Friday, November 17, 2017

Too Long Alone - Restoring Family Links

Story and Photos By Karen Baldwin, Red Cross Restoring Family Links Caseworker

When I first met Shadia, it took only that first sight to halfway break my heart. She seemed young – VERY young. She had that slender, delicate look that makes one want to encircle her within a protective embrace. Huddling her arms close about herself, she sat hunched at the single, tiny table in her bare-as-bones one-room apartment. She bore the saddest expression on her beautiful young face, framed by a bright hijab – the only spot of brightness in the room.

Glancing around as we settled ourselves to talk on one of only two (hard) chairs, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of any curtains on the window, and the small, ragged futon sofa that clearly doubled as her bed -- the sole remaining content of the room. The other half of my heart broke to see this young girl in these circumstances.

Shadia’s ‘Restoring Family Links’ file revealed the terrible circumstances of her escape. Her mother had died giving birth to her twin sisters, Salma and Salha. Her father had been killed while serving in the Burundi military. She and her sister Hafsa, and the little twins, began living with her grandparents, two cousins and her Aunt, whose husband had been involved in politics and murdered because of it. But their home of Bujumbura, Burundi, was a still torn by civil war.

Shadia, then only 14, was at the market with her little sister Hafsa, her aunt and cousins when a rebel attack arose. In the midst of gunfire and violence, and not daring to return home, they fled, not even knowing if the rest of the family had gotten away. With the continuing gunfire and violence in the streets, it was unthinkable to consider returning home even after a little time had passed, as the danger had not. (Indeed, much later she would learn that her grandparents, still at home, had been murdered.) On foot, the little family troupe faced a journey of over 1500 kilometers to reach the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, far to the northwest. Prospects looked bad for a woman alone with four young children and no resources.

Long days spent traveling the road brought them to the refugee camp. But Shadia’s aunt was overwhelmed by all that had happened. After just a few months, her aunt stole away in the night with her own two children and all their belongings, leaving the two sisters confused and abandoned. After sleeping for a time in the camp’s refugee reception area, the officials eventually placed them with various foster families in the camp. A year later, 16-year old Shadia stayed home sick from school, one day, and her 10-year old sister went off to class as usual … but never came back.

Shadia, sick with grief and fear, searched desperately for her sister. In the camp. In the nearby town. With the camp officials. With the town’s police. But there was no word, no witness. Hafsa had disappeared without trace.
Shadia feared that everyone in her family had been killed, kidnapped, or both. She could not help but think with heartache of her tiny twin sisters, left behind those awful days ago. And wondered why someone had taken Hafsa from her, her sole remaining hearts’ tie. She had lost everything and everyone she had ever known.

But time passes, as it must, and two years later, Shadia was allowed to emigrate, alone, to the United States late in 2014. Shortly after, she was referred to the Red Cross Restoring Family Links team in Denver in hopes of finding her missing family members.We stayed in touch with Shadia providing both a shoulder to lean on and a sympathetic ear to the displaced young girl. Even here, Shadia had it rougher than most. She was placed with a family that had neither room nor much patience for her, but at least let her sleep on their couch. She soon ended up homeless, moving between the homes of school friends.

Through all this, Shadia somehow continued to attend school, learn English, keep up with her lessons, and learn to negotiate a sometimes baffling culture that does not always welcome people like her. She took care of herself as best she could. One day, while exploring yet another place to stay temporarily, a teacher at her school overheard and offered help. That teacher changed things for Shadia. She found Shadia a subsidized low-rent apartment and even picked up the extra expense for it that Shadia had no way to pay.

All her perseverance, though, could not allay her deep sadness. When I met her, her face was full of pain, her eyes were downcast and would not meet mine, her arms wrapped close around herself. Despite all she’d survived, and all she’d accomplished for herself, she was still utterly alone in the world, and clearly felt it.

