The Hero Care Network Never Sleeps

by Dave Wagner, Public Affairs Volunteer

The voice on the line was barely audible when JoAnne Barsenas picked up the phone. In between sobs, the caller identified herself as the wife of a recently deployed sailor. She had only been married for a few months. She was all alone for the first time in her life. She was barely nineteen. She was pregnant. And she wanted her husband to come home.

JoAnne knew two things as she took a deep breath and moved to a comfortable chair. The first was that this young woman’s husband was not coming home. The second was that it would take some time to calm her and reassure her that everything would work out.

“I was on the phone with her for almost three hours,” recalls JoAnne. “She was scared and alone, away from her family and friends. But we did eventually work everything out. I set her up with a Navy Family Ombudsman, who can be a key resource, particularly during deployments. I was really glad to hear back from her a few weeks later when she called to let me know how well she was doing.”

So what, you may ask, does this have to do with the Red Cross? Well, JoAnne is a volunteer with the American Red Cross Hero Care Network. Hero Care provides emergency communications and critical services to military members, veterans and their families all over the world – 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. These Red Crossers are a critical link for service families, providing confidential assistance and connecting those in need with local, state and national resources.

“When you work in a Red Cross shelter, you meet and help people face to face. With Services to Armed Forces, we have to learn to hug them over the phone.”

Hailing from a military family herself – father, brother, husband, and son – JoAnne is a perfect fit for Hero Care. “I worked for the Navy for 30 years, monitoring and guiding spouses and children in the home care program,” she said. “My dad lost his leg fighting in WWII and our family received a lot of help from the VA. When I retired, I joined Hero Care so I could continue to help and to give back for the help we received.”

Hero Care casework is all done by phone. The national office screens the calls and forwards the information to the closest regional office. About 90% of the calls are for a death in the family, others are for a critically ill family member. The Red Cross is the only organization that the military allows to verify the emergency – through a doctor, hospital or the coroner. The verified information is then sent to the member’s commanding officer, who has the final decision on whether the member will receive leave to come home.

Sometimes though, according to JoAnne, there is no life and death emergency. She’ll pick up the phone and find that the caller just needs someone to talk to. “When you work in a Red Cross shelter, you meet and help people face to face. With Services to Armed Forces, we have to learn to hug them over the phone.”

Working out of the Red Cross office on the base in Port Hueneme, JoAnne and the crew there provide a wide range of services for active military members. In addition to responding to emergency needs for food, clothing, and shelter, they provide referrals to counseling services (e.g., financial, legal, mental health), respite care for caregivers, and other resources that meet the unique needs of local military members. They also support a critical care program for veterans – helping them get medical care at a VA facility, providing information on veterans’ cemeteries and burial benefits, and assisting in preparing and developing applicants’ claims for veterans’ benefits.

While her role with Red Cross Hero Care is rewarding, JoAnne admits that it does take its toll emotionally. “My favorite is when there’s a birth. I get to call and give the congratulations. But the sickness and death are hard. Sometimes I have to put the phone down because I’m crying too.”

“Being in the military is one of the hardest jobs,” she continues. “It’s really tough when families are separated by deployments. Even when they are together, they are moving every three years and having to start over again. Volunteering with the Hero Care Network is one of the best things I’ve ever done. People just need to know that there is someone who cares.”

The Red Cross provides Services to Armed Forces at home and overseas. This photo was taken by Maj. Darrell Melrose at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.

If you are someone with strong listening skills and the ability to work with culturally diverse populations, you can help provide a critical link for families during emergency situations. Click here for more information on becoming a Red Cross Services to Armed Forces volunteer.

For information on the new Hero Care app that puts Red Cross services at the fingertips of military and veteran communities, click here.

¿En Qué Puedo Ayudarle?

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.

Your Local Red Cross Needs You

by Dave Wagner, Public Affairs Volunteer

“The Red Cross responds to more than 60,000 emergencies each year,” said the team leader standing at the front of the room.

‘Yeah,’ I thought, sitting in the classroom filled with new recruits, ‘I’ve responded to a few thousand emergencies myself.’

“The Disaster Action Team provides shelter for people displaced from their homes,” he continued.

‘Okay, I get that.’

