her husband, Chai Tse, live in the first floor unit of a two-unit home in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport.   Red Cross Disaster Responders Jim McGowan and Roxy Trudeau helped the family figure out their next 48 hours with the help of Cantonese translator Kalina Pon. Pon decided to volunteer her time when she heard of the fire while at her child’s school in Chinatown that morning. Together, the disaster team figured out with Cai and Chai where the family would sleep, ensured prescriptions for her parents were on hand and made plans to launder their wet clothes and shoes.  While the second story of the home was destroyed in a fire in the middle of the night, Cai and Chai were able to salvage some of their belongings from their water-logged unit.

The family fled their home in the middle of the night in the same clothes they were wearing.  They had been on the curb for hours in the cold rain and 40 degree weather when the Red Cross  arrived in the morning, shortly after hearing they were in need.  The sound of hammering echoed from the roof where the board-up company worked in the rain to secure the home. A member of the disaster response team attempted to make contact with the family the night of the fire, but couldn’t get in touch with the family until the next morning. Before the Red Cross arrived, Cai’s mother walked to work in the wet slippers she had been wearing when she ran from the burning home.  She was eager to arrive at work on time to make sure the family’s income wasn’t affected when they faced the reality of having to replace most of their belongings. 

Cai and Chai are also eager to get back to work.  To do so, though, they needed something to eat after an exhaustive night, warm and dry clothes, and information about community partners and agencies that, like the Red Cross, will help them find their “new normal.”  They will need a new residence, replacement furniture and assistance in navigating next steps with their landlord and his insurance.

With the assistance they received from the Red Cross, they will stay tonight in a hotel in nearby Chinatown, close to where they will go back to work tomorrow. 

The Red Cross will continue to try to reach the resident in the upstairs unit to provide assistance, and we are now a step closer to finding him with additional information his neighbors were able to provide.  Also, a new disaster assistance note hangs on his door handle – this one translated into Cantonese by Kalina in hopes that he reaches out to the Red Cross for help.

We may not hear from him in a community so willing to help one another and rise above hardship.

In my four years with the Red Cross, I have grown used to seeing the things that are so personal to families like children’s favorite toys, small flags from the United States and other homeland countries, and school photos reduced to debris that sadly must be grieved and disposed of.  I am saddened by it, but accept is as part of the reality of unforgiving disasters.

What I haven’t grown used to yet is wondering what happens after we leave and when other agencies and communities step in to help.  I find comfort in knowing Cai, Chai and her parents will be OK for the next 48 hours, at least.  I appreciate that she looked at me and said to me “terrible” in English to be sure I understood.  Cai knew that it matters to us, too, to connect with the people we meet during disasters – that this connection is why we volunteer and walk through water-filled basements trying not to step on nails jutting up from collapsed ceilings and walls.

Roxy, Jim, Karina and I dispersed after our response and will likely never all work the same disaster again, given the hundreds of volunteers who respond in Chicago alone.  I probably will never meet the upstairs neighbor.  If anyone from the Red Cross meets him, it will be a different volunteer – whoever is on-call when he reaches out based on the information we left him. 

We will continue to wonder about his next 48 hours and hope that someone is there with him.  Time and time again within the Red Cross and throughout communities, people continue to show up, so it is likely he will find relief somehow.  Now that we have done what we can, I can only hope.

To find out how you can become a volunteer, donor, or learn how to reduce the risk of a fire in your home, visit

Moving Forward

Is moving or having a house fire more stressful? For 30-year-old graduate student, Tina Magnole, having a fire in the apartment she was moving into was stressful. Tina chose to take a break from moving for the night and decided to finish unpacking in the morning. Her electricity was scheduled to be turned on the following day, which left the spacious apartment unlivable for the night. Tina decided to crash on her brother’s couch; she didn’t know at the time that this decision would save her life. The following morning, Tina was awakened by a phone call from her landlord explaining that her apartment was on fire. Apparently, the stove exploded and set fire to the rest of the apartment. Tina’s furniture, including her brand new bed, was ruined; fortunately, her boxed possessions like her clothes were okay.