The Search Begins

Not every search is a straight line. With the help of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) we continued to search for her family for two years. After so long with either no tidings at all, or leads that hadn’t panned out, in June 2016, we at the Red Cross finally had good news for her … the Red Cross in Africa sent word that her paternal Aunt had been found, and this aunt knew where all three of Shadia’s sisters were -- I was so filled with anticipation to be able to tell her so!

Hearing the news that day, Shadia’s face awoke in light – her arms unwrapped from about herself and her hands raised to Allah together with her eyes. Her entire body seemed to unfold itself and a half-moon smile flashed large in relief and joy across her face. We celebrated, together.

But even then, we weren’t entirely out of the woods. Shadia did not know this ‘Aunt’ we had found, and doubt crept back into us when that Aunt proved unwilling to share the location of her sisters, and asked Shadia for money to travel to Rwanda. She refused to share phone numbers or addresses or the names of those with whom Shadia’s sisters were living. In our uncertainty, we at the Red Cross feared the possibility of an opportunistic stranger impersonating family and pressing for monetary gain (not, after all, an unknown exploit).

But we got lucky – the Burundian Red Cross had contacted a former neighbor who’d moved into the girls’ original home, and that kind woman knew where another of Shadia’s aunts – her maternal Aunt Betty, was living. She contacted Aunt Betty to tell her Shadia had long been searching for her sisters. Through a phone call, Shadia received the happiest, most exciting word that she had an aunt she’d never even known as a child, and not only that, all three of the missing sisters were there. But even so, Shadia wasn’t yet able to confirm things by actually speaking with her long-lost sisters.

Time for the American Red Cross Phone Project!

Robbe Sokolove and I went back to Shadia’s apartment, once again. This time, even that small room seemed to have bloomed together with Shadia’s spirits. Not only had it been furnished with a real bed, a beautiful desk, some comforts and curtains and brightness, but Shadia even had a laptop computer for schoolwork, and had found a job. With her teacher’s help, Shadia had obtained financial aid, and gained admittance to a college in Denver, where (she told us proudly) she was soon to begin studying aeronautics and pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot.

With a mix of hope and trepidation, we sat with her to place the call to her sister.

There they were! All three of Shadia’s sisters were living with their Aunt Betty, happy and healthy and each attending school. Shadia chattered joyfully with each of them in turn, beginning the process of re-connecting and catching up.

Shadia’s sisters were as happy to hear from Shadia as she was to hear their voices. And her family has now expanded to include her Aunt Betty. We could see the joy and excitement visibly radiating throughout Shadia’s whole being as they finally spoke together, after so many years apart.

Thanks to her teacher, the Red Cross, and her own strong will, Shadia’s future has been entirely changed – not only in the opportunities she has found here, but in the joy of reunion with her long-lost sisters and Aunt. No longer alone, no longer anguished, no longer destitute, the future for her looks bright, as bright as her eyes now shine when we see her.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Celebrating Veterans Day...Every Day

Story by Bill Fortune, a veteran and a Red Crosser

Veterans Day is a day to recognize the sacrifices that members of our armed forces have made throughout America’s history. It began as Armistice Day following the end of WWI. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day saying, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.”

After WWII, Americans saw the sacrifices that again were made to protect our freedom and witnessed again during the Korean War. The voices rose to have Armistice Day become more inclusive of all the sacrifices that have been made and that will be made. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law that made the name change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Since that time our resolve has been tested on many occasions and our freedom remains in tact and our appreciation for those who have served remains unwavering. 

Father/Daughter photo from our story about Red Cross
support no matter what your rank.
Across America there are ceremonies, parades and events commemorating all veterans for their sacrifice in the protection of our freedom.

Celebrating Everyday
The American Red Cross celebrates Veterans Day every day of the year through our Service to Armed Forces program. Many of our Red Cross volunteers are veterans who recognize the value of Red Cross services and the importance of caring for those who serve in our armed forces.

