86-year-old Red Cross volunteer shows no sign of slowing down

Story by Karen Scullin, FOX9 News

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Vonnie Thomas, image provided courtesy of Fox9

Vonnie Thomas has spent virtually her entire life helping others through the American Red Cross and the National Sports Center for the Disabled. She’s 86 years old and shows no signs of stopping.

Thomas started volunteering for the Red Cross when she was 18 so she could get a free ticket to the state fair. But, she’s still offering her time and energy to this day and has stockpiled stories that range from highly emotional to simply surprising.

Thomas estimates she’s helped on almost 50 different disasters, from tornadoes and hurricanes to fires and floods. She’s been volunteering with the Red Cross for 65 years, helping with food, clothing and shelter, but also with hugs and understanding – likely the most important assets of all.

“It isn’t what we give, it’s our presence,” Thomas says.

But, Thomas says it’s not the natural disasters that impact her the most, it’s the manmade ones. She was there at the pentagon for 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing where a daycare was hit. She’s been back to Oklahoma City a number of times, but can’t bring herself to go to the memorial.

“I get about a block away and I think nope- not quite ready. It’s just that hard because I was right down in there,” Thomas says.

Thomas doesn’t just stop at disasters. The mountains call her every single year. She heads to Winter Park, Colorado, where she volunteers to teach downhill and cross country adaptive skiing to amputees, the blind, those with cerebral palsy, cancer, brain injuries and more.

“They come around and they’re like ‘wow I’m empowered I can do this’,” Thomas says.

Vonnie Thomas and a home fire survivor. Image provided courtesy of the American Red Cross

Thomas is rewarded by the smiles and the self-esteem that emerge from the people she teaches. She shares the story of a young boy with cancer whom she taught to ski. She was so proud of him.

“He said, ‘How come you’re crying?’ I said, ‘I’m not crying my eyes are watering because I don’t have my goggles on’,” she says. “About two weeks later, I got a package in the mail and a note from his mom and it said Jimmy wanted me to have his goggles so my eyes would never water again. He had passed away in the meantime.”

Thomas also volunteers to work with “at risk” youth. Several years ago, she taught a high school boy who showed up in a trench coat to ski and he told her he wished his mom was more like her.

“I said they know everything that’s going on… he said they have no idea what’s going on in the garage. And I didn’t pick up on it,” Thomas recalls.

Two weeks later, Thomas was called to Columbine, Colorado where 13 people were shot and killed. As she was helping families in crisis, she realized her high school ski student was Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters.

“He learned so much,” she said. “I bet if I’d had him another week we would have been okay.”

Thomas says she may be 86, but she doesn’t feel it. She plans to stay on her mission for to help and to heal for years to come.

For more information on how to volunteer with the Red Cross, visit redcross.org/mn and click on “Ways to Help.”

This feature story originally appeared on FOX9 online. The story is published here with permission. 

Holiday Cheer For American Military Heroes Up North

By Dan Williams, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Serving Northern Minnesota

The American Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes program boils down to messages of thanks and well wishes to people who are serving or have served in the American armed forces. While the number of cards signed, gathered, and distributed is large — more than 15,300 this year in northern Minnesota — our Red Cross volunteers, and other important helpers, ensured that every local service member or veteran received a bundle of cards wrapped in a ribbon with a gift tag attached.

Each bundle was special. Each card was special.

I think the cards are so special that I want to take the opportunity to share a few of the messages with you.

Many of the cards had patriotic themes, and great artwork. Some of them had extremely heartfelt messages. And, some were even written from the perspective of the family dog.

This card could not be more perfect.

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Imagine, a holiday message from a WWII veteran! Thank you, Jerry, for your service!

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A great card with a great message.

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Bridget from Esko has it right!

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Sometimes the best message is just ‘thanks.’

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Making it happen

Holiday Mail for Heroes is part of our local Red Cross Services to Armed Forces. We have learned through this undertaking, during this year and past years:

  • People in our communities genuinely thank and support our military service members and veterans from the bottom of their hearts through the Holidays Mail for Heroes
  • People in military service members, or who are veterans, genuinely appreciate the gratitude and support provided by the Holidays Mail for Heroes

brainerd-hsAcross northern Minnesota, in 2014 we collected, sorted, and distributed just over 7,000 cards to local service members and veterans. In 2015, we expanded our efforts to include a handful of senior living facilities and county veterans services officers, which resulted in the distribution of more than 12,000 thank you messages. This year, as of December 21st, we were up to 15,385 cards distributed to nearly 4,000 military members and veterans from our chapter!

