A Family Tradition: Two Generations of Red Cross Service

This month is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and I would like to share a World War II Red Cross Story that involves my Mom.  It includes cities that are now in the Central California Region, and also highlights AAA partnership with Red Cross.

My Mom passed away in 2004 and I was recently going through a file and found the card and letter among her important papers (birth certificate, passport, etc.), so evidently it was something that was very dear to her.  The picture came from her picture album.

This display of Audrey’s service now hangs in the new Red Cross satellite office in Oakhurst, CA

My mother Audrey grew up in San Francisco, her parents had married soon after experiencing the 1906 Earthquake. When World War II began, my mother, Audrey Stewart was finishing her Master’s Degree in Education at Stanford University in Palo Alto.  Men were heading off to war and many schools were in need of teachers. Audrey was immediately recruited to be a teacher in Santa Maria.

In February 1942, Audrey became a driver for the Santa Maria Red Cross (now Red Cross of the Pacific Coast.  I believe most of her duties were taking Plane Spotters to their locations along the coastal hills. For those of us who grew up on the west coast, our parents would tell us that after Pearl Harbor, there was a real fear that the Japanese might invade cities along the coast.  Volunteers manned observation posts along the coast with the purpose of identifying enemy aircraft in time to prevent future attacks.

Now a volunteer herself, Hilary is proud of the special Red Cross connection to her mother.

Interestingly, I attended a Ready, Set, Respond! Disaster Preparedness Program at the AAA offices in 2013 in Fresno.  I was one of the attendees that later became a volunteer!

Hilary Swartz
Red Cross Volunteer

Hilary is a volunteer for Red Cross of the Central Valley, teaching lifesaving CPR/First Aid courses and providing relief as a disaster responder.

Since our local chapters were chartered in 1917, the Red Cross has been here for the last 100 years when people in Central California needed us most.  Your Red Cross story of the past can be a part of our centennial celebration. Do you have your own Red Cross story to share? Click here to submit it directly online! 135604-central-ca-region-centennial-logo-final-1

Four Ways to Holiday Safety

139711-holiday-campaign-social_1200x1200_hopeIt was Christmas Eve at my Grandmother’s house. Tummies were full of holiday treats, stockings were hung by the chimney with care, and the family was gathered at the kitchen table playing cards. That’s when my Dad smelled the smoke.

“Is something burning?” he asked. Everyone looked up from their cards with concern and started sniffing the air. It did smell like smoke. Dad got up from his seat and followed the scent into the living room. That’s when we heard him shout, “Get some water!”

Everyone jumped up from their seats and rushed to the living room to see what was causing the distress. There, on the table, was my grandmother’s carefully placed nativity set fully engulfed in flames.

Just days before she had so delicately placed the wooden figurines on a bed of angel hair and thoughtfully surrounded it with candles. But it didn’t take much – just a flame catching the slightest wisp of angel hair – to cause the fire to start.139711-Holiday-Campaign-Social_1200x1200_Shelter.jpg

Thankfully we were all home, awake, and able to quickly put the fire out. There was minimal damage, except for the nativity set itself, and we were able to laugh about it for the rest of the holiday and for years to come. But that’s not the case for many families during the holiday season.

With the holidays comes a whole host of safety hazards that often result in disaster. Last year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, the Red Cross Central California Region responded to help  373 families affected by fires, providing relief and comfort to those that  had lost everything.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can help us reduce that number this year. Here’s how.

Get Red Cross Ready

Following a few Red Cross fire safety tips goes a long way to stopping preventable tragedies. Holiday mishaps can happen to anyone, including you and me. So put the odds in your favor by being extra cautious.

This video shows just how quickly a Christmas tree can go up in flames:

Don’t let this be your home this winter. Place Christmas trees, candles, and other holiday decorations at least three feet away from heat sources like fireplaces, portable heaters, radiators, heat vents and candles.

Always unplug the tree and holiday lights before leaving home or going to bed.