After chased away by the property manager for a good twenty minutes, the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago’s  Disaster Action Team (DAT) was finally able to track Tina down at her brother’s apartment. Tina burst into tears as soon as the DAT responders sat down with her. This young woman was clearly distraught and clueless as what to do next. The DAT responders compassionately listened to all of her frustrations with the building management and her aspirations for the future apartment.

“I didn’t get renter’s insurance yet, because I didn’t know the square feet of the apartment,” Tina said.

DAT responders reassured Tina that the fire wasn’t her fault and she was lucky to be alive. A veteran  volunteer suggested that Tina reach out to a couple of local agencies for advice. The Red Cross replaced Tina’s medication and gave her money for food. The DAT responders helped Tina determine what items were salvageable. “This was so helpful. I felt like you guys were on my side,” Tina said with tears in her eyes as the DAT responders left the scene.   

Tina was unfamiliar with this part of the Red Cross’ program and knew she was in good hands. Like many others, Tina was shocked that all of the DAT responders were volunteers and that the Red Cross completely operates on donations. The Red Cross is there to help victims like Tina to move forward when it may seem nearly impossible. 

Written by Lindsey Warneke

They Left With Their Wallets and Lives


It’s a humid Tuesday morning and you are awakened at 5 a.m. by the screams of the “crazy lady” in the building. Her voice is quickly drowned out by other voices and noises. You try to fall back to sleep, but you know something is wrong. Finally, you find the strength to pull yourself out of bed to investigate. You open your front door to find a wall of fire, soot and intense heat. Panicked, you run to the back door only to meet more billowing flames. With no options left, you open your window and scream for help. For Czenzi Jones-Boyd and Dennis Boyd, this wasn’t a hypothetical situation.

Firefighters on scene heard the couples’ cries from four stories up and came to the rescue. The couple’s hope for survival was soon shattered after they realized that the firefighters’ ladder was too short for Czenzi to reach.  Dennis tried to swing his wife out the window to the ladder. Czenzi was reluctant to let go until the firefighter said, “Ma’am you have to let go [of your husband].” Despite Dennis and the firefighters’ efforts, Czenzi plummeted three stories to the roof of the lobby. On her way down, Czenzi injured her hand and landed on her ankle.

Dennis was tall enough to reach the ladder, but got tangled in their curtain while trying to escape the fiery inferno. He finally escaped and climbed down the ladder. Once Czenzi knew her husband was safe, she allowed the ambulance to take her to the hospital. Czenzi was released from the hospital a couple hours later and returned to the only place she could call home. She joined other displaced residents, the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago, who had been on the scene handing out coffee, water and donuts less than half-an-hour after the blaze engulfed the 80 unit apartment building that once housed hundreds of people.

When the rest of the Disaster Action Team from the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago arrived, the sun was blaring down on the displaced residents, who were hungry, thirsty, upset and lost. The now homeless victims seemed distraught, except for Czenzi. She relaxed against a metal fence, one hand bandaged and one foot elevated on a milk crate.  The heat and her injuries gave her cause to complain, but she remained calm and collected.  The rising temperature was nothing compared to the heat she endured earlier that morning. 

“I’m glad to be alive,” Czenzi said.


Their wallets and their lives were the only things the fire didn’t destroy. The Boyds were two of 26 people that were left homeless after the fire. The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago opened a shelter at a nearby church for the displaced residents. At the church, the victims were given food, hygiene products and a place to call home for a couple nights. After the Boyds arrived at the shelter, their moods improved. You could see Dennis smiling and hear Czenzi laughing. The Boyds shared this moment of happiness because of the support provided by volunteers and donors at The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. As some volunteers  left the shelter, Czenzi expressed her appreciation with a hug and these kind words, “We wouldn’t have made it without you.”

By Patrick Cavanaugh and Lindsey Warneke