A photo from our story about a letter
home from Vietnam
Every day, the Red Cross provides hundreds of global emergency communications services that serve to connect a service member to a family back home. Every day our volunteers provide comfort and care to thousands of veterans at military treatment facilities and veteran hospitals and clinics across the country and around the globe. Every day we partner with military support organizations to help our military members and their families cope with deployments and to rebuild their lives after deployment.  Every day we provide access to financial assistance to military members and their families. Every day we provide community outreach and conduct resiliency courses and workshops for military members and their families.

Whenever possible we like to post stories on this blog about military members, family members and veterans and how the Red Cross has supported them. 

Here is a list of recent stories showing how we thank our veterans through service:

Every day we recognize and remember the sacrifice. Every day we are here for our service members, their families and our veterans and every day we salute them for making our lives safer.

Thank you to all who have worn the uniform and especially to those that have made the ultimate sacrifice. You are in our hearts, every day. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Red Cross Assists 166 People After Disaster in October; Thanks Partners for Support.

American Red Cross of Colorado & Wyoming, November 6, 2017 — Every day, volunteers continue to meet the needs of individuals and families who have suffered from disaster. In the past 5 weeks, 166 people needed our assistance. In addition to the response, we are also helping people prepare.

Did you know that if a fire starts in your home you may have as little as two minutes to escape? During a fire, early warning from a working smoke alarm plus a fire escape plan that has been practiced regularly can save lives.The American Red Cross announced last week that one million smoke alarms have been installed and 285 lives have been saved due to the efforts of the volunteers and community partners who have participated in the organization’s Home Fire Campaign.

“Since 2014, Red Cross volunteers in the Colorado & Wyoming Region and across the country have been working with local fire departments and community partners to reduce home fire tragedies in at-risk communities,” said Gino Greco, American Red Cross Regional CEO.  “We are grateful to everyone who has supported our Home Fire Campaign and helped us reach our one-millionth free smoke alarm milestone and save lives.”

Locally, thanks to support from local fire departments and community partners, we installed nearly 1,500 smoke alarms in communities across the Region; between Sept 23 – Oct 14, 2017. We want to take this opportunity to say 'thank you' to some of our partners who not only helped us with smoke alarm installations, but continually are the link between those in need and our Disaster Action Teams. When a home fire occurs, we are there because you identify the need and call us to respond. This THANK YOU goes out to our Fire Department Partners. We truly are better together! 

Breakdown of the CO & WY 87 county service area:

Mile High Chapter (MHC): 46 individuals received aid; more than 23 were under 18 years old. The MHC response area includes 10 counties in the Denver Metro area. 

Southeastern Colorado Chapter (SeCO): 48 individuals received aid; 2 were age 65 or older while 12 were under 18 years old. The SeCO response area includes 16 counties.

Northern Colorado Chapter (NoCO):  16 individuals received aid; 4 were under 18 years old and 1 was age 65 or older. The NoCO response area includes 11 counties.

Western Colorado Chapter (WeCO): 19 individuals received aid. 10 of those helped were under 18 years old. The WeCO response area covers 27 counties, serving all western Colorado and the San Luis Valley.

Wyoming Chapter: 37 individuals received aid; 10 were under age 18 and 3 over the age of 65. The Wyoming Chapter response area covers all 23 counties that make up the state of Wyoming. 

The families and individuals were provided a place to stay, money for clothes, food and medicine. Along with providing casework for the residents in a quick and efficient time frame, Red Cross volunteers will continue to provide support to these families going forward, by doing follow up work to ensure all needs are met and the individuals have a clear path to recovery from this personal disaster.

About the American Red Cross:The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Turn and Test

It has been an incredibly busy year for all of us and some of us are amazed that it is already November and time to change our clock from daylight savings time to standard time. Time to TURN and TEST!

Daylight Saving Time ends this Sunday, November 5 at 2:00 a.m., so remember to TURN your clocks back one hour before you go to sleep. While tackling the clock changing, the American Red Cross reminds everyone it’s the perfect time to TEST the batteries in their smoke alarms too.

