American Red Cross Celebrates 2022 Local Heroes

CHICAGO, IL (March 25, 2022) — The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago announces the 2022 class of heroes – individuals who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to build and maintain better communities, and who have made a lasting impact on others in the process.

This is the 20th year the Red Cross has honored a class of heroes at our Heroes Breakfast, typically attended by nearly 1,000 individuals. This year’s event is scheduled for Wednesday, May 11 from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Hilton Chicago.

“For twenty years, the Red Cross has honored the heroes among us. In 2022, it is a great privilege to celebrate these outstanding individuals who selflessly give of themselves with no expectation of gain, yet who have made a tremendous impact in their communities and beyond,” said Celena Roldán, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Illinois. “It is inspiring, seeing the good they have done and continue to do. We look forward to honoring them in person at this year’s Heroes Breakfast.”

Click here for your in-person or free virtual ticket to the breakfast!

The 2022 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. Get to know the 2022 heroes by reading more about them, below.

Michael A. McGee, M.D., M.P.H. of Crown Point, IN is the Blood Services Hero. As an emergency room physician and CEO of Chicago’s first Black-owned urgent care clinic, Dr. McGee sees the need for blood every day. Last fall, he partnered with the Red Cross and 100 Black Men of America, Inc. and coordinated a multiple city tour of sickle cell awareness blood drives beginning in Chicago and moving across the country. In the process, Dr. McGee and the 100 Black Men organization generated awareness across the country for the importance of blood donations and the need for African Americans to participate, specifically for fighting trauma and diseases including sickle cell. Dr. McGee is passionate about educating the community about the need for blood and continues to advocate for individuals, particularly young people, to give blood.

Ruthann Richardson, RN of Tinley Park, IL is the Disaster Relief Hero. Ruth has a servant’s heart and has volunteered for us since 2017, after a 40-year career as a nurse. Last year, as a nurse volunteer, she worked day and night and gave almost 2,000 hours of her time to the Red Cross. She has responded to numerous disasters, both here in Illinois and elsewhere in the U.S. Hurricane Florence in North Carolina was her first major deployment; more recently, she deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Ida. When you speak with Ruth, you can tell she truly cares about others, and it shows in her volunteer efforts. “My life is a gift and what I bring to others can be a gift, too. If I can provide a positive experience to someone’s life, particularly if they’ve been through one of the worst experiences, then I have done something right,” she said.

Dorothy L. Gaters of Maywood, IL is the Education Hero.  A teacher at Marshall High School, after Title IX was created in 1972, Dorothy agreed to be the first girls’ basketball coach. 45 years later, she is the winningest high school basketball coach in Illinois history, but beyond winning games, she built an empowering, education-focused culture during her tenure as the Marshall High School girls’ coach. Dorothy became the first-ever girls’ basketball coach at the school and led her team to more than 1,100 victories and 10 state championships. Behind the success on the court was a successful mentality off the court. Dorothy made sure education came first for her players and is proud to say most of her students went on to go to college. She is a firm believer in creating structure and goals, to help steer young people in the right direction and prepare them for life. Dorothy enjoys interacting with her former players and continues to encourage and mentor them and provide a positive example with the way she lives her life.

Stephanie Esterland BSN, RN, OCN of Sandwich, IL is the Healthcare Hero. Stephanie is an oncology nurse at Rush Cancer Center who was driving her son to work on a dark July 2021 morning. On the side of the road, she came upon what she thought might be a yard fire, but instead realized it was a blazing car fire that had just occurred as the driver slammed into a tree near IL 47 in the Sugar Grove area. Stephanie saw someone trying to get out of the vehicle, and then falling to the ground near the flaming car. She jumped out of her car to help. While assessing the individual’s injured condition, Stephanie heard what sounded like fireworks. Concerned the vehicle may be on the verge of exploding, Stephanie cautiously got the individual moved away from the fire to a safer location and continued rendering assistance until emergency response arrived. Stephanie then continued to drop off her son and head to work at the Rush Cancer Center. She has received a DAISY nursing award from the Rush community for this act of bravery and the individual in the crash credits her with helping save his life.

Fire Chief Tracey Steffes of Morris, IL is the Firefighter Hero. In June 2021, Chief Steffes faced his biggest challenge as the leader of the Morris Fire Department, when nearly 200,000 lithium batteries exploded, and a massive fire with toxic fumes erupted, posing a serious threat to the health of his community. Chief Steffes led the effort to evacuate thousands of people from the area; nearly one-third of the city’s residents. Managing this large battery fire presented complexities as traditional fire extinguishment methods would exacerbate rather than extinguish the large, growing fire. Chief Steffes consulted with agencies around the world to coordinate the unique response to the fire and to continue operations in the days and weeks to come. At one point, more than 40 firefighting companies were on hand helping to battle the blaze. Chief Steffes now receives calls from other agencies when they face similar situations and provides insights to help protect their citizens. Chief Steffes is credited with staying calm during a situation that could have escalated further, without proper leadership and swift action.

