Advance community outreach helps after disaster

Red Cross and African immigrant community field trip,  Minneapolis, MN, December 5, 2013. Photo credit: Jenn Vander Woude/American Red Cross.
Red Cross and African immigrant community field trip, Minneapolis, MN, December 5, 2013.

The tragic explosion and fire on January 1 in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis was a reminder for us that working ahead of disaster to reach out to diverse communities remains a top priority for the Red Cross. Most recently, on December 5, 2013, nine Red Cross volunteers and staff, representing multiple aspects of disaster prevention, relief, and recovery, met with five African immigrant community leaders to discuss the ways in which we could work together in a culturally sensitive manner. Together, we toured the Cedar Cultural Center, the Brian Coyle Center and areas around a Cedar-Riverside apartment building. Each step of the way there were conversations about the ways they could partner together on different projects including sheltering, cultural training, and preparedness. We know that connections made during this community walk-about, as well as previous community outreach activities, has helped lessen the stress of a tragic event and enabled the Red Cross and its community partners, both organizations and individuals, to provide emergency aid to people during a time of great need.

Story and photo from Jenn Hamrick, a preparedness coordinator for the American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Several community partner groups are taking donations for the Cedar-Riverside fire survivors. Click here for information about how to help. 

Dollhouses Spark Conversation about Fire Safety

Armed with screwdrivers and one page of instructions, Red Cross volunteers build dollhouses for fire safety instruction, July 31, 2013.
Armed with screwdrivers and one page of instructions, Red Cross volunteers build dollhouses for fire safety instruction, July 2013.

Upon walking into the Preparedness office at the Red Cross in Minneapolis late last July, you may have thought you had instead stepped into a preschool playroom.  You were, in fact, in the correct place. The confusion was caused by 10 pastel colored dollhouses, all of which include over 50 pieces of furniture and two dolls.  These dollhouses, built by Red Cross volunteers, and will be used throughout the region to teach families, especially children, about fire safety.

A new dollhouse was first used during National Night Out in Maple Grove, Minnesota.  At this event it was clear the dollhouse was a hit.  Children loved them. And conversations about what to do during a fire started easily with the dollhouse prompt.  Volunteers engaged both children and adults when they asked, “Do you have a plan if there’s a fire in your home?”

A Red Cross volunteer sparks the conversation about fire safety using a new dollhouse, Maple Grove, Minnesota, 2013.
A Red Cross volunteer sparks the conversation about fire safety using a new dollhouse, Maple Grove, Minnesota, July 2013.

The dollhouse project was adopted from our Safety Mobile Program. The next step for the dollhouses will be distribution around the Northern Minnesota Region, especially during October, fire safety month, when the dollhouses will be present at fire department open houses.   

If you’d like to help teach others about fire safety or would like a dollhouse to come to your city’s fire department open house, you can call the Red Cross at 612-871-7676. You can also download our First Aid mobile app with helpful information about preparing for home fires and other emergencies.

Story and photos by:  Ellie Decker, Preparedness Intern, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region

Low drama, big comfort

Jean Fisher (l) meets with Jenn Hamrick (r) in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Sometimes fires are small, but big. Sometimes flames die quickly, but people have to wait for the all clear from local officials. Sometimes dramatic pictures are few, but American Red Cross disaster responders help anyway because that’s what they do. And that was the case on Friday, April 5, when the Prior Lake Fire Department called for Red Cross help when dozens of people and their pets safely evacuated their homes. Sometimes we like to report on these low drama, big comfort fires because most fire are those not reported on major or local media.

Newbie Jenn Hamrick learns about Red Cross forms from veteran Jeff Skoog in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Most fires are the small flame, quickly extinguished type that happen around the block, across the street or next door all the time, every day. And while the building in Friday’s fire did not burn to the ground (phew!) and people recovered most of their personal belongings (yay!), Red Cross responders checked in with those who waited to return home, provided food during the hours passed for word of safe re-entry, and listened to people’s fire stories. Most of the time for the Red Cross the every day is just that, the every day.