Smoke alarms save lives. Install a smoke alarm near your kitchen, on each level of your home, near sleeping areas, and inside and outside bedrooms if you sleep with doors closed. Use the test button to check it each month. Replace all batteries at least once a year.

Find even more holiday fire safety tips from the Red Cross here.

Be a Social Butterfly

Share your favorite tips with your social networks. Share this blog post on social media along with your own holiday hazard story to illustrate the importance of fire safety. Social media users are far more likely to listen to a plea of safety from their own friends and family. So share the love!

Give With Meaning

Make a donation to your local Red Cross and #GiveWithMeaning this year. Stuck on gift ideas for that person who has everything? A gift to the Red Cross in their honor helps to educate families on the importance of fire safety and installs free smoke alarms in local neighborhoods. Plus it provides your loved one with a unique holiday present that they’ll remember for a lifetime.


Find out how your gift helps those in need.

Sign up to Help

On January 14, 2017, we’re hosting three different Home Fire Campaign events in Bakersfield, Fresno, and Oxnard. We’re looking for passionate citizens like you to help build stronger communities by installing free smoke alarms. You don’t have to be an existing Red Cross volunteer to help! Visit redcross.org/cencalhfc to sign up and learn more.

Photo Credit: Eddie Zamora, American Red Cross

If we all just commit to one of these four opportunities for fire safety, our beautiful Central California community will be a much stronger, more resilient place!

From all of us at the Red Cross, have a safe and happy holiday season!

Jessica Piffero
Regional Director of Communications

A One Year Anniversary, A Devastating Loss, A Treasure Found, And Gratitude

Local volunteer Michele Maki is currently on deployment in Gatlinburg, Tennessee as part of the Red Cross response to the deadly wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands. Here is one of many heartbreaking stories Michele has experienced on her journey so far.

Red Cross volunteer Michele Maki comforts Gatlinburg resident Brian Myers as he surveys his destroyed property. Photo Credit: Daniel Cima, American Red Cross

“We bought this home……one year ago-yesterday….. just one year….”, his voice trails off. Brian Myers, young husband and father of two, struggles to maintain his composure after arriving and viewing the ashes of what was once his family’s home.

“It’s gone now….all of it.” Myers pauses a moment, and choking back tears continues, “But we got out. All of us, and we’re safe.”

Brian Myers walks through what remains of his Gatlinburg home after it was destroyed by wildfire. Photo Credit: Daniel Cima, American Red Cross

Myers is the general manager of the Mountain Mall in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Five days ago, he had been watching the press conference about the local fire on the television at work.

“It was the afternoon and everything was okay in our neighborhood, but within 30 or 40 minutes, that all changed. I ran home. My wife and I grabbed our kids and pets, piled them into the car and fled. It all happened just so fast!”

The wildfire destroyed Brian’s Gatlinburg home, melting the slide on his children’s swing-set. Photo Credit: Daniel Cima, American Red Cross

Myers pauses in his conversation starts walking around the rubble of his property, very slowly, kicking aside charred debris and ashes, then suddenly stops. He stoops down and finds a ceramic mug in the ashes. He wipes the ash away and cradles this treasure as tenderly as if he were holding the most fragile flower. He then looks over to what is left of the swing-set belonging to his 4 year old daughter and 12 year old son. The heat from the fire has melted the plastic slide.

It’s a painful reminder of how he and his family’s lives have changed since that afternoon. The holidays are upon us, and one wonders how this family will cope. But Myers instead, thinks of others in his community and adds, “We got ou and we’re all safe. I’m so thankful for that. But there are folks in worse shape than us, and they need a lot of help right now. Thank you to the American Red Cross and to everyone who’s helping us, truly. Thank you.

Michele Maki
Red Cross Volunteer

Assisting people affected by the wildfires is the latest relief response in what has been a very busy year for the Red Cross, which responded to 15 large disasters across the country this year, 50 percent more than in 2015. More than 24,000 Red Cross disaster volunteers from all over the country provided the following this year:

  • More than 200,000 overnight stays in more than 600 shelters
  • Served more than 3.6 million meals and snacks with the help of partners
  • Distributed more than 1.8 million relief items to people affected by these disasters.