Lynn Cole of Chicago is the Global Citizenship Hero. During a 1998 trip to Angola with her husband, Andrew, the Coles witnessed the devastating effect of 27 years of civil war in the country and were moved to help. They learned that the after-effects of the civil war in Angola had prevented many children from access to basic education. Believing every child has a right to education, in 2003, the Coles built their first school in Angola, and committed to building five more. Together, the Coles, founded RISE International an organization dedicated to building primary schools in rural Angola to educate children, empower communities, and contribute to the rebuilding of the country. In 2004, Andrew died unexpectedly, and Lynn was left to carry out and expand their mission. Today, Lynn leads RISE International and the organization has built 192 schools and helped more than 138,000 children in Angola receive an education. In Angola, the organization works in partnership with local leaders and provides children with a safe place to learn. In the process of building schools, jobs are created, including construction workers, teachers, principals and more. Lynn is now leading a project along with a team in Angola to build a 10-classroom school in an area where 1,000 children have no access to education.

Evelyn Figueroa, M.D. and Alex Wu, M.D. of Chicago are the Community Impact Heroes. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu are a husband-and-wife team of family physicians with a passion for reaching patients where they are. In 2018, they founded Pilsen Food Pantry next to a health clinic to destigmatize food insecurity and distribute healthy, high-quality and culturally appropriate foods. It is their mission to provide critical social services to address food insecurity, homelessness and poverty while serving patients. Pilsen Food Pantry served 6,000 visitors in its first year and now services more than 22,000 clients and provides two million pounds of food annually. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu saw a need beyond food and are expanding their vision into the Pilsen Health Initiative. Their organization now distributes clothes, medical equipment, hygiene items, books and more to underrepresented individuals and families. Spanish and Cantonese interpreters are available as part of the services provided, and the organization hosts large community events on holidays. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu have plans to further expand and to include mental health and housing assistance.

Officer Jennifer Maddox of Chicago is the Law Enforcement Hero. Officer Maddox is a 26-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. Working on the south side as a police officer, she developed a strong bond with the community and noticed that so many children were fearful to go outside and did not have a safe space where they could be kids. In 2011, Officer Maddox started Future Ties, to provide a welcoming place for children to gather and get off the streets. Future Ties is an eleven-month afterschool and summer camp program that has provided support for more than 1,000 of Chicago’s children. During the pandemic, when parents’ resources were extremely challenged, the Future Ties organization offered e-learning opportunities, meals and other services to young people. Officer Maddox’s organization soon will be moving into a former pharmacy building, providing more space to further support the community’s needs. Officer Maddox continues to work her police beat with a passion for making a difference and serving the people in the community.

Lewis Medina of Aurora, IL is the Lifesaving Rescue Hero. At about 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2021, Lewis was driving his daughter and grandson home just a short distance from his house. As he crossed railroad tracks, he noticed a vehicle stuck on the tracks, with its wheels spinning. Lewis safely parked his vehicle and then called 911. He then headed for the car on the tracks, to see if he could help the person inside. When he got there, he discovered a driver who was in distress from a medical emergency. Lewis could hear the horn and see the lights of the train coming and knew he had to act fast. Lewis pulled the driver from the vehicle, then got him safely down the ravine and out of the way of the railroad tracks. Seconds later, the train barreled into the vehicle, crushing it. Lewis saved the man’s life by removing him from the vehicle and getting him out of the way of danger, just in time.

Captain Scott Friedland of Chicago is the Military Hero. Captain Friedland is a member of the Indiana Army National Guard and has been in the military for 11 years. He is also the owner of Timeless Toys in Chicago. His military background taught him that life was about more than himself and his surroundings, and so he works to give back to the community in big ways, through his heart for helping others via toy drives and other programs in both the Chicagoland area and beyond. Last year, Captain Friedland organized a massive toy drive for Afghan evacuee children which provided $30,000 worth of toys in just the first couple of weeks. Understanding the impact receiving a new toy has on a child, he substituted new toys when used toys were brought into his store for the children, donating the used toys to a local organization. Captain Friedland continued the generosity, sending numerous toys to children impacted by the Kentucky tornadoes last December. Captain Friedland continues his service to our country in the National Guard and is scheduled to deploy overseas, this year.

Quilen Blackwell of Chicago is the Social Justice Hero. Quilen has a passion for empowering young people in the community to learn the skills they need to succeed in life. He is founder of Southside Blooms, an organization that creates sustainable, off-grid, urban flower farms, training local youth to cultivate them and deliver the flowers to Chicagoland. In the process, Quilen is providing job and life skills to young people in high-risk areas on the south and west sides of Chicago and showing them how to use their talents to have a positive impact on their communities. Quilen has also partnered with the Cook County juvenile probation services program and adult services to provide opportunities to high school-age individuals and young adults. He even has developed a sustainable urban farm on Cook County Jail property, providing inmates with the experience of working the farm. He believes his urban flower farm model is “…a viable solution that is scalable and replicable; it is solving problems with gangs, sustainability and blight and it represents a realistic end game to the ghetto as we know it.”

