I was out running errands when I heard of the bridge collapse on the car radio. It had to have been only minutes after it happened. I pulled over and called in to the Red Cross chapter to see if I was needed and was told, “Yes. Come right away.”
I arrived fairly quickly, but I think I was the last vehicle to drive right to the chapter, then the roads were closed off. The Red Cross chapter, being just a couple blocks away from the bridge was already set up as the staging area for all emergency responders, so the parking lot and surrounding roads were filled with police and fire vehicles, including a large mobile office which became their command center.
I went directly into the chapter to a meeting that was just starting, which assigned volunteers to various duties. I was assigned to open a Family Assistance Center, which was to be located in the nearby hotel on Washington Ave, a Holiday Inn at the time. Because of this assignment, I didn’t see more of what took place at the chapter that evening.
A Family Assistance Center is a place of comfort, a place to wait for information, a place to worry until your questions are answered. We had snacks and beverages available, which can help with stress. But mostly we had counselors: both the Red Cross stress team made up of Minnesota licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, etc. who are specially trained to work with folks stressed by the shock and uncertainty of disasters, and whether their loved ones are okay. Also we had a team of faith-based counselors such as pastors, priests, rabbis, chaplains, for those who find comfort in faith-based support.
My thoughts of this event continue to include: appreciation for the preparedness and actions of first responders and the opportunity to help through the American Red Cross; encouragement for the survivors who continue to struggle with physical and emotional after effects of such a traumatic experience; and hope that our infrastructure is being updated and maintained so this doesn’t happen again.
As family members arrived at the scene looking for loved ones, they were escorted to the hotel to share their story and concerns with a counselor and wait for information. Mostly these were people who knew their loved ones crossed the bridge about that time, generally their usual commute. Or if someone didn’t come home when expected, their family was worried thinking they had been on the bridge.
One by one news arrived that a loved one was safe. Often it was by chance, they stayed at work late, stopped for a beer with a friend, took a different route either hearing the news or by chance. Some who were on the bridge were rescued safely, some taken in ambulances to hospitals, some bodies recovered. People were escorted out of the Family Assistance Center by their counselor, some greatly relieved, some in tears or grief. Over the course of the evening our clients became fewer until there was just one woman left. The divers finally located her husband, at the bottom of the river, a large piece of the bridge on top of him.
It still affects me to think of what she and others went through that night. It was not possible to save every life, but our emergency responders found every single person. The Red Cross continued to support families and first responders for many weeks after the bridge collapse.
This year the Minnesota Region of the American Red Cross honors seven people whose humanity, generosity, and courage show us the best of what we believe a hero to be. Chosen for acts of bravery, kindness, and service ranging from supporting military veterans to donating gallons of blood, these people inspire us to be the best humanity can be every day and during times of crisis. Click on the links below to see their video stories. Or, click here for the video play list.
Community Hero Mohamed Ahmed, Burnsville
Sponsored by Anime Twin Cities
The road from a refugee camp in Kenya to community hero in Minnesota is a long one. But Mohamed (Mo) Ahmed has traveled that road, bringing with him the spirit and action of helping others. Today, as a youth soccer team coach for more than 10 years, Mohamed continues to give time, money, and guidance to disadvantaged and diverse youth, including Somali, Oromo, Hmong, and Latino players. His time devotion alone adds up to more than 300 hours of volunteer service every year.
“Mohamed has set-up a wonderful mentoring network with himself and former coaches, contributing physically, financially, and emotionally to the youth on these teams,” says Michelle Swanson, who nominated Mohamed for the Community Hero Award. “It’s hard to explain everything that this network does,” says Swanson.
The teams play in multiple tournaments in the United States and Canada. One team has won several regional and national tournaments under Mohamed’s leadership. But for Mohamed, coaching is about more than building winning teams. For him, coaching provides an opportunity to give struggling youth, especially those new to this country, guidance that he needed as a new boy in America. Kids who might otherwise be unable to afford club soccer can participate at minimal cost, giving them soccer and life skills helpful for doing well in this country.
Five years in a refugee camp was a long time, and a long-time ago, for Mohamed, whose transition and triumph makes him most deserving of being our 2017 Community Hero.