This holiday season you can #GiveWithMeaning to provide relief to people affected by disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, floods and countless other crises by making a donation to Red Cross Disaster Relief. Your gift enables the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small across the United States. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Red Cross Workshops Support Local Military Families

To any outsider, the beige hotel ballroom full of people and round banquet tables probably looked like any other conference. But what was happening inside was remarkable.

20161105-reconnection-workshop-cang-fresno-1On this particular day, dozens of local military families were receiving life changing resources to help them cope with deployment. It was all part of a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program event, an effort to promote the well-being of National Guard and Reserve members, their families, and communities, by connecting them with resources throughout the deployment cycle. This event was held specifically for California Army National Guard troops that had just returned from a yearlong deployment in Kuwait. Many of them are also veterans of previous deployments, including Iraq.

“With multiple deployments and the untold stresses of the war zone, these soldiers have faced many challenges and yet now face the distinct challenge of simply returning home,” said Marcella Franklin, Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces Manager.

The American Red Cross plays a large role at these events, hosting programs called Reconnection Workshops. On this particular day, Red Cross volunteers from around the country came together in the Central California Region to host the Communicating Clearly Reconnection Workshop.

“It’s difficult to be away from family and friends for extended periods of time. These people are gone for nine months to a year, so that’s a real separation,” said lead facilitator Tonya Nakashima.

Often, families find themselves feeling like strangers after months of separation. The means of communication at home are often different than those used during deployment. The Communicating Clearly workshop helps participants improve their communication skills to better manage the post-deployment period.

“Family dynamics often change during the soldier’s absence, with partners assuming new roles and responsibilities, children who have grown and matured, and new routines and schedules established,” said Franklin.

Highly trained Red Cross volunteers from around the nation came to the Central California Region to lead the Reconnection Workshop

The Red Cross Reconnection Workshops, which are free and confidential, focus on individual and small group discussion that enhances the likelihood of positive reconnections among family members and others in the community, and the successful re-engagement of service members and veterans in civilian life.

Reconnection Workshops are just one part of the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program. Just last month alone, the local Red Cross helped send 80 emergency communication messages for services members to commands around the world, participated in two stand down events to support homeless veterans, and many more activities to support military families.

Supporting military families is one of the oldest traditions of the American Red Cross. The organization was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton after she witnessed firsthand the need to care for soldiers during the Civil War. Today, the Red Cross is one of the only military non-profits that supports service members from the day they enlist through their time as a veteran.

Learn more about Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Programs and find an upcoming event near you by visiting yellowribbon.mil.

Deployment Diaries from Hurricane Matthew


Central California Regional Communications Director Jessica Piffero is one of thousands of Red Crossers from around the nation that has deployed to the east coast as part of the Hurricane Matthew disaster relief operation. As a Public Affairs supervisor, she is based in South Carolina and leading team of Public Information Officers and storytellers.


Day 2 of my Hurricane Matthew deployment has wrapped up.

My first day was spent in headquarters at the North Charleston Red Cross office. I got to know the incredible team I’m working with from all over the nation and meet some incredible volunteers. The size of the operation is indescribably huge. Cots were lined up as far as the eye could see.

Cots are lined up for cleaning in a parking lot outside of the North Charleston Red Cross office

Today, a volunteer and I traveled to a Red Cross shelter in Beaufort (about two hours south of Charleston) that was housing nearly 300 residents. Volunteers there were doing an amazing job, assisting with everything from filling prescriptions, to playing games with children, to serving hot meals. Everyone genuinely seemed happy and comfortable, despite their circumstances.

Most of the residents in the shelter were from a community called Hilton Head Island. It was one of the last remaining communities under evacuation orders today from the initial impact of the hurricane. When the roads opened at 3:00, my partner and I were there with them as they reentered the island.

From our perspective, many of the houses were luckily saved, even if only by a close call from trees falling just inches away. Downed trees were everywhere, blocking roads, blanketing playgrounds, and resting on roofs. I could only imagine how scary it would have been at night, listening to the snapping of branches all around, the twisting metal creaking, and not knowing if any of it was going to crash through your home.