Benjamin Kagan of Chicago is the Youth Hero. Benjamin was in 8th grade when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Like many other students, he found it difficult to adapt to life without being around his classmates and friends. More than that, he felt a need to help other people who were struggling as the pandemic continued, specifically his grandparents. Due to technological challenges, they were unable to sign up for a vaccine, missing out on the online openings when they came up. Benjamin took action. He got his grandparents a vaccine appointment online. He then joined the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, and used his technology skills to get vaccine appointments for senior citizens who were in the same position his grandparents had been in. Ultimately, Benjamin started his own group, Chicago Vaccine Angels, and worked around the clock to secure appointments for senior citizens. Leading a team of 50 adult volunteers, his organization helped thousands of senior citizens, even arranging for people on his team to join medical teams for in-home vaccination visits to home-bound citizens. “I got the satisfaction that I helped people who would have had to wait months, living in fear, get back to their lives,” he said.

2022 Heritage Award

The Heritage Award acknowledges the demonstration of long-term commitment to improvement of the lives of others through actions, deeds, and philanthropic works in the corporate and civic communities.

We are honored to present the 2022 Heritage Award to Helene D. Gayle, M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Gayle is president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, a prominent, longstanding community foundation. The Chicago Community Trust is working to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicagoland area. Under Dr. Gayle’s leadership, The Chicago Community Trust helped raise more than $35 million for the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. These efforts provided resources to help communities impacted the most by the pandemic.

Dr. Gayle has been honored numerous times, including being named one of Non Profit Times’ “Power and Influence Top 50” and one of Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women”. She has advocated on behalf of alleviating poverty, gender equality, social justice and public health issues.

“Dr. Gayle is a visionary public servant who through her leadership of The Chicago Community Trust is compassionately making an impact by recognizing and assisting people who experience inequities in our community daily. Her significant work both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic is aimed at investing in population health and prevention,” said Roldán. “It is our privilege at the Red Cross to highlight her significant work and honor Dr. Gayle and The Chicago Community Trust with the 2022 Red Cross Heritage Award for her community dedication and service.”

Click here for your in-person or free virtual ticket to the breakfast!

Thank you to the generous sponsors of the 2022 Illinois Red Cross Heroes event, including Presenting Sponsors: Better, the Edwardson Family Foundation and Susan and Nick Noyes; Champion Sponsors: JLL, KPMG LLP and Packaging Corporation of America; and our media sponsors Better & Make It Better Media Group and CBS 2 Chicago and numerous other organizations who have made this program possible.

About the American Red Cross of Illinois
The American Red Cross of Illinois serves 12.4 million people in 88 counties in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri including Adams, Bond, Boone, Brown, Bureau, Carroll, Cass, Champaign, Christian, Clark, Clay, Clinton, Cook, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, DeKalb, De Witt, Douglas, DuPage, Edgar, Effingham, Fayette, Ford, Franklin, Fulton, Green, Grundy, Hamilton, Hancock, Henderson, Henry, Iroquois, Jasper, Jefferson, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Knox, LaSalle, Lake, Lee, Livingston, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Marion, Marshall, Mason, McDonough, McHenry, McLean, Menard, Mercer, Montgomery, Morgan, Moultrie, Ogle, Peoria, Perry, Piatt, Pike, Putnam, Richland, Rock Island, Sangamon, Schuyler, Scott, Shelby, Stark, Stephenson, Tazewell, Vermillion, Warren, Washington, Whiteside, Will, Williamson Winnebago, Woodford. Iowa: Lee, Muscatine, Scott and Van Buren. Missouri: Clark, Lewis, Marion and Ralls. The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit us at or visit us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @RedCrossIL.


American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois Celebrates 12 Local Heroes at Annual Breakfast

On May 1, 2019, the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois hosted its 17th Annual Heroes Breakfast.  It was a warm and inspiring event, filled with hundreds of people, all gathered to celebrate the actions of twelve local heroes.  The morning’s honorees were those that acted with bravery, selflessness and courage and left an indelible impact on the lives of so many. Read the background on each of the 2019 heroes this year here.

Some of the 2019 Heroes pictured with CEO Celena Roldan

Walgreens was the signature sponsor of this year’s event.  I had the opportunity to speak with Richard Ashworth, the President of Pharmacy & Retail Operations of Walgreens.  He reflected on the “community aspect” of the Red Cross and Walgreens, in that they are both active and prominent in local communities across the United States.  He said that “when something happens in this country, whether it be a fire or whether it be a tornado or a hurricane, the local activation of the people that live in that community to rebuild and to bring back, that’s something that was near and dear to Walgreens’ heart and the partnership with the Red Cross is what really makes that happen.”

