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.

Holiday Mail For Heroes Undergoes Changes 

Story by Lanet Hane – American Red Cross Volunteer

Holiday Mail for Heroes cards from the 2013  writing campaign. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
Holiday Mail for Heroes cards from the 2013 signing campaign. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

American Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes program is an annual program focused on bringing a little more holiday thanks and cheer to veterans, those currently serving in the armed forces, and their families. Individuals send cards, with handwritten notes of holiday tidings and thanks, to the Red Cross. The Red Cross distributes the cards to those who will most appreciate them during the holiday season. Veteran’s hospitals, Veteran’s homes, and families of currently deployed personnel are frequent recipients of Holiday Mail for Heroes holiday cards.

For the 2014 holiday season, the Red Cross is changing the format of the Holiday Mail for Heroes program to better serve military personnel as well as make effective use of donor resources. Rather than send all cards to a centralized national location, as has been done in the past, the Red Cross is empowering individual Red Cross chapters to collect cards from their own communities. Mike Booth, the Services to Armed Forces Director at the American Red Cross, says this new decentralized approach to the program will continue to be effective, but will reduce the number of financial and human resources.

Mike also emphasizes the fact that this program is designed not only for active military members. While Holiday Mail for Heroes does provide cards for those in active service, the program has a much wider scope. The cards contributed by community members may go to any number of people connected to the military.

Holiday Mail for Heroes card signing event at Neilson Place, Bemidji, MN, November 3, 2014.
Holiday Mail for Heroes card signing event at Neilson Place, Bemidji, MN, November 3, 2014. Photo credit: Linda Barkley/American Red Cross

Because the program is not limited to currently active military personnel, it also provides a unique opportunity for people to partner with the Red Cross in remembering veterans.  Many veterans receiving holiday cards are patients in VA hospitals or residents at State Veteran’s Homes, and have little contact with friends or family. Holiday Mail for Heroes connects these veterans with individuals who have taken the time and care to personalize a holiday card and send it to them in thanks for their sacrifice.

And, while a holiday card may seem a small triviality, they are anything but trivial to those who receive them. “This program continues to hold great value,” says Mike. “The veterans, wounded warriors, and military families who receive these tokens appreciate them in ways that might surprise many of us. For some of these people, one of these cards can really make their day.”

If you plan to participate in this program, please review program guidelines for creating and sending your cards. To ensure card delivery in time for the holidays, the local Red Cross office must receive cards no later than Friday, December 5.

Gardens and Art Bring Color and Life to Veterans

Veteran Bob Hilleshiem and Red Cross worker Mike Booth tend to a garden at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis, July 24, 2013.
Veteran Bob Hilleshiem and Red Cross worker Mike Booth tend to a garden at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis, July 24, 2013.

On a beautiful summer day, Bob Hilleshiem basks in the sun as he waters flowers and tomatoes in the garden at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis. 

“Growing up on a farm, my mother had three gardens that I tended to,” says Hilleshiem, a current patient at the VA hospital.  “I like keeping an eye on the progress the plants make each day.”

Hillsheim is one of many veterans who are able to enjoy the outdoors by cultivating flowers and vegetables in the gardens at the VA Hospital and the Minnesota Veterans Home, also in Minneapolis.

The Veterans Home in Minneapolis received garden supplies from the Red Cross via a Department of Defense grant for direct patient support, July 24, 2013.

“The veterans and their families appreciate the gardens as a place to get out and enjoy nature,” says Shirlee Peterson, Director of Recreation Therapy at the Veterans Home.  “It’s therapeutic for them to get fresh air, dig in the dirt and feel the sun on a nice day.”

The American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program donated the gardening supplies to the veterans hospital and home. Funding for the donation came from a U.S. Federal Government grant of $4,500 for direct patient support for veterans.

Red Cross worker Mike Booth visits with veteran Harold Palm at the Minnesota Veterans Home garden in Minneapolis, July 24, 2013.
Red Cross worker Mike Booth visits with veteran Harold Palm at the Minnesota Veterans Home garden in Minneapolis, July 24, 2013.

The VA Hospital and Veterans Home were given planters of flowers, peas, tomatoes, peppers, beans, herbs, strawberries, mint, and rhubarb.  In addition, the Red Cross provided special ergonomic tools and plentiful amounts of soil. 

The Red Cross also used the grant money to buy art supplies for the VA Hospital in Minneapolis and the Veterans Home in Silver Bay, MN. The art supplies– such as oven-baked clay, painting materials, and model cars– will be used in art therapy programs for the veterans.

“These types of therapy give veterans a chance to use both motor skills and creativity,” says Angie Erickson, an art therapist at the VA Hospital. “All of the supplies are being put to great use and are very generous.”

Click here to learn more about Red Cross services for military members and their families. Story and photos by Shannon Lewis, Communications Intern, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region.