Downed trees cover the playground at Hilton Head Island Elementary School

Tomorrow I’m off to Myrtle Beach, where I’ll be leading a team on the ground there. Just because the hurricane has passed, doesn’t mean the danger is over. Many rivers in the area are beginning to crest, and thousands more will be impacted. But our Red Cross volunteers are poised and ready to make sure residents are safe and comfortable.


I’ve spent the last two days based at the Red Cross district headquarters in Myrtle Beach. As a supervisor, I’m now leading a team of three incredible volunteers – a great grandmother from Arizona and a couple from the Bay Area. Being a supervisor means I’m spending more time at the Red Cross Emergency Operations Center, coordinating with other leaders and informing the team of communications opportunities in the field.

District Director Lou Palm leads the morning briefing from the Emergency Operations Center in Myrtle Beach, SC

I did get the chance to travel with an Emergency Response Vehicle this evening as they delivered warm meals to impacted neighborhoods. I was able to see firsthand how devastating this hurricane really was. In many cases, residents were lucky to return home with minimal damage. But the power has been out now for several days, which means spoiled food in the fridge. Many low income families that receive food stamps had just purchased their food for the month when Matthew hit. Now, with no money and no food, these residents say that seeing Red Cross volunteers is the highlight of their day.

Red Cross Volunteer Linda Joly from Connecticut passes out warm meals to families in Myrtle Beach

Things have slowed here after the initial impact of the storm. But rivers are now rapidly rising, causing new damage and more evacuations. The next couple days are likely to be tough for our team and the community, but I know we’ll get the job done. We always do.


Some stories are harder to tell than others. The journalist in me knows I have a responsibility to my team and the community to tell the story of Hurricane Matthew. But the humanitarian side of me is heartbroken hearing the stories of devastation.

The hardest story to tell so far has been that of the Johnson Family. Crystal and Tim Johnson have experienced three devastating disasters in the last three years. Like countless other South Carolina residents that live near the Wacccamaw River, the Johnsons were caught off guard by Hurricane Matthew. Now floodwaters continue to rise and are seeping into their home, making it unlivable. Almost exactly one year ago, the Johnsons were impacted by the historic 1,000 year flood.

Conway, South Carolina residents Crystal and Tim Johnson

As if it was not bad enough to endure two consecutive years of flooding, three years ago, in the middle of the night, their home caught fire and burned to the ground. Tragically, Crystal’s father was inside and was killed.

“When my house burned three years ago, a woman from the Red Cross came in the middle of the night to comfort me,” said Crystal, “She stayed with me all night. And now, for each of these floods, I know that the Red Cross is in my neighborhood and will take care of me and my neighbors.”

Mr. Rogers famously once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Looks for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Every day on a major disaster like this one, we come face to face with destruction and heartache. But our volunteers are the bright light in this darkness. They are the helpers, and I am more proud than ever to be a part of this family.

Community Spirit Shines Through Wildfire Relief Efforts

Marcela Freerks points to the Cedar Fire map in the Red Cross Lake Isabella shelter

The smoke grew thick and dark as flames of the Cedar Fire began coming down the side of black mountain towards Marcela Freerks’ home early Saturday morning. Freerks, 68, was having trouble breathing from the smoke when her son encouraged them to leave their home and seek housing at a Red Cross shelter.

In the initial hours of the fire, Freerks and her son prepared and grabbed irreplaceable items including a computer and flash drive full of pictures as well as a painting and small sculpture that had been given to her father.

This is Freerks’ third evacuation in her 10 years living in Silverado Estates. Part of her property was burned by the Way Fire two years ago, which she first reported to the fire department.

“I don’t know what to expect,” says Freerks, “we are not allowed to go see the fire because the flames are about 100 feet from my house, or closer.”