Honorary Chair Richard Ashworth speaking to a private reception ahead of the 2019 Heroes Breakfast

Megan Bugg, recipient of the Youth Hero Award, was one of one of the twelve heroes that were acknowledged.  She was recognized for her major contributions in raising awareness and funds for childhood cancer.  At the age of 13, Megan was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, known as Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS).  The next few years were very challenging, as she faced many difficult treatments of chemotherapy and radiation.  Megan decided to take her struggle and turn it into a spotlight for childhood cancer.  She spoke to the Illinois General Assembly and at CureFest in Washington D.C., as well as helped coordinate fundraisers at her school.  As a result of her efforts, Megan helped raise over $164,000 for the research of childhood cancer and brought federal funding issues surrounding the illness to the fore.  Currently, only 4% of federal funding goes to childhood cancer research.  When accepting her award, Ms. Bugg, said that she is “so grateful to the Red Cross for noticing [her] work and letting [her] spread the word.”  Megan continues to bring awareness to this incredibly important issue and says that she is “not going to quit, ever.”

Megan Bugg speaking after accepting the Youth Hero Award

The morning was filled with stories of heroes, like Megan.  Officer Mark Dallas, the Law Enforcement Hero, stopped a would-be mass shooter at Dixon High School in Dixon, IL.  Officer Dallas exchanged fire with a shooter at the high school, where 182 students were practicing for their graduation ceremony.  Just before the shooter entered the gymnasium where the students were rehearsing, Mark was able to stop and ultimately apprehend the suspect.  Remembering that day, Officer Dallas says that he “felt like a dad to all those kids” and that “by the grace of God [he] was able to help.”

Law Enforcement Hero Officer Mark Dallas

Like Officer Dallas, Mary Carmody, Military Hero, has made the needs of others one of her life’s top priorities.  She created the Midwest Veterans Closet, an organization that provides much-needed assistance to veterans.  Mary’s establishment gives free food, clothing, job and computer training, household items, and even automobiles that have been donated, to those have have served or are currently serving in our nation’s military, helping 550 people per month.  Without Mary, these veterans would often times have nobody else to turn to for help.  When delivering her remarks on being the honoree of the award, she kept the focus on the veterans.  In a touching moment, Mary asked all of those who had served to stand and spoke directly to them, saying “thank you for my freedoms… and I think I can speak for everyone when I say thank you for all of our freedoms.”

Some of the heroes including Detective Sergeant Paul Clampitt (left) and Military Hero Mary Carmody (right)

This year’s recipient of the Heritage Award went to Rick Waddell for his astounding dedication to philanthropic and charitable endowments, as well as leadership in society.  As CEO of Northern Trust, Rick continued the company’s belief in giving back.  He has used his position to bring his associates together to engage with the community.  Mr. Waddell is also active in the Nature Conservancy, advocating for environmental change and speaking with the youth in underprivileged communities.  Northern Trust and the Red Cross share a long history of partnership.  Rick told me that what he finds so special about the Red Cross is that they are “there when people have the most need – whether it’s a natural disaster, armed forces services members and their families returning home, the American Red Cross, since the 1880s… [has] a brand about them that people trust when they need it most and they deliver.  And I just think when you have that trust and that ability to help people when they are at their lowest moment, it’s an incredible organization and an incredible service that the American Red Cross provides.”

Heritage Award Recipient Rick Waddell giving a speech

Local heroes, like those honored at the Heroes Breakfast, make outstanding contributions to their fellow human and to society every day.  Acknowledgment of the sacrifices and contributions of these heroes is so important and something that is very meaningful for the Red Cross.  Our sincerest gratitude goes out to this year’s class of honorees!

See all of this year’s hero videos on YouTube here.

Nominations for next year’s heroes is now open.  If there’s a hero in your life, nominate them here!

For more information on how to become a volunteer for the Red Cross, visit

Written by Red Cross Communications Volunteer Vicky Arias

Mr. Nasir Bin Zakaria Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Global Citizenship Hero

Mr. Nasir Bin Zakaria Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Global Citizenship Hero

“We can do so many things when we are organized,” said Nasir Bin Zakaria, reflecting on what he has achieved in Chicago by creating a community space for Rohingya refugees for learning, healing and advocating.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar. As a young Rohingya child growing up in Myanmar, Bin Zakaria and his family were in physical danger. He faced discrimination when he was finally able to attend school and the one constant in life was a sense of unpredictability. Over half a million Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

At the age of 14, Bin Zakaria was captured by the military, driven to the middle of the jungle and narrowly escaped. “I had never been in the jungle before, but I escaped the group and found the energy to run so fast for so long,” said Bin Zakaria. “I knew I couldn’t go back because the soldiers would kill me.” After a long journey through Bangladesh and Thailand and more than 15 years living in Malaysia, Bin Zakaria connected with the UNHCR to request refugee status. The application process required background checks and five interviews, but after seven years, his refugee status was approved. He arrived in Chicago in August 2013.