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Holiday Mail for Heroes would not happen without a delightful mix of community and corporate involvement. Some key contributors returned to this project. For example, nearly all students from Brainerd High School made cards again this year. Thanks to Beth Bastain for making this happen! The quality and thoughtfulness of the messages and artwork in their cards, reminds me that the future is in good hands with our youth. And, when I think of youth, I must mention the great students from Bryant Elementary in Superior, Wisconsin. For the fourth year in a row, our Red Cross chapter received incredible cards from the students there. Thanks to Principal Kate Tesch for her leadership!

umdWe had great support from businesses as well, with over 5,000 blank cards printed up for use at public events hosted by Essentia Health, Bent Paddle Brewing, ZMC Hotels, and Thrivent Financial.  We could not have made this happen without their support. Another company that made a massive difference this year is DeCare Dental. Through their locations in Gilbert and in Eagan, they signed over 4,000 Holiday Mail for Heroes cards.

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Our colleges were incredibly supportive as well, with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Athletic Department, and Greek Life Club being key partners.  The College of St. Scholastica was incredible as well, with support ranging from the Hockey Cheerleaders to the Sisters at the adjacent Benedictine Monastery.

Click here to see more of the most special Holiday Mail for Heroes cards of the year. Click here to learn more about Red Cross Services to Armed Forces.

Most of all, if you’re a military veteran, thank you for your service. If you have veterans you’re close to, please pass along our thanks to them as well.

Happy holidays to everyone!

Has anyone ever heard of frostbite?

 

A high of 10 degrees will feel, well, downright balmy when bitter cold descends upon the upper Midwest in the coming days. So, in the spirit of feeling things (like our body parts during a polar plunge), let’s review some basic cold weather First Aid tips that you can find in the free American Red Cross First Aid App.

Frostbite happens when a part of your body gets frozen. It usually happens to parts of your body that may be hard to cover up, like your ears and nose, cheeks and chin, and fingers and toes. Signs of frostbite include first pain, and then numbness or loss of feeling, and loss of skin color. If you feel pain or numbness anywhere on your skin while you’re out in the cold, go inside immediately. Once inside, gently warm fingers and toes, such as with warm water. When in doubt, call 9-1-1 to get medical help.

Hypothermia happens when the body is losing heat faster than it can make heat. It’s like the opposite of having a fever, but just as dangerous. Shivering is one of the first signs of hypothermia. Other signs include confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech. If you start shivering outside in the cold or feel drowsy, go inside immediately and warm up. Once inside, take off any wet clothes and put on dry ones. Keep the body as warm as possible with blankets and jackets. Drink warm beverages, and stay warm and dry. When in doubt, call 9-1-1 to get medical help.

You can find more helpful and lifesaving information on the Red Cross First Aid mobile app. Download it now by texting “GETFIRST” to 90999. And, remember pets during severe cold. Text “GETPET” to 90999 to download the Red Cross free Pet First Aid mobile app.

By Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross

2016 Year In Disasters — Helping People Near and Far

In November, Red Cross volunteer Mimi Bielinski met with Milton Vallejos after a multi-unit apartment fire in Burnsville, Minnesota.
In November, Red Cross volunteer Mimi Bielinski met with Milton Vallejos after a multi-unit apartment fire in Burnsville, Minnesota.

2016 was a busy year for Red Cross disaster services in Minnesota. Our relief workers did a great job making sure people near and far received Red Cross support during times of need and helping them rebuild their lives after disaster.

For example, in November, Red Cross volunteer Mimi Bielinski met with Milton Vallejos following a multi-unit apartment fire in Burnsville, a city just south of Minneapolis. Mimi worked with Milton to assess and support his family’s immediate disaster relief needs and to direct him to additional resources for long-term recovery. With Red Cross help said Milton, “All of our problems went away. We had a place to stay, money for food and clothes.” The Red Cross assisted more than 80 people affected by the fire. After four years into serving as a Red Cross volunteer Mimi said, “I feel good when people are being helped. And, I can tell when they’re being helped just by my interactions with them.”

During 2016, the Minnesota Region of the American Red Cross:

  • Responded to 470 disasters in the Minnesota Region, which includes part of western Wisconsin
  • Helped 1,011 families affected by local disasters, mostly single family home fires
  • Installed 3,720 smoke alarms in residences, making them safer from and more prepared for home fires as part of our Home Fire Campaign
  • Reached 5,245 youth with emergency preparedness education through The Pillowcase Project

In addition to helping at home, more than 150 Red Cross disaster relief workers from Minnesota responded (some not once, but multiple times) to national Red Cross relief efforts across the country, including flooding in Missouri, Texas, and Louisiana; water crisis in Flint, Michigan; wildfires in California; and hurricane relief across multiple states along the eastern seaboard. Their service provided shelter, food, and medical and emotional support to thousands of people experiencing some of their darkest moments.