“And we connect people with long term recovery services to help them get back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

‘Well, that’s something I didn’t know.’

“Our team is available 24/7, with most of our responses to home fires at night.”

‘Whoa! Structure fires at night?!? I don’t think so!’

After the presentation, I approached the DAT team leader and introduced myself. I recognized him from one of the local cycle clubs. “Maybe the Red Cross is not for me,” I told him. “I was a firefighter and spent 35 years getting up in the middle of the night. I just don’t want to do that anymore.”

A big grin appeared on his face. “I get it,” was his candid response. “We have volunteers from every profession imaginable, even a few firefighters like you. They want to use the skills they acquired during their careers but some prefer to apply them doing something a little different.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly.”

“Well, don’t give up so fast,” he replied. “Maybe DAT is not for you, but there are literally hundreds of different volunteer positions with the Red Cross. Let me set you up with a recruitment specialist so you can sort it all out. Your skill set is too important to the community to lose.”

“The emotion was raw and no one was immune”

Fast forward to a few months later – after a couple more meetings and a few hours of online classes – I was a full-fledged member of the Mass Care team. A text message woke me in the morning on November 8, 2018. Even after reading it a few times, I still couldn’t believe it. Our team was being called out to support the Sheriff’s Dept for a mass casualty incident. The Red Cross had set up a family reunification center at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center. There, we escorted groups of bewildered families through a throng of news reporters to the waiting teams of sheriffs and mental health professionals. “Our son didn’t come home last night,” was what I heard time and again. “We’re pretty sure he was at the Borderline.” The emotion was raw and no one was immune.

Heading home that afternoon, I emerged from the Teen Center and saw the smoke from the Hill Fire to the west in Camarillo. To the east, I could see smoke from the Woolsey Fire just beginning to show over the mountains on the San Fernando Valley side. I wanted to get some sleep because I had scheduled a morning shift at the evacuation shelter in Camarillo. Instead, I ended up fighting fire all night as the Woolsey Fire blew through my own neighborhood. Everyone at the Red Cross completely understood why I didn’t show up at the shelter for my shift –only with my home and family safe could I concentrate on my Red Cross assignment.

I did end up working some shifts at the evacuation shelters for the Woolsey Fire – spending just enough time to know that that was not what I wanted to do either. So, after a couple more meetings and another few hours of online classes, I was assigned as the Public Information Officer up in Ridgecrest for the earthquake. Now that was fun! I set up more than 30 local and national media interviews in the first two days. Since then I’ve refreshed my FEMA certifications and have worked in the Emergency Operation Center as the Red Cross representative for both the Easy Fire and the Maria Fire.

I missed an assignment flying out ahead of Hurricane Dorian because I was on vacation. But that’s the beauty of being a Red Cross volunteer – you work doing what you want, when you want to do it. Want to work with a disaster response team? You can train for that. Just want to spend a few quiet hours a month in the office, warehouse, or out in the community? There are dozens of positions that need to be filled.

The Red Cross says that its volunteers carry out 90% of the humanitarian work they do. I think it is much more than that. There’s only a handful of employees that work alongside our more than 300 volunteers in Ventura County. At incidents, all I ever see are volunteers.

So, whether you want to work behind the scenes or be the boots on the ground, the Red Cross has a position waiting for someone just like you.

Questions about becoming a Red Cross volunteer? It’s easy to get started. Just visit

Volunteers are needed to help support:

• Disaster services
• In-home smoke alarm installations
• Fire safety education visits
• Services to the Armed Forces
• Youth education programs
• Hands Only CPR training
• Procuring and delivering supplies
• Inspecting facilities
• Response vehicle maintenance
• And much more

Red Cross Executive Director Barry Falke Promoted to Division Leadership Team

The American Red Cross Central Valley & Kern County Executive Director Barry Falke has been promoted to Chief Operating Officer of the Pacific Division of the Red Cross. Falke will oversee the operations for Red Cross regions throughout the Pacific Coast of the United States, including California, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and Saipan.

“I am very proud of and happy for Barry to take on a larger leadership role within the American Red Cross,” said Hugh J. Quinn, interim Central California Region Chief Executive Officer. “His commitment to the Red Cross is incredible and he has served the Central Valley Chapter and the Kern County Chapter at a very high level during his tenure.”