Debby and Kathryn Patton pose for a picture at the Cedar Fire animal shelter, co-located next to the Red Cross shelter in Lake Isabella

Freerks and her son have been staying at the American Red Cross shelter at the First Baptist Church in Lake Isabella since Sunday. She has found a supportive community among the residents and volunteers at the shelter.

“This community is really stressed and in pain, but I am in a place with people who live close to me that I never knew. Now we share a bond and we have the same kind of present destiny,” says Freerks.

The shelter, one of three currently being operated for the Cedar Fire, is housing roughly 27 evacuees. It is being staffed 24 hours a day by Red Cross volunteers, with support from Salvation Army, County services, and other community partners. Freerks admires the work of all the volunteers and firefighters.

“I have confidence in firefighters to save what can be saved, confidence in the county workers to offer comfort and care, and in Red Cross volunteers with their knowledge, physical support, and empathy,” says Freerks.

Red Cross volunteer Russ Huge helps a shelter resident with her math homework

Noticing the struggle of others in the shelter, Freerks met her neighbors with compassion and a warm embrace, expressing the importance of how strong each member of this community is. The shelter is full of conversation, community meetings, sharing of meals, and children playing. In this time of tragedy, Freerks remains positive and gives everyone in the room a reason to smile with her infectious attitude.

The Schilling Family finds relief and comfort in a Red Cross Cedar Fire shelter

“It’s your choice to cry or smile,” mentions Freerks.

The Red Cross has been providing relief and comfort for dozens of residents affected by multiple fires across the Central California Region, including the Cedar, Chimney, Rey, and Bar Fires. There are currently four shelters open supporting families evacuated from the Cedar and Chimney Fires, with additional locations, volunteers, and supplies on standby in the event of additional evacuations.

Cindy Huge & Kate Pifer
Red Cross Volunteers

Local Red Cross Supports Louisiana Flood Relief Efforts

Following record flooding in southern Louisiana, George Dalton turned to the Red Cross for shelter for himself and his two grandchildren, including grandson Stephen Rene, 7. Stephen received toys at the shelter. He says that seeing the flooding the first time in his life was scary. Photo by: Marko Kokic/American Red Cross

The American Red Cross is helping thousands of people in Louisiana affected by the devastating flooding there, likely the worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. More than 7,000 people spent Tuesday night in Red Cross and community shelters, and thousands more are without power in hot, humid conditions.

The state has been hit by 6.9 trillion gallons of rain – enough to fill 10.4 million Olympic pools.12092-024.jpg

Several hundred Red Crossers are on the ground in Louisiana now, and by Friday there will be more than 1,000 workers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 36 volunteers from all over California are responding to provide relief.

Louisiana Floods 2016
Sharon Butler-Walker is a new Red Cross volunteer, who is inspired to help others because “she loves helping” and she says there’s a great need for volunteers. She brought Glenda Hill to her temporary lodging at the Red Cross shelter in Gonzales, Louisiana. Photo by: Marko Kokic/American Red Cross

The Central California Region is doing its part to support not only Louisiana flood relief efforts, but also wildfire efforts affecting our neighboring regions to the north and south. So far this week we’ve sent a total of eight local volunteers to relief efforts in California and Louisiana. Six volunteers from the Central Valley, Kern, and Ventura chapters are in Louisiana supporting shelter operations, health services, and distribution of recovery supplies. Two volunteers, one each from the Central Valley and Ventura chapters, are supporting the Clayton Fire burning in Lake County.

Courtney Robinson (center) is nearly certain that her home is destroyed because of the record flooding in southern Louisiana and a levy breaking along Bayou Conway. She’s staying at a Red Cross shelter with her children and husband. Photo by: Marko Kokic/American Red Cross

The Red Cross and its partners in Louisiana have served almost 100,000 meals and snacks since the onset of the flooding. The Red Cross has also mobilized over 60 disaster response vehicles, nearly 40,000 ready-to-eat meals, and dozens of trailers filled with shelter and kitchen supplies to bolster relief efforts.

Initial reports indicate responding to this disaster could cost more than $10 million. People can donate by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word LAFLOODS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recovery from these disasters.