“If I could build one place, it would be easy to help everyone at once. Like a village. Our village,” said Bin Zakaria.

As a newly arrived refugee, getting a foothold on life in the United States was difficult. “I felt nervous because I wouldn’t be able to keep up if I wasn’t educated,” said Bin Zakaria, who had attended only a few years of school. He was losing sleep over the losses he had experienced and the challenges of integrating into a new place – and he knew he wasn’t alone in these feelings. Rogers Park on Chicago’s north side is home to about 400 Rohingya families, the largest Rohingya population in the country.

“If I could build one place, it would be easy to help everyone at once. Like a village. Our village,” said Bin Zakaria. In 2016, with the support of the Zakat Foundation, he opened the Rohingya Culture Center where individuals can go to speak their own language with those who understand them and receive vital support during their difficult journey. “It is amazing. Everyone is coming to us to process their trauma – to cry together, to pray together – because we have a place,” said Bin Zakaria.

Bin Zakaria established more than a meeting place. He created a platform for teaching others about the struggle of refugees and the Rohingya people. At a 2017 press conference at the Rohingya Culture Center organized by Bin Zakaria, Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky met with him and members of the cultural center, spoke about a recent fact-finding trip they took to Myanmar and learned more about the atrocities that Bin Zakaria and others like him experienced.

Bin Zakaria is amazed at what is possible when people come together like they have at the Rohingya Culture Center. “With everyone’s support, we can do anything,” said Bin Zakaria.

The Global Citizenship Award is presented to an individual(s) who volunteered or worked to meet the needs of the world’s potentially vulnerable populations by building safer, more resilient communities and providing needed relief.

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.


Miss Charmin BoClaire Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Youth Hero

Miss Charmin BoClaire Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Youth Hero

At only 9-years-old, Charmin BoClaire became a hero to her entire family when she used the fire safety training she learned in school to quickly and safely evacuate her family from their burning home in October 2017.

Charmin was in the kitchen when the fire started. She saw her Mom’s legs catch on fire and rushed to bring her a blanket to douse the flames. Then, she hurried to get her 8-month-old brother, who has Down syndrome, and her 4-year-old sister, out of the house. Her sister was in the shower and didn’t want to leave because she wasn’t dressed, but Charmin wrapped her in a towel and urgently convinced her to go outside with her brother. Charmin then ran back inside the burning home to get her Mom, who was struggling with her wounds.

 … Charmin stepped up and took control in the unexpected situation, getting her siblings to safety and motivating her Mom to go outside with her, saying “You have to get up and get out. I’m not leaving you.”

During a house fire, a child’s natural reaction might be fear or bewilderment, said her aunt LaTiffanie Jackson, who explained that Charmin can be very shy. But, Charmin stepped up and took control in the unexpected situation, getting her siblings to safety and motivating her Mom to go outside with her, saying “You have to get up and get out. I’m not leaving you.”

It all happened in just a few moments. But, Charmin was prepared for those moments. Just one week before the fire, she and her classmates attended fire safety training at Nathan Hale Primary School. Charmin said that fire safety is important for everyone, “so they won’t get hurt and they’ll know how to help keep their family safe.”

Jackson, who is caring for the three children while their mother is recovering from injuries, said that Charmin has always been a caretaker for her younger siblings. She’s not surprised that Charmin went into quick action that day.

Charmin is still processing the experience, said her aunt. They lost everything in the house, including the family’s pet cat. Charmin is still focused on the distressing experience but she’s slowly getting more comfortable talking about it. “At first it really upset her to talk about it,” said Jackson, who said that Charmin’s responsibility to her family runs so deep that she sometimes has to remind her to go out to play.

Charmin’s life-saving actions taught her classmates to really pay attention because, even at their young age, “They have the power and the ability to do something amazing,” said Jackson. “Something that changes lives.”

The Youth Award is presented to an outstanding individual(s) who is 17 years old or under and has performed an act of heroism involving an unusual, significant or unexpected incident, or is involved in an ongoing situation in which a commitment is made to the community through acts of kindness, courage, or unselfishness in response to an identified need.

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.


Captain Michael Casagrande Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Firefighter Hero

Captain Michael Casagrande Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Firefighter Hero

As a 41-year veteran firefighter, Michael Casagrande has faced more than 2,000 fires. A Kankakee Fire Department captain, Casagrande is experienced in putting out fires, but knows that fighting fires before they happen is the ultimate battle.

Casagrande, who leads the Fire Prevention Division for the City of Kankakee, is dedicated to fire prevention and education. He has led the installation of more than 10,000 smoke alarms across Kankakee since 2015. This number of installations is extremely significant, given that the city of Kankakee is home to approximately 10,000 households. Casagrande and the Kankakee Fire Department, in partnership with the American Red Cross and through a grant from FEMA, blanketed Kankakee homes with smoke alarms.