Story & photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross.

Thankful in the wee hours

Dear Red Cross,

Sue & Jeff's home in Parker's Prairie, MN, after the fire on December 21, 2012. Photo credit: Larry Zirbes/American Red Cross
The remains of Sue and Jeff’s home in Parkers Prairie, MN, after the fire on December 21, 2012. Photo credit: Larry Zirbes/American Red Cross

In the wee hours of December 21, we had a house fire and lost everything, including many of our beloved pets.

I want to thank you with all my heart for being there to help us get through those difficult first days. Please also thank those who made the quilts we were given. I found it very comforting to wrap myself up in one when things got overwhelming.

We have been occasional contributors in the past, but from now on we will be regular contributors so we can help pay forward the wonderful work that you do.

Again, all our thanks–

Sue & Jeff

Fire Chases Away Christmas Joy

by Anne Florenzano/American Red Cross

A tired Yvonne Johnson sat at a table in her apartment complex community room. “I am still in disbelief,” she said. “You hear of people in the news who have fires like this, but I never thought it would be ME in this situation. It still seems so unreal!” she said.

Red Cross volunteer Sheila Miller (l) helps Yvonne Johnson (r) with emergency disaster relief after an early morning blaze burned her home on December 26, 2012. (Photo credit: Anne Florenzano/American Red Cross)
Red Cross volunteer Sheila Miller (l) helps Yvonne Johnson (r) with emergency disaster relief after an early morning blaze burned her home on December 26, 2012. (Photo credit: Anne Florenzano/American Red Cross)

Yvonne, her teen daughter and nephew had enjoyed Christmas together in their apartment in Plymouth when their building fire alarm went off at about 12:30 a.m. They were still up, and dressed, and they grabbed their new gifts and put on their boots and coats and went outside. A half-hour later they were given the okay to go back into their apartment. At approximately 3:30 a.m. Yvonne was woken out of her sleep by the smell of smoke and her daughter saw sparks and flame out of the balcony window coming down from above. Yvonne and the two teens raced out of the apartment, this time dressed only in pajamas and unable to save anything but a clutch with her phone and keys.

The three of them took refuge in their car to stay warm. Eventually Yvonne was able to send her kids to warmth and sleep with her sister while she made arrangements for help from the Red Cross for temporary lodging, clothes and food. The firemen have told her that her apartment is uninhabitable because of water damage. Fortunately her landlord has some empty units where Yvonne can begin rebuilding her home, but she won’t know until she can get back into her apartment if any of the kids’ Christmas gifts or the furniture she recently inherited from her Mom can be salvaged. Yvonne is a middle school English teacher at the Woodson Institute for Student Excellence, and she said, “I’ve never had any help or assistance before – never in my life – but I need this help today.”

Disasters are hard any time of year, but can be especially hard around the holidays. Since Friday, December 22, the Northern Minnesota Red Cross has helped more than 8 families, including 20 adults and 15 children. Our volunteers respond to more than a disaster a day here in our region.  In addition, more than 100 volunteers from our area have deployed east to help those affected by Superstorm Sandy–several are on their second deployment, missing holidays with their families because they want to help those in need. Everyone can help those affected by local and national disasters: please consider making a year-end gift to the Red Cross at

A Farm House Burns Down

The fire started in the night on October 5, 2012. Linda, her husband Tom, and their dog Rex were asleep in their home on the Cook family homestead in Somerset, Wisconsin. Rex woke first. He nudged Tom’s arm then Tom woke Linda. Their house was on fire. Linda saw flames going up a wall. She went for the fire extinguisher. It was empty or broken. The fire spread fast. The century-old house turned out to be a tinder box ready to burn. Linda saw Rex through the smoke. She followed him outside. Her feet were bare. She wore pajamas. She looked for Tom. Linda thought he was behind her. “I turned around and he wasn’t there.” He was inside, somewhere inside a house filled with flames and smoke. He was somewhere in the house where he was born and where he spent most of his nights.