First Responder Hero Julia Weegman, Stillwater Sponsored by Abbott
Very early on the morning of June 15, 2016, Julia Weegman was that person for Chris Jesmer when he called 9-1-1 for emergency assistance after finding his wife, Jeanine, unresponsive. “As a panicked husband who knew his wife was dying before his eyes, and as someone who had no experience with CPR, I felt totally helpless,” says Chris.
Julia immediately provided Chris and his daughter with instruction for helping Jeanine. Julia guided them through moving Jeanine to the floor, clearing her throat, and beginning chest compressions until professional assistance arrived.
Today, Jeanine has fully recovered from her cardiac emergency. Many people, including EMTs, emergency room doctors, intensive care nurses, and others, are responsible for saving Jeanine’s life, says Chris, but “I firmly believe that all of these professionals would not have been able to assist Jeanine were it not for Julia first guiding me through the lifesaving CPR.”
Julia is a true first responder hero, whose compassion and training saved the life of a wife and mother when help was most needed.
Give Life Hero Gordy Kircher, St. Paul
Sponsored by Smiths Medical
Among those helping to save lives every day is Gordy Kircher. A Red Cross volunteer with more than 200 hours of service for last year alone, Gordy gives selflessly to help those who need lifesaving blood and platelets.
Gordy has for decades donated blood and platelets. While being treated for cancer and unable to donate, Gordy became a Donor Ambassador assisting other donors with reception and hospitality at the St. Paul donor center.
“Gordy is a strong volunteer who is always willing to do what he can to help,” says Allison Belting, who nominated Gordy for the Give Life Hero Award. “Whether he’s working at a blood drive, training new volunteers, or assisting with recruitment efforts in his community, Gordy is an exceptional volunteer.”
Gordy’s efforts support the American Red Cross North Central Blood Services Region, which last year collected more than 248,000 blood units for hospitals and patients. Heroes like Gordy are critical to this lifesaving work.
Good Samaritan Hero Mikael Tekeste, St. Paul
Sponsored by CenterPoint Energy
Human suffering comes in many forms, including the kind that drives someone to attempt suicide. On August 9, 2016, Mikael (Mike) Tekeste was walking across the Wabasha Bridge in St. Paul on his way to work when he came across a woman in that place of deepest despair.
Without regard for his personal safety, Mikael grabbed the woman by her arms and pleaded with her not to jump from the bridge. She pleaded with him in reverse, asking him to let her die. He did not, and he stayed with her until first responders arrived. With assistance from several Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputies, Mikael pulled the woman over the railing to safety.
“We feel that a true testament of a person’s character is how they respond when they see another person in need,” says Brenna Atz with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. “Mr. Tekeste demonstrated his true character on this day.”
Mike’s action was a courageous and selfless demonstration of the Red Cross mission to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.
David Winkler, Newport
Sponsored by UnitedHealth Group
On behalf of veterans, Dave attends rallies, speaks at high schools, serves as a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, and volunteers for the annual Patriot Ride benefit. As an active motorcyclist, Dave joined the Minnesota Patriot Guard Riders in 2006. Since then, he has been on numerous missions, honoring fallen heroes at memorial services.
Dave’s volunteer service ranges from boots-on-ground work, such as shuttling people to and from parking lots, to leadership support as a charity board member.
For Dave, his work is simply “the right thing to do.” This includes helping a fellow Vietnam veteran who’s unable to walk more than a few feet. Dave takes “Doc” to VA visits, patriot missions and funerals. “Most importantly, Dave makes regular visits to a friend preparing to die,” says Ray Guest, who nominated Dave for the Military Hero Award.
In addition to honoring American military veterans, Dave has donated blood since 1970.
Because of Dave’s work, many military veterans and their families feel less alone in the world, making Dave a true representation of honorable service helping others in need.
Youth Good Samaritan Heroes John Marcella and Beau Foix, Virginia Sponsored by Medica Foundation
While preparing gear in their boat, John heard a splash, looked around in darkness, and saw nothing. John thought the splash was odd. He could have ignored it, but thankfully he did not. Grabbing his headlamp, he looked more along the shore and on the dock, and noticed Cody was nowhere. Peering into the water, he spotted Cody face down and not moving.
John yelled to Beau. They put a rope into Cody’s hand, but he did not respond. Cody, they later learned, had suffered a seizure.