As executive director, Falke was instrumental in leading the Central Valley’s ability to respond to and recover from natural and man-made disasters as well as promote the growth, quality and constituency of Red Cross programs and services throughout the community.

Barry Falke, American Red Cross

“During my time as executive director, it was most rewarding to see our volunteers provide comfort and hope for those who have been affected by disaster,” said Falke. “The Red Cross mission is empowering, and I look forward to serving staff and volunteers throughout the Pacific Division.”

Falke recently earned his Master of Business Administration from the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick and is also an alumnus of Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University. He is a graduate of the Disney Institute and in 2009, was named one of Fresno’s Top 40 business professionals under 40. He serves on several community boards including the Whitney Foundation, is a past president of the Leadership Fresno Alumni Association, and was appointed in 2015 to the City of Fresno Housing and Community Development Commission. Prior to joining the Red Cross, Falke served as the Director of Corporate Giving & Mission Driven Business at United Cerebral Palsy of Central California.

In his new role, Falke will continue to be based out of the chapter headquarters in Fresno. In the coming weeks, an interim executive director will be named.

Those interested in joining the Red Cross can apply here.

Honoring Our Volunteers

This week, April 15 – 21, 2018 is National Volunteer Week, and we’re taking the time to celebrate and honor the incredible volunteers that make our Red Cross work possible. Last month we celebrated the occasion early, with Volunteer Appreciation dinners throughout the region. At each event, we invited volunteers to write down their favorite Red Cross moments, memories, and stories.

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Volunteer stories on display at a local office.

This Volunteer Week, we’re letting local volunteers tell these incredible stories in their own words. The following are excerpts from some of our favorite shared stories.

California Wildfires 2017
Ashley, age 18 months, and her mother Crystal find shelter and comfort from the local Red Cross during last December’s Thomas Fire. Photo: Dermot Tatlow, American Red Cross

“When I was a child I stayed in a Red Cross shelter in Northern California. It was during Christmas and I wanted to help the other kids have something to do. I bought coloring books and colored. I always thought it would be great to help others, and here I am more than 30 years later serving my community in a disaster relief shelter during the Christmas season! The seed planted so very long ago was actually a spark that I kept alive in my heart and I am inspired to keep the tradition going.”

“It’s the most professional group of volunteers I’ve ever worked with! Everyone is so dedicated to the effort and will do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

“It’s an amazing organization of humanitarians. Red Crossers are some of the kindest, brightest, most caring folks around and it is an honor to be in the midst of such wonderful people.”

Local Red Cross volunteers partner with the Kern County Fire Department to install free smoke alarms in Kern River Valley homes. Photo: Craig Hayes, American Red Cross

“I truly enjoyed the opportunity to work with Red Cross family members from around the region during our recent responses. Everyone has been so welcoming and there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for accomplishing our mission.”

“My first official Red Cross event was the past January Sound the Alarm event. I was able to go into homes and connect with the families. I was so happy and proud because the people we met were very skeptical of me, but by the end of the visit I felt a bond. And knowing the small task of installing a smoke alarm could do so much for them.”

“It’s great to put something directly into the hands of someone who needs it. One of these times was at the stand down when we gave out comfort kits and backpacks. I almost cried when the vets thanked us for our service!”

Local volunteers tidy up the Red Cross shelter during the January Montecito debris flow in Santa Barbara County. Photo: Ghassan El-Andari, American Red Cross

“In 2017 Visalia Fire had a 3-alarm apartment fire where I was the Battalion Chief in charge of Operations, and then went home to get my Red Cross Disaster Action Team supplies to assist six families that were displaced.”

“I love the sense of community. I’m proud to be part of an organization that helps the community with no strings attached.”

“I had no idea how much the Red Cross does during disasters. It has been a beautiful, eye-opening experience.”

“The Red Cross was giving a helping hand in more ways than I had ever imagined. My biggest surprise is that I seem to be getting back more than I’m giving… the Red Cross has been a tremendous blessing in my life.”

“Seeing neighbors helping neighbors all across the country. The Red Cross brings out the best in all of us.”