Thank you to everyone for the great work done this past year, providing assistance to neighbors near and far.

Story and photo by Lynette Nyman, American Red Cross. Click here to learn more about the Red Cross in Minnesota.  

Safety tips for this winter’s first blizzard

rco_blog_img_winter-storm-snow-plowThis winter’s first blizzard is expected to blow across western Minnesota, bringing snow, wind, and rain to much of the state. Today is the day to prepare. We encourage everyone to  follow the safety tips below to stay safe during the storm.

COLD SAFETY TIPS People are urged to stay inside during this storm. To stay safe during this dangerous weather, follow these steps:

  • Wear layers of lightweight clothing to stay warm.
  • Be extremely careful if you have to shovel snow. Take frequent breaks and stay hydrated.
  • Watch for hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia symptoms include confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering. Frostbite symptoms include numbness, flushed gray, white, blue or yellow skin discoloration, numbness, or waxy feeling skin.
  • Remember your pets – bring them indoors. If they can’t come inside, make sure they have enough shelter to keep them warm and that they can get to unfrozen water.
  • Download the American Red Cross First Aid App for quick, expert advice on what to do in case of an emergency. This free app is available in your app store. See all Red Cross apps at redcross.org/mobileapps.

POWER OUTAGE If someone is going to use a generator, they should never use it indoors, even in a garage, carport, basement or crawlspace. Fumes from the generator can be deadly.

  • Use flashlights for light, not candles.
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. Check refrigerated food for spoilage and if in doubt, throw it out. Your refrigerator will keep cold for about 4 hours. If the freezer is full, it will keep its temperature for about 48 hours.
  • Have coolers on hand and surround your food with ice in the cooler or refrigerator to keep food cold for a longer period of time.
  • Turn off and unplug all unnecessary electrical equipment and any appliances, equipment or electronics to avoid damaging them when the power is restored.
  • Leave one light turned on so you’ll know when the power comes back on.
    Watch animals and keep them under your direct control.
  • Eliminate unnecessary travel, especially by car. Traffic lights will be out and roads will be congested.

For more tips, search our Red Cross Disaster & Safety Library for preparedness checklists and guides.

Making a Difference for our Military Heroes

Stand Down for veterans, Virginia, MN, August 2016
Stand Down for veterans, Virginia, MN, August 2016

By Dan Williams, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Serving Northern Minnesota

During this time of year, Red Cross volunteers in Northern Minnesota are particularly busy supporting Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MAC-V) ‘Stand Down’ events, collecting and distributing Holiday Mail for Heroes cards for local military members and veterans, and participating in Veterans Day events. These activities help fulfill our Service to the Armed Forces, which is a core service that the American Red Cross delivers. And, is always an honor to provide.

“It felt like a scoop of ice cream”

At the Veteran Stand Down event in August in Virginia, MN, one of our newest volunteers, Wendy Frederickson, and an experienced disaster relief volunteer, Lisa Kvas, participated in the event as their first time delivering Red Cross services to military members and veterans.  Wendy shared that the best part of participating in Red Cross work with veterans was the privilege to meet a Vietnam War veteran named Richard Krisean, who had never attended a veteran-focused event since returning from Vietnam.

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Richard Krsiean

Richard was a Radar Intercept Officer with the Marines in Vietnam and flew in 192 combat missions.  Wendy shared that Richard’s experience in returning from Vietnam was not positive at all and that Richard was shocked at the depth and breadth of the services that were made available at the event for veterans.

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Richard and Wendy at the Stand Down

Richard shared his point of view: “What I took from going to the Veteran’s Stand Down in Virginia was the openness of all of the organizations, but the Red Cross particularly was so open and helped Veterans break down the barriers of sharing their experiences – in my case in Vietnam.  The Red Cross volunteers Wendy and Lisa were just so open and wanted to know your story, and there were no walls and no barriers, they were just there to help the veterans. That made me a little emotional, which I usually don’t get in front of other people.”

When Richard was asked about his experience with the Red Cross while he was serving in Vietnam, Richard said: “When I was on a medivac flight back from Vietnam, it was so nice to see people like that.  They really cared about me when they were giving me coffee or donuts, and after being shot at in Vietnam and everything else that was going on – it felt like a big scoop of ice cream, that is how I felt.”

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Richard and Wendy talking at the Stand Down

Wendy said that when she was sitting down with Richard for lunch that she told him that “Something is telling my heart that you are the reason I am here today.”  Richard said that he felt the same way.  Lisa Kvas added, “Meeting Richard really struck home to me as to how proud that we really are of all of them.  Showing that, and sharing that, was really much more important than the blanket that we handed them.  That is what has the impact.”  When Lisa was asked about what it might take for a volunteer to be able to make a difference with our Service to the Armed Forces, she shared that it is very similar to the qualities that make a good disaster volunteer – compassion and hope.