In the darkness, Cody jumped in the water while still wearing his waders. He plunged to the bottom and pushed from the ground, gaining momentum to get Cody’s face out of the water and his body closer to shore where John helped pull their friend from the lake. John’s phone, which earlier had no signal, finally had one strong enough for him to call 9-1-1- for emergency assistance while Beau started CPR on Cody.
“That morning, two ordinary people did something extraordinary,” says Lisa Perkovich, Virginia High School principal and award nominator. “John and Beau did more than save a friend that day. They saved a son. They saved a nephew. They saved a grandson. They saved a teammate. They saved a school and most of all they saved a community from irreversible devastation.”
The Red Cross joins the Virginia community in celebrating and recognizing two remarkable youth who were courageous and selfless in their humanitarian actions.
The 2017 Heroes were recognized on May 19 during the Heroes Awards and Centennial Celebration, which was held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Thanks to an outstanding effort on the part of dedicated Red Cross supporters, including 921 guests and 65 volunteers, the Heroes Awards and Centennial Celebration raised more than $479,000 for American Red Cross programs and services. Many thanks to our guests and volunteers, sponsors and partners, centennial co-chairs, special guests and speakers, gala co-chairs, entertainment, and staff, who helped make the night a great night! Click here to learn more about our history, centennial year activities, and to share your story.
Post by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross Minnesota Region Heroes videos and photos by Patterson Companies
You’ve probably seen one rolling down the road or through your town on its way to a blood drive — an American Red Cross bloodmobile. They allow blood drive organizers to host drives anywhere, making it more convenient for donors to give near home, work or school.
Throughout the years, Red Cross bloodmobiles have changed, but their mission has stayed the same—to help fulfill the need for blood donations.
As far back as WWII and the Korean War, requests for blood for the armed forces reached St. Paul and donated blood was included in air shipments overseas. The successful efforts of collection centers throughout the war spurred calls from the nation’s hospitals and other medical facilities for an ongoing civilian blood program.
In January 1949, the first mobile operation from the St. Paul Blood Center was deployed to North Branch, Minnesota. This was one of the first self-contained, traveling blood donation centers and transformed blood collection. Another bloodmobile was put into operation in the St. Paul region in 1950 to help serve 32 additional counties. Since then, self-contained bloodmobiles have been adopted across the nation and world.
Today’s bloodmobiles are fully equipped for blood collection and short-term blood storage, featuring open floor plans, climate control, advanced technology and spacious interiors. They are designed to be more comfortable and enhance the donor experience. The newest bloodmobiles include special features for donors, such as iPads on each donor bed with all of the Red Cross apps and an LCD billboard on the exterior that tells passersby which blood types are currently most needed.
Bloodmobiles travel all over the state every day to fulfill the constant need for blood. From planes, trains and bloodmobiles, the mission of the Red Cross is to ensure patients get the blood products they need wherever they need them, whenever they need them. Some things never change!
Help us celebrate 100 years of Red Cross service in Minnesota. Click here to find a blood drive near you. Click here to share your Red Cross story.
In 1917, as the United States entered World War I, the American Red Cross quickly emerged as the largest social welfare agency throughout Minnesota and across the nation. The community quickly embraced the Red Cross mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors and by the end of the war, 20 percent of all Minnesotans had joined the organization.
This year, as we celebrate a century of service, the American Red Cross Minnesota Region invites individuals and organizations to join us as we prepare for whatever may come in the next 100 years. Click here to learn more about our Centennial Year.
During the past century, we have served millions of people. Through disaster services, we have provided immediate, emergency housing, food, clothing, medical supplies, and essential household items to victims of the more than 600 disasters that occur in the Minnesota Region annually. From preparedness education and health and safety programs to ensuring the daily demand for blood is met, we have worked vigilantly to prepare our communities with the tools and resources that save lives before urgent situations happen. We have supported our military heroes and their families before, during and after deployment and have reconnected families separated by conflict around the globe.
Today, 100 years since our inception, the American Red Cross Minnesota Region stands ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with volunteers and staff on standby to bring comfort, care and relief to victims of disasters or critical emergencies, work as health and safety trainers, and meet demand for area blood supplies.
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.
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.
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
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.