As this program was launching in 2015, Casagrande felt particularly shaken by several tragic home fires. That year, four small children died in Kankakee home fires. One of them was a young girl who lost her life when her mother tried to carry both her and a sibling through the fire to the front door, passing possible escape windows. Casagrande knew that fire education paired with working smoke alarms could have prevented this tragedy and would prevent future heart break.

Casagrande and his Fire Prevention Division began educating Kankakee children about fire prevention through programs like the Fire Safety House program. Initially, these school programs targeted children only, however, Casagrande and his team quickly realized that the message also needed to be relayed to parents. Casagrande altered the program to involve parents and continued his quest to install smoke alarms. For the past two years there have been no fire fatalities in Kankakee.

For the past two years there have been no fire fatalities in Kankakee.

According to Casagrande, “It didn’t matter who you are or what your housing situation is, whether you rent or you own, we educated and installed the alarms necessary for all populations in need in the community.” Casagrande’s close relationship to his community was critical to the program’s success. Some of the people served were members of the migrant worker community who do not speak English and were fearful of authority. The team strategized carefully around community needs to ensure every household felt comfortable receiving this life-saving resource.

Casagrande and the Kankakee Fire Department know their program is saving lives. In several cases, the Fire Department uncovered substantial gas leaks during smoke alarm installations which were repaired, averting potentially fatal crises.

In 2017, Marsean Harris and her young family escaped a house fire because of the smoke alarms that Casagrande and his team installed. Harris said, “It was terrible. We woke up to the smoke alarm. By the time we made it out, the house was engulfed in flames. I thank God for those smoke alarms, having two small kids and a baby on the way.” To hear about this family’s story in a video, click here.

The Firefighter Award is presented to a professional, volunteer firefighter(s), or medical personnel related to dispatch operations at a fire department who acted above and beyond the call of duty, exhibiting heroism either in response to an emergency situation or through an ongoing commitment to the community.

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.


Mr. Roy B. Sartin & Mr. Eli Williamson Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Military Heroes

Roy Sartin and Eli Williamson are kindred spirits. They met in a freshman year Latin class at Kenwood Academy High School and attended Luther College in Iowa. During college, both men enlisted in the Army and deployed overseas to the Middle East.

After years of military service as a staff sergeant in special operations as a psychological operations specialist and an Arabic linguist with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Williamson found himself back in Chicago thinking about his next chapter as his student loans came due. Coincidentally, his old friend Sartin had also recently been discharged from his Army Heavy Combat Engineer Reserve unit as a sergeant and was contemplating his new purpose as a civilian. He too was grappling with student loans.

The difference between military and civilian life felt stark. They spent years fostering a very specific skill set to find it underutilized upon their return. And they weren’t alone in this feeling. They found that many veterans had trouble reconnecting with their communities after their service ended and that student debt and underemployment were major burdens for many returning service members.

“When you recognize a problem, your duty as a member of society is to do something about it,” said Sartin.

Sartin and Williamson thought there was a solution to the problem of service members feeling disconnected from their communities and lacking resources upon return. They launched Leave No Veteran Behind in 2008 to invest in veterans to build better communities through retroactive scholarships, transitional jobs and community engagement. Leave No Veteran Behind connects veterans with service opportunities that utilize their unique skill set, all while helping them pay off student debt.

They launched Leave No Veteran Behind in 2008 to invest in veterans to build better communities through retroactive scholarships, transitional jobs and community engagement.

A fantastic example of utilizing veterans’ skills as assets for the community started in 2009, when they partnered with Chicago Public Schools to position veterans on the corner of 35th and Martin Luther King Drive near several schools to help alleviate violence. The veterans, understanding the neighborhood, helped make sure students had a safe experience traveling to and from school each day.

The veterans became known and welcomed in the school area and violence decreased. Because of its success, CPS expanded the program across the city and it became known as The Safe Passage Program. Thanks to Leave No Veteran Behind, more than 700 veterans are helping to keep the children of Chicago safe.

Sartin and Williamson paved the way for other organizations in Chicago to consider the contributions of veterans as vital for our communities. “Helping communities to thrive is work we are all supposed to do,” said Williamson. “We are so glad to see the positive impact of Leave No Veteran Behind, both on the veterans we work with and on our community.”

The Military Award is presented to an active, reserve guard, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), or veteran member(s) of the Armed Forces, or military supporter, who acted above and beyond the call of duty or have made an ongoing commitment to the community

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.


Miss Olivia Shorter Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Blood Services Hero

Miss Olivia Shorter Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Blood Services Hero

Olivia “Livy” Shorter is just 7 years old and, in many ways, Olivia is a typical little girl. She loves cheerleading, baking cookies and listening to Beyonce. She is the little sister to brothers Adam, 11, and Dylan, 9. As typical as Olivia is, she has lived with the burden of a chronic, incurable illness for all of her young life – something most children will never understand.

When Olivia was just seven days old, she was diagnosed with sickle cell disease.

