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Helping the Red Cross Help the Community

By Dave Wagner, Public Affairs Volunteer

Volunteering with the Mass Care team in 2013, David Dees was the only Spanish speaking worker at a Red Cross emergency shelter set up for victims displaced by a structure fire in Oxnard.

“I was completely overloaded,” David recalls. “The fire had destroyed nine structures and we had about 75 people in need of assistance. For most of them, Spanish was the only language they could understand.”

Following that incident, David knew exactly what he had to do. He decided that he would use his wealth of experience teaching Spanish in schools and to first responders to help his local Red Cross chapter better serve the community.

Since 1996, David has been teaching a program that he and his late wife Collette designed to help Ventura County sheriff’s deputies communicate with non-English speakers in emergency situations. Then in 2005, David published the first of his “Quick Spanish” packages – this one for law enforcement personnel. Next was “Quick Spanish for Emergency Responders” – geared towards firefighters and paramedics.

“It’s a humbling experience,” said David. “I believe our program has saved the lives of police officers and good citizens, and helped to put the bad guys in jail. Like everything in life, it’s my contribution.”

Over two decades, the Dees team taught hundreds of deputies, and then firefighters, to bridge the communications gap with the community’s Spanish speaking population. He figured he could tailor this information into a training program for Red Cross volunteers working with the DAT and Mass Care teams.

David developed a curriculum that includes basic vocabulary, along with key words and phrases that the workforce is likely to encounter. The course is taught in two levels, with 16 hours of instruction for each level.

Although the “Shelter Dormitory Registration” form is in a bi-lingual format, the class participates in exercises that help to better understand the questions and answers required to complete this important document. And using scenarios that the Disaster Action Team might encounter, the class developed a Spanish language questionnaire to gather the information needed to best assist families in need.

“I keep coming back every time David teaches this class,” said Trish, a Health Services team member who is just one of the more than 100 chapter volunteers who have completed the course. “David is a very considerate teacher and his patience has been a big help to me. And he has an amazing resume! He’s lived and taught in Spain and in Central America. We’re lucky to have him here for us.”

David has been working non-stop for the last four months. In addition to teaching the Red Cross classes, he is putting the finishing touches on the 2nd edition of the McGraw-Hill Quick Spanish for Law Enforcement coming out in May. All of the content has been upgraded and he has included more scenarios that provide practical phraseology to help get the job done.

¡Que Bueno David! Muchas gracias por todo.

To access the American Red Cross website in Spanish, click here. For more information on David Dees and his Spanish language programs, click here.

Writer, Motivational Speaker, and Red Cross Volunteer – Meet J.D. Slajchert

by Dave Wagner, Public Affairs Volunteer

I immediately spotted J.D. as I approached the coffee shop for our meet up – he kind of sticks out from the crowd. I mean he’s literally a whole head taller than everybody else. I also noticed that he was looking down – just like everyone else sitting at the tables out in front of the shop – but he wasn’t staring at his phone. As I got closer, I could see that he was furiously writing on a pad of lined paper.

“Hey J.D.,” I said, interrupting his concentration.

“Hi Dave,” he said as he looked up with a broad smile. Even though we had worked together at the Red Cross Shelter of Hope event just a few weeks prior, he popped out of his seat and gave me a firm handshake.

“What’s with the pencil and paper?” I asked as I sat down across from him. “You’re a millennial. You’re supposed to be working on your cellphone or a laptop at the very least.”

J.D.’s smile continued to grow as he explained how he’s old school when it comes to his writing, and prefers a pencil and paper over any electronic device. He told me that he handwrites all his notes and first drafts. He even handwrote all 350 pages of the original draft of his novel MoonFlower.

“I think technology can be a distraction,” he mused. “There can be a lot of good to social media but if used incorrectly, it can inhibit the natural interaction between people.”

MoonFlower is his semi-autobiographical story of a college basketball player who must co-parent his chronically ill younger sister. The novel’s debut was interrupted by the Woolsey fire in 2018, and the destruction of J.D.’s family home in that fire.

“After evacuating, I was sitting there with my mom watching the news and we saw our actual house go up in flames.”

“After evacuating, I was sitting there with my mom watching the news and we saw our actual house go up in flames. My mom just kept shaking me, saying ‘J.D., that’s our house,’” J.D. recalls. “I tried to calm her down but it was extremely difficult for both of us. It was one of the lowest points of my life.”