Linda met Tom at the old Stardust Room in Osceola, Wisconsin. “He went there every day. For our first date we went to the fair.” They married in 1974. “I said I’d never marry a trucker or a farmer and I married a man who was both.” Together, they raised five children. For years he worked as a local mechanic and farmed the Cook land with a horse-pulled tractor. Years earlier, in 1968, he lost a hand in a corn picker but he managed, choosing prosthesis for a working arm over a re-attached limp hand. He was no stranger to fire. A barn burned in 1991. Tom and Linda lost horses, cows, pigs, a dog and hundreds of hay bales. Linda baled hay too. “We worked side by side.”


Tom died in the fire. Linda says he will be remembered as a caring, loving guy. “He loved everybody. He loved his horses.” Tom was known in the area, Linda says, for his horses. They were regulars in the local parade. “We’d get the horses and away we went!”


During the funeral services, Tom’s ashes were held in a wooden box that his son Scott handmade. Farmers, truckers and others from around the area attended the services. Around 200 people paid their respects. Linda received hugs, many hugs. “My shoulders hurt from all the hugs.” Starting soon to rebuild her life, she wants to put a trailer on the farm. “I don’t want to leave the farm. Tom always said, if something happened to him, stay on the farm.” Red Cross emergency relief has helped to get her going. The Red Cross has been great, she says. “I didn’t know there was a Red Cross out here. I don’t even know how they got my name. I didn’t expect anybody.”


Wherever she goes and however long it takes to recover, Linda plans to have her dog Rex by her side. “Rex got me out. He’s my hero.” Seven years go Rex was a puppy offered for free at a farm auction. Now he’s a hero to everyone. To all those–Rex, too–who save and comfort our neighbors during great times of need, we express our heartfelt gratitude.

Story and photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Photo descriptions: (1) a baking pan survived the fire; (2) the remains of the Cook farm house; (3) Scott Cook’s handmade box for his dad’s ashes; (4) Red Cross nurse Vonnie Thomas hugs Linda Cook where she’s staying with family in New Prague, Minnesota; and (5) Rex, 7 years old, canine hero and beloved family member.

Right now we’re helping someone after a fire

Red Cross volunteers respond to a house fire in the south metro. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Right now the American Red Cross is helping someone recovering from a fire. Across our Northern Minnesota Region, we respond more than 400 fires each year. (And more than 63,000 across the nation annually.) That does not account for  home fires that not requiring Red Cross assistance. In September, we experienced one of the busiest fire response months that Red Cross disaster volunteers have seen in quite a while. There were 48 responses region-wide, including a 12-unit apartment fire in Brainerd where all 12 families needed assistance. To date, October has been no-less busy with 14 incidents. Combined, we’ve assisted 329 people with emergency relief after a fire.

So, we feel compelled to ask: are you prepared for a fire? Are you ready to not return for hours, days, or maybe never to the home you have now? Take a moment to answer those questions. Then what?

The Red Cross recommends two easy steps to help protect your home and loved ones from a fire: get a smoke alarm and create a fire escape plan.

  • Smoke alarms save lives. Working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in a home fire in half.*
    • Place smoke alarms on every level of your home, including bedrooms.
    • Test smoke alarms once a month and replace batteries at least once a year.
    • Fires can spread quickly and every second counts. Having a plan in place can help you escape, but less than one-fourth of Americans have actually made a plan and practiced it.*
      • Home fire plans should include at least two ways to escape from every room of your home.
      • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance from your home where family members can meet after a fire.
      • Discuss the plan with everyone in the household and practice it at least twice a year.
      • For more information visit
  • Download the American Red Cross First Aid App to get access to life-saving information on what to do for common, everyday first aid emergencies. The app is available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play for Android.

* Statistics provided by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).