Sickle cell disease is a genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to become misshapen and break down. For Olivia, it requires many treatments and transfusions to care for or prevent sickle cell-related complications. She is also at risk for bacterial infections and other complications.

Olivia has been treated for sickle cell since she was 5 months old, undergoing blood transfusions and IV fluids every three weeks. This equates to more than 100 transfusions in her short life. Olivia’s regular hospital visits for transfusions and treatments last hours because it takes at least two hours for the blood to be matched as closely as possible to minimize complications, then the transfusion itself can take an additional two to three hours. On top of this regular treatment, Olivia had her spleen surgically removed when she was only 6 years old in order to ease the blood transfusion process.

Amid all of the challenges Olivia faces, her spirit remains generous and kind. For her seventh birthday, Olivia told her parents that she wanted to host “a party for the children with sickle cell, to see them and meet them and have fun with them.”

For her seventh birthday, Olivia told her parents that she wanted to host “a party for the children with sickle cell, to see them and meet them and have fun with them.”

Olivia’s mother knew that the family had to honor her selfless request. “Despite her illness, Livy is so loving, caring and joyful,” she said. “Her birthday is September 20 and September is Sickle Cell Awareness month, so we decided to throw a party for all the kids and families that make every day a triumph.”

On September 16, 2017, Olivia and her family hosted not only a birthday party for children with sickle cell and their families, but also a blood drive with the American Red Cross. The event, which attracted over 200 people, was terrific. “While the children were partying, parents and friends donated blood to help children with sickle cell,” her mother explained.

The best blood match for an African-American child with sickle cell disease usually comes from an African-American donor. At Olivia’s birthday blood drive, African-American blood donors could mark their blood donation with a blue tag. The American Red Cross blue tag program, a national effort that partners regionally with the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, identifies donations that should be earmarked to go specifically to sickle cell patients like Olivia.

“We are going to try to have a sickle cell birthday party and blood drive to honor Livy and the children with sickle cell every year,” her mother said. “Livy manages her situation with such patience and grace, it is an honor to celebrate her.”

The Blood Services Award is presented to an individual(s) or organization that is involved in activity that creates awareness of the importance of blood donation, helps to ensure a sufficient and safe blood supply is available to patients, and/or serves as an advocate for the blood community.

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.


Officer Joseph McDermott & Officer Ryan Davenport Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Law Enforcement Heroes

Sacrificing their personal safety, Belvidere police officers Ryan Davenport and Joseph McDermott saved the lives of a mother and child in a dire situation. McDermott and Davenport both reflect on that day with the same sentiment: it was one of the most challenging days on the job, ever.

McDermott responded alone to a call in the middle of a chilly March night, arriving at the Kishwaukee River where a minivan was sinking in the deep water with two passengers inside. He took off his vest, boots and belt and stepped into the cold river. He was immediately submerged in deep, cold water and swam to the sinking van.

Adrenaline and panic were starting to set in. McDermott recalls, “I couldn’t believe what was happening. I couldn’t touch the bottom and the water was freezing cold.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but his friend and fellow officer, Davenport, was right behind him ready to help. Davenport heard the dispatch call on his way home from a 13-hour shift and voluntarily headed to the scene of the accident to make sure McDermott had support. McDermott says, “We back each other up on everything. I depend on him. I know he’ll show up when I need him to. I’m not surprised Ryan was right there.”

It only took three minutes for the van to submerge completely. In that short time, McDermott and Davenport had saved the lives of both passengers.

Davenport, arriving soon after, watched McDermott swim to the van and began gauging the best place to enter the water. At that moment, McDermott yelled, “There’s a kid in the car!” Davenport jumped into the water to join his friend in this frightening save. When he heard this, he wasn’t thinking about how cold or deep the water was, he was just thinking about how to save the child.

“I could hear in his voice that this was something different,” Davenport remembers thinking when he heard his friend and colleague yelling from the water.

McDermott broke a window to gain access to the vehicle and the mother handed him the infant. Davenport was right there, ready to swim the child to shore safely. “The mother grabbed my shoulder from behind and the baby’s legs dipped into the water — I could see the infant’s eyes get really big,” said Davenport. “I held the baby above my head with my right arm and attempted to swim back to shore.”

Davenport managed to keep the infant almost completely out of the water while swimming her to shore, which likely saved her from hypothermia.

It only took three minutes for the van to submerge completely. In that short time, McDermott and Davenport had saved the lives of both passengers.

The Law Enforcement Award is presented to a professional police officer(s) or related law enforcement official(s) who exhibited heroism either in response to an emergency situation or through an ongoing commitment to the community.

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.

Mr. Sheldon L. Smith Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Community Impact Hero

Mr. Sheldon L. Smith Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Community Impact Hero

Sheldon Smith’s father was incarcerated when he was just 7 years old. A decade later, Smith was incarcerated himself for robbery at the age of 17. “I never thought I’d live to see 23. I thought I’d be dead by 23,” said Smith. But he didn’t let these experiences guide the trajectory of his life.