Despite his personal tragedy, J.D. was impressed by the hard work he saw performed by Red Cross volunteers during the disaster. He knew firsthand how a disaster could impact a family and he saw how the Red Cross helped to alleviate that suffering. Even after seeing his own house go up in flames, he decided to donate the proceeds from the sale of the book to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund.

That charitable act did not go unnoticed. Tony Briggs, from the Red Cross Central California Region, met with J.D. and was inspired by the young man’s enthusiasm. Tony invited him to travel the region as a Red Cross Ambassador, imparting his motivational themes across the state. You might remember J.D. at one of the Volunteer Appreciation dinners last year, speaking about how the loss of his best friend inspired him to change his lifestyle and learn to appreciate how both love and loss shape our everyday lives.

A milestone from these speaking engagements occurred at the Bakersfield event last year. “An older gentleman got up to receive the Clara Barton Award,” J.D. related. “In a quiet, hoarse voice he accepted the award in the most humble of ways. He then proceeded to say how much he appreciated all the other Red Cross volunteers that he worked with, never once mentioning himself. I later learned that he had been diagnosed with cancer and given just two years to live. He had spent the next two years volunteering for the Red Cross – what an inspiring story that was for me!”

That inspiration was the motivation for his desire to become more active as a Red Cross volunteer. J.D. says that he would love to learn Mass Care or Disaster Assessment, and maybe even travel to the East Coast to help during the next hurricane season. But, at least for now, there are a lot of other projects that he is working on.

As a director for the LucStrong Foundation, J.D. handles outreach for families with children stricken with Sickle Cell Disease. The foundation is named for his young friend, Luc Bodden, who succumbed to the disease. J.D. has also just finished a screenplay based on the real-life drama of he and Luc.

J.D. tries to incorporate all of these life experiences into his Red Cross presentations. “Having known someone like Luc, who lost his life, and writing a story about it all, I try to put things into perspective for my audiences. Losing your home might feel like the worst thing possible, but if you’re healthy and can wake up every day and put a smile on your face, then maybe you’re really one of the lucky ones.”

So, whether you read his book, watch his movie or bump into him at the next Red Cross event, J.D. Slajchert is sure to make a big impression.

J.D. Slajchert speaks with Channel 11’s Joe Buttitta about his involvement with the American Red Cross in the year following the Woolsey fire.

Red Cross Volunteers Helping Their Neighbors Affected by California Wildfires

By Diane Concannon

The American Red Cross continues to provide relief to people affected by the Woolsey Fire in southern California with shelter, food and comfort. As evacuation orders are lifted and people are able to return to affected areas, the Red Cross is there with them.

Drew and Amanda Haver are two of the more than 900 Red Cross disaster workers helping with California Wildfire relief efforts. The couple, together with a team of volunteers with Disaster Mental Health Services and Health Services, are driving through affected neighborhoods offering emotional support, health services and relief items to help those affected by the Woolsey Fires. Their box truck contains gloves, masks, shovels, rakes and sifters to help people sort through the debris.

Red Cross volunteers discuss available resources with Westlake Village resident.
Red Cross disaster workers Drew and Amanda Haven discuss resources available to help those affected by the Woolsey Fire with a Westlake Village resident. Photo taken on November 16, 2018 in Westlake Village, CA. Art Remnet/American Red Cross.

The sifters are tools, hand-built by volunteers, that help people sift through the ashes to retrieve precious remains of personal property following wildfires. Piles of ash can be shoveled inside, sifting out the ash to help locate materials or belongings that may have survived the fire. The volunteer team communicates important safety considerations as they distribute the sifters.

“Be sure to wear the gloves and N95 mask we’ve provided and have proper coverage of your skin while using the sifter,” Amanda instructs as Drew hands the sifter and other supplies to a young man whose home was lost to the fire.

Sifters can provide a meaningful activity for people to focus on when going through the shock of the loss after a fire.