“When I was 17 I was involved in a fatal car accident. I lost a lot of blood, and wouldn’t be here today without the help of a blood donor. When I met Jim McGee, and he gave me the full Red Cross story and all the organization does including blood drives, I knew it was a place where I could pour passion and enthusiasm. I am here to help the way I was helped.”

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Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteers distribute “Valentines for Vets” and other goodies on Valentine’s Day at the Fresno VA Hospital. Photo courtesy Sarah Brown Monroe, American Red Cross

 “I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the Red Cross. My Dad was in the US Army at the Battle of the Bulge and was captured by Germans. He was starving. He was a little guy, 5’6” and 145 pounds. He was only 90 pounds when he escaped. Prior to that, the Red Cross sent a box of food for the prisoners each month. If it wasn’t for those boxes of food, he would have died of starvation.”

 “I joined the Red Cross at 13 with my mother, and the first time I deployed it was with my mother! My sister is now a Disaster Action Team volunteer in San Diego County. Red Cross is family in every sense of the word.”

Volunteers make of more than 90% of the Red Cross workforce. The work we do every day to serve our communities would not be possible without their compassion and dedication. Learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer; visit today.

Find out what it’s like to be a Red Cross volunteer. Join us on Saturday, April 28 to Sound the Alarm and #EndHomeFires in Bakersfield, Fresno, or Santa Barbara. New volunteers are welcome and day-of training provided. Visit to learn more.

These quotes have been edited for clarity and grammar.

Celebrating Red Cross Month


Since May of 1881, American Red Cross volunteers have been helping people prepare for the worst, assisting those affected by natural disasters and providing life-saving blood for patients in need. In honor of the heroes who perform these acts of selflessness each day, in 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the first March is Red Cross Month, a tradition that has been carried on by each President of the United States since.

The Red Cross Central California Region has hundreds of volunteers in multiple counties. However, no person’s contribution to their community should go overlooked. That’s why during Red Cross Month the Red Cross is recognizing the country’s everyday heroes. Those heroes who help disaster victims get on the road to recovery, give blood to a patient in need, brighten the day of a service member who is far from home, and take lifesaving CPR/AED/First Aid classes in order to assist someone having a medical emergency.

This willingness by people to donate their time and efforts to help others in need is what makes Red Cross such a special organization. During Red Cross month there are several ways to get involved in helping your community, whether you are a first time volunteer or a long time servant for your community.

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Volunteers hold up the “Golden Smoke Alarm” prize for installing the most alarms at a recent Home Fire Campaign event. (Photo Credit: Eddie Zamora)

One way to get involved is through the Home Fire Campaign. In Fall 2014, the Red Cross set a goal to reduce fire deaths and injuries by 25% over the next five years. Since then, volunteers have spread out across neighborhoods to teach people about fire dangers and provide free smoke alarms to those in need, all in hopes of preventing tragedy. In March, volunteers will meet in Visalia (March 12th), Winton (March 19th), and Santa Barbara (March 19th) to install free smoke alarms and educate families on the importance of fire safety. You can sign up to volunteer for these one day events and help build stronger communities.

Another way to get involved is through the donation of life-saving blood. This includes blood drives at Thousands Oaks Inn (March 7th), Moorpark College (March 8th), Oxnard College (March 8th), Rancho Santa Suzanna Community Center (March 11th), and Ventura City Hall (March 15th). Visit to find an upcoming drive near you.

In San Luis Obispo, join the Red Cross along with Pacific Gas and Electric Company and El Dorado Broadcasting for the annual Preparedness Expo on March 12. Bring the family out for a day of fun and learning, so you’ll be ready for earthquakes, fires, zombies, and more!

5568751404_170c5bba0a_oFriends of the Red Cross in the Santa Barbara area are invited to attend a Red Cross Month reception and happy hour at Benchmark Eatery on Wednesday, March 16 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. RSVP to Also keep an eye on State Street from March 11 through 18, as our traditional Red Cross banners will be waving proudly to mark the occasion.

So join us in honoring everyday heroes like our Red Cross volunteers by celebrating Red Cross Month. Whether it’s through a random act of kindness, making a donation, or participating in volunteer opportunities, take a moment with us this March to celebrate this important work.

For more information on upcoming Red Cross Central California events visit and how to get involved in American Red Cross month, visit


Zach Kramer
Red Cross Volunteer