This year, we had the added resource of new blankets to give out to the veterans attending the Stand Down events in Virginia, Duluth, Grand Rapids, and Bemidji though a partnership with the Duluth Fire Department. Through a national charity, we were able to give out 1,000 blankets to both veterans at these events, as well as to victims of disaster across our Northern Minnesota Chapter area.

80% of success is ‘showing up’

Our take is that that 80% of success is ‘showing up.’ This means two of the most important pieces of the work we do with our military service members and veterans at the Northern Minnesota Chapter are 1) showing up; and 2) not waiting for our military heroes to raise a hand for help. By making a commitment to being at events that support our military units and veterans, it gives us the opportunity to make a difference when it is needed.

Though programs like Holiday Mail for Heroes, we distribute bundles of holiday cards written by local community members to all of the members of the units we support locally; as well as to all of the veterans living in nursing homes that we supply cards to. The reason is that on any given day it is impossible to identify exactly who would benefit from getting the bundle of cards thanking them for their service and wishing them a great holiday season. By giving the cards to everyone, we are letting our local communities share their appreciation of the commitment our veterans have made. This year we expect to distribute over 16,000 cards.

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UMD Greek Life Club, September 2016

On Veterans Day, we will participate in four events happening in the Duluth area. We will support the Veterans Day parade in downtown Duluth by providing donuts, coffee and hot chocolate for our veterans who will be marching in the parade. We also have card-signing events going on at Bent Paddle Brewing and the College of St. Scholastica hockey game.  Lastly, at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) hockey game, the UMD Greek Life Club will be supporting a card-signing table, and the UMD Athletic Department will recognize our Northern Minnesota Chapter Board Chair (and retired Colonel from the MN Air National Guard) Penny Dieryck, as well as Richard Krsiean, the veteran we met in Virginia, for their service to our nation.

If you are a veteran, please accept our sincerest thanks for your service to our country.  If you would like to get involved with the work of Red Cross Service to Armed Forces, reach out to your local Red Cross chapter to find out how you can help.

From Florida to the Carolinas

From Florida to the Carolinas, American Red Cross workers from Minnesota have supported Hurricane Matthew relief efforts. Assignments have ranged from working in a shelter and serving meals to coordinating with response partners and providing medical and mental health services. Others gathered stories and helped raise money for the response. Big picture number as of October 27: more than 50 Red Cross workers from Minnesota have deployed to areas impacted by the storm across the southeastern United States. Take a look.

14712963_10154611990962179_2000084266616440590_oCarole Madland visited people in shelters and neighborhoods in North Carolina. Sometimes she hitched a ride to reach isolated communities. Overall, the Red Cross mobilized 2,200 workers, 13 kitchens with partners, and 111 response vehicles for the state. Big picture number as of October 25: the Red Cross has mobilized more than 5,800 disaster workers since Hurricane Matthew first threatened communities in the southeast.

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Rachel Olmanson took meals to people in affected communities. Above is the view from Rachel’s truck while her team was next in line for food pick-up at a field kitchen in North Carolina. Big picture number as of October 25: the Red Cross and its partners have served more than 1.3 million meals and snacks in affected communities in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

 

matthew_daveschoeneckIn Florida, Dave Schoeneck (upper left) assisted with relief effort coordination. The Red Cross has worked closely with government officials and non-government organizations (NGOs), such as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and others. Big picture number: around 13,000 homes are affected in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

 

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In South Carolina, Dave Snetsinger (second on right) was a shelter worker. Overall, the Red Cross has had nearly 1,200 workers, 5 kitchens with partners, and 53 response vehicles for relief efforts in the state. Big picture number as of October 25: the Red Cross has helped provide nearly 100,000 overnight shelter stays in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

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Mark and Gail Noren (right and center) are doing search and care, which means finding neighborhoods and people in need of meals and feeding them in North Carolina. Big picture number as of October 25: Red Cross and its partners have served 697,000 meals and snacks across hurricane affected areas in the state.

 

a9r13mhx5w_h375qp_a98-2In Georgia, Judy Hanne Gonzalez helped gather and share stories about the Red Cross and its Hurricane Matthew relief efforts. Judy also assisted with fundraising in Florida. Big picture number: as of October 25, the Red Cross has raised $8.1 million in designated donations and pledges for a relief response that’s estimated to cost $24-$28 million.

Thank you to everyone who has responded to the Hurricane Matthew relief efforts!