Red Cross volunteer deliver sifters during supplies distribution in Westlake Village.
Red Cross disaster worker Drew Haver provides a sifting box and breathing masks to a resident whose Westlake Village home burned during the Woolsey Fire. Photo taken on November 16, 2018, in Westlake Village, CA. Art Remnet/American Red Cross

Amanda and Drew, who live in Westlake Village and are both teachers at local schools, began volunteering with the Red Cross after last year’s Thomas Fire along Central California’s coast. They were moved by the work of the organization and wanted to join the efforts to assist their community.

The couple needed to evacuate their home as the Woolsey Fire raged toward their neighborhood early on. Grateful their home was spared, the couple has been volunteering with the Red Cross, visiting affected communities, distributing relief supplies and checking in on their neighbors.

“Our schools are closed while they’re being cleaned following the fire,” said Amanda. “We felt helping our community with the relief efforts would be the best use of our free time.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP Entire communities and families have been left reeling from these deadly wildfires. Help people affected by the California wildfires by visiting redcross.org, calling 1- 800-RED CROSS or texting the word CAWILDFIRES to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from these disasters.

HELP IN TRYING TIMES Disasters are upsetting experiences for everyone involved—especially when they cause such massive devastation so close to the holidays. This is a time for people to come together and support one another.

  • Mental health experts recommend finding a balance with regard to media coverage. It’s important to stay informed while also limiting exposure, especially for children.
  • Also, be patient with yourself and others. It’s common to have any number of temporary stress reactions such as anger, frustration and anxiety.
  • To reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support, contact the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746.


Featured photo: Photo taken on November 16, 2018, in Westlake Village, CA. Diane Concannon/American Red Cross.

Keeping Pets and Owners Together in Wake of the Ferguson Fire

Red Cross and CCADT shelter over 500 pets of wildfire evacuees

[Photo Credit: American Red Cross]

Fleeing from wildfires can be traumatic and having pets close has been proven to reduce stress and comfort owners driven from their homes by fire. This inspired Katrina Poitras, Central Valley Red Cross Disaster Program Manager, working with Naomi Slam at the Central California Animal Disaster Team (CCADT), to provide emergency pet shelter at select Red Cross shelters.

Evacuees won’t have to shelter separate from their pets, as the Red Cross tests out the new shelter model with pet shelters serving Madera, Mariposa, and Merced counties. Housing evacuees with their pets has been shown to lower stress level of humans and animals alike.

Pet owners staying at the shelter are responsible for the care and feeding of the pets cohabitating with them. CCADT CEO Naomi Slam recommends owners bring a few key items with them to the shelter: “Bring your pet’s carrier, ensure they’re up to date with vaccinations, and bring their preferred food… so there aren’t any upset tummies.”

The practice of cohabitating pets and owners in shelters was implemented at the Ferguson Fire’s New Life Christian Fellowship shelter and expanded upon moving to the Mariposa Elementary School shelter due to the increase in both shelter evacuee and pet populations.

Interviews with shelter residents confirmed the effectiveness of the new shelter plan and the calming effect of having personal pets in the same shelter with them.

The presence of pets also increased bonding among shelter residents and volunteers, and kept children occupied through playing with and learning about the various animals.

Learn more about general pet first aid during emergencies, plus how to plan for your pet before disaster strikes. Download the Red Cross Pet First Aid app for more tips.

Red Cross Delivers Letters of Love to Firefighters Battling the Ferguson Blaze

By Will Washburn & Jillian Robertson

Firefighters come from far away to battle wildfires burning across the state. This means faster response to out of control blazes, but it also means long separations from friends and loved ones. The Red Cross Central Valley chapter is working to change that.

Katrina Poitras, Red Cross Central Valley Disaster Program Manager, and Laura Norman, president of Eastern Madera-Mariposa Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster (VOAD), partnered two years ago to launch the Postcard Project. The project provides postcards to family and loved ones of firefighters, then gathers stamps donated from the community, and delivers them to the men and women on the front lines.

Photo Credit: Taylor Poisall

Since its creation, the program has sent postcards from loved ones to firefighters responding to multiple fires, including last year’s Detwiler fire, and from the look of things, the program will live on long after this year’s fire season is over. Most recently, it gathered and delivered 1,500 postcards from family and friends of firefighters battling the Ferguson blaze near Yosemite National Park. Another 1,500 are currently being distributed.

Local businesses, including resorts and hotels saved by previous fires donated thousands of postcards, which featured pictures of Mariposa, Yosemite, and Bass Lake, and members of the community donated stamps, making this project truly of and by the community it serves.