When Smith was 21, he found out he was going to be a father. He quickly decided that he wanted to do it right and he wanted to help others do the same. The same year he became a father, he created The Dovetail Project, a nonprofit that empowers young African-American fathers to be great dads.

The Dovetail Project provides African-American fathers, ages 17-24, with employment skills, educational resources and tools to be better fathers and men through a voluntary 12-week program. Fathers learn parenting skills, job interview tips, financial literacy and how to interact with law enforcement, among other topics.

“He’s like a beacon of hope, a symbol of fatherhood … The Dovetail Project has really changed me,” said Pool.

Dovetail participant Devonte Pool said that the program provides fathers with an opportunity to better themselves. “He’s like a beacon of hope, a symbol of fatherhood … The Dovetail Project has really changed me,” said Pool.

“The city of Chicago can be tough … especially if you live in a community with a lack of resources. It can be tough. [Dovetail participants] wake up every day, come to the program and avoid the roadblocks that exist in front of them,” said Smith.

He says this voluntary program is a training for fathers, but it’s really about their babies. “The most impactful thing you can do for your child is make sure they have a better life than you had,” said Smith. “It’s all about making sure you leave your legacy.”

Since 2010, 336 fathers have completed the program. The waiting list to participate has more than 300 people on it and this year marked the largest graduation number to date. The Dovetail Project, which started in Woodlawn, is now expanding to new neighborhoods and using a larger space for its main office to account for a growing participant base. Smith’s goal is to go from 120 to 325 annual participants by 2021 and to expand to a new city by 2022.

Smith credits the program’s success to his childhood mentors who stuck by him unconditionally. “I’m making the bet that everyone made on me,” said Smith, who believes that the world can be better if we all participate even in small ways.

The Community Impact Award is presented to an individual(s) who displays leadership and commitment to his or her community by making a positive, noticeable and significant impact on society.

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.

Ms. Claire Liszkay Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Disaster Services Hero

Ms. Claire Liszkay Honored as American Red Cross 2018 Disaster Services Hero

In 2005, Claire Liszkay went on a trip to Nicaragua and what was originally a personal mission to learn Spanish turned into a life-changing experience. Liszkay watched workers at a local hospital strike over a lack of resources and funds. “I saw the disparity between folks who have and folks who don’t have. I had never considered healthcare as a profession until this moment. I applied to nursing school from Nicaragua,” said Liszkay.

Now a nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Liszkay has volunteered to support disaster relief efforts near and far with life-saving medical care at every opportunity and at times sacrifices her own safety in order to help.

As a nurse at Rush Rehabilitation Center in 2010, she traveled to Haiti to support earthquake relief through Rush University’s Global Health program. Liszkay and her team provided medical care, prescription services and rehydration treatment. They also established multiple clinics that resulted in a permanent, self-sustaining clinic now run by the local community with continued support from Rush University. “That was when I began to understand, in real life, what disaster response looks like,” said Liszkay. Since then, she has visited the island nine times to be part of the continuity of care. Working in Haiti was only the beginning of Liszkay’s passion for medical disaster response.

In Liszkay’s current role at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, she was the first nurse to volunteer to care for patients coming into the hospital with Ebola symptoms. Later, Liszkay went on to spend six weeks in the epicenter of the Ebola crisis, Sierra Leone on the border of Guinnea. There, she provided care to those who had potentially contracted the virus.

“I knew when the epidemic happened that I would get myself there,” said Liszkay. “I felt a calling. I would have had to talk myself out of going.”

“I knew when the epidemic happened that I would get myself there,” said Liszkay. “I felt a calling. I would have had to talk myself out of going.” In Sierra Leone, she worked at a holding center created to care for people with Ebola symptoms. The holding center comprised little more than a collection of tents, tarps, cots and a generator. It was staffed by a couple dozen people from across the globe. Upon returning to the U.S., Liszkay was quarantined for three weeks to ensure she had not contracted the virus.

Liszkay is committed to providing medical care to those who need it most, both abroad and at home. She knows that you don’t have to go far to find healthcare disparity. In 2016 and 2017, Liszkay provided medical care in Missouri’s rural Mississippi Riverbank where there’s a chronic lack of access to care. Last year, she was part of a medical team supporting those affected by Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida. Liszkay also traveled to Houston to assist primary care clinics with the increased patient loads after Hurricane Harvey displaced a large portion of the local population.

She reflects on her commitment to disaster relief saying, “I think I am my best self in situations like these – my best self and my best nurse.”

The Disaster Services Award is presented to an individual(s) who has exhibited heroic efforts in any or all of the areas of disaster services, including preparedness, response or recovery during a natural disaster or emergency situation, or has made an ongoing commitment to a community that experienced a disaster in response to an identified need.

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2018 Heroes. For more information about the 2018 Heroes Breakfast, click here.