Photo Credit: Taylor Poisall

The postcards were even stamped, in many cases, by the evacuees themselves to give to the firefighters, according to Lynn Northrup, a Red Cross emergency vehicle driver and Mariposa government liaison.

“What was special about the project was that even though there was a fire in our area, the postcards were a reminder to come back and visit when it was beautiful again [like it was pictured on the postcards].”

Poitras hopes to expand the program nationally, to include first responders not only to wildfires, but also to hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters across the country.

To support the program by donating postcard stamps, click here.


Get Prepared California! Auction

Auction-Graphic.pngWith an unprecedented amount of large-scale natural disasters over that last several months, many striking right here in California, we’re even more grateful for our volunteers, donors and partners. This incredible level of response demonstrates the need for preparedness and what it means to have a kit, make a plan and be informed. And, while we are fortunate that we did not have to respond to a major California earthquake through all of this, being prepared for an earthquake of any size should always remain a top item on all of our lists.

One long-time Red Cross partner, the California Earthquake Authority,  places a high priority on educating California homeowners and renters about how to stay safe during an earthquake, and how to reduce the risk of earthquake damage and loss. One of the programs they promote, the Brace & Bolt Retrofit, stands to benefit qualifying California residents with critical financial assistance in preparing for earthquakes.

For qualified persons, the Brace & Bolt Retrofit will cover up to 50% of the cost of retrofitting a California home for earthquakes. More specifically, expenses cover the bolting of a home to its foundation to keep it from sliding off during an earthquake, and a subsequent bracing of the house’s supports. CEA’s program also provides homeowners with a list of qualified retrofit contractors.

But, that not all. Each year, CEA plays an instrumental role in the Great California Shake Out and, every year since 2012 they have shown their commitment to Red Cross emergency preparedness and disaster relief by hosting the Get Prepared California! Auction.

This year, the auction runs from April 2nd to April 30th and, as in the past, it will raise funds to help support American Red Cross disaster relief and preparedness efforts—right here in California.

The money raised will help us distribute blankets, provide hot meals at shelters or out in communities affected by a disaster via our Emergency Response Vehicles and, offer hygiene items to people who may have lost everything.

Thanks to the generous support of bidders and the efforts of CEA and iHeartMedia, after six years, the funds raised to date by the annual auction have exceed $1 million dollars—with more than $171,000 being raised during the 2017 auction, alone.

Check out just a few of the incredible prizes you can win at this year’s auction:

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Please, join our local Red Cross in helping to make this year’s auction a great success. Visit the official Get Prepared California! Auction webpage beginning April 2 to bid and please, share this link with your friends, family and loved ones.

Youth Volunteers Raise Money for Disaster Relief

On a bright and sunny Saturday, March 31st at Oak Canyon Community Park in Ventura County, CA, I had the honor of joining local Red Cross event-base volunteers Anurag Karra (North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet High School), Sriram Potluri (Oak Park High School), and Aneesh Ankareddy (Oak Park High School) for a 5K Walk-a-Thon.


The youth-led event benefited American Red Cross Disaster Relief as a local community response to the Thomas Fire in December 2017-January 2018.  After what I considered very little back-and-forth on getting the event organized, these young men pulled off a high quality fundraising event that was successful from various points of view, including number of participants, food and refreshments, and money raised for the Red Cross. Anurag, Sriram, and Aneesh even expressed a desire to hold a similar 5K Walk-a-Thon event next year, or they even may lead a smoke alarm installation event in Ventura County!


Did you know? 25% of Red Cross volunteers are age 24 years or younger. Being young is no barrier to being able to help people in need, in your community and around the world! Youth volunteers and Red Cross Clubs throughout the region play a vital role in serving the Red Cross and our community. They raise funds for everything from local disaster relief to the international Measles Initiative, as well as educate their local communities on emergency preparedness. These dedicated Red Crossers learn lifelong skills through their volunteerism, and provide important services to our most vulnerable communities.


Learn more about youth volunteer opportunities in your local Red Cross chapter. Inspired by these teens’ philanthropy? Consider making a donation or let us know your fundraising ideas in the comments!

Morris Franklin
Regional Philanthropy Officer
Pacific Coast and Ventura County chapters