Home Fire Campaign A fire in someone’s home is the greatest disaster threat we face. During a home fire, smoke alarms help save lives. If you don’t have them, install them. At a minimum, put one on every level of the home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Check local building codes for additional requirements. If you have smoke alarms, test them to make sure they are working. If they are ten years old, replace them.

The Red Cross responds to nearly 64,000 disasters every year – the majority of which are home fires. That means that every day in this country, on average, seven people are killed in a home fire and another 36 people suffer injuries. To end these tragedies and save lives, the Red Cross launched a nationwide Home Fire Campaign in 2014 with the goal of reducing the number of home fire deaths and injuries by 25 percent.

The campaign is making a difference. As of July 31, 2017, the Red Cross and our partners have saved at least 285 lives through the Home Fire Campaign. The campaign is happening all over the country and involves Red Cross workers joining with local fire departments and community groups to visit neighborhoods at high risk for fires. Those visits include educating people about fire safety through door-to-door visits and installation of smoke alarms in some of these neighborhoods. Find out more here.


While you’re at it, this weekend is also a good time to take these steps to make sure your household is prepared for emergencies.

  • Check carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Get a kit. Build an emergency kit in an easy-to-carry tote that contains supplies for about three days, to include a gallon of water per person per day, non-perishable food, a flashlight and extra batteries, a first aid kit, medications and copies of important documents. Full details are available here.
  • Make a plan. Have all household members plan what steps they should take if an emergency occurs so everyone knows what to do in a crisis.
  • Be informed. Learn what emergencies can occur in the area and how officials notify residents should a disaster occur. Take a First Aid and CPR/AED course.

You can visit to find out more about how to protect yourself and your loved ones from fire or contact your local Red Cross to find out about smoke alarm installation events in your community. You can also help by volunteering your time or making a donation to Red Cross Disaster Relief by visiting, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations to Disaster Relief will be used to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Safety!

Have a fun and safe time trick or treating this Halloween!

1. Remember, do not go into a home when trick or treating. Stay outside and wait for the treat.
2. Make sure that you have plenty of lighting and that goes for the "trick or treater" and for the home and neighborhood.

3. Take care of your pets. Bring them inside and remember chocolate and other candies are not good for pets.

4. Dress for the weather by putting some extra layers underneath the costume.

Parents, you can do double duty with this week's preparedness and safety post:

Work on your kids' ABC's while going over some Halloween safety before doing your annual candy-hunting next week.  While costumes, masks, pranks and fun are all part of Halloween, there are some great tips here for keeping your holiday fun and festive.  Courtesy of the CDC website.

Alphabet letter SSwords, knives, and similar costume accessories should be short, soft, and flexible.
Alphabet letter AAvoid trick-or-treating alone. Walk in groups or with a trusted adult.
Alphabet letter FFasten reflective tape to costumes and bags to help drivers see you.
Alphabet letter EExamine all treats for choking hazards and tampering before eating them. Limit the amount of treats you eat.
Alphabet letter HHold a flashlight while trick-or-treating to help you see and others see you. Always WALK and don't run from house to house.
Alphabet letter AAlways test make-up in a small area first. Remove it before bedtime to prevent possible skin and eye irritation.
Alphabet letter LLook both ways before crossing the street. Use established crosswalks wherever possible.
Alphabet letter LLower your risk for serious eye injury by not wearing decorative contact lenses.
Alphabet letter OOnly walk on sidewalks whenever possible, or on the far edge of the road facing traffic to stay safe.
Alphabet letter WWear well-fitting masks, costumes, and shoes to avoid blocked vision, trips, and falls.
Alphabet letter EEat only factory-wrapped treats. Avoid eating homemade treats made by strangers.
Alphabet letter EEnter homes only if you're with a trusted adult. Only visit well-lit houses. Don't stop at dark houses. Never accept rides from strangers.
Alphabet letter NNever walk near lit candles or luminaries. Be sure to wear flame-resistant costumes.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Big Picture; An overview of the last eight weeks

In the last eight weeks, the American Red Cross has launched wide-ranging relief efforts to help people devastated by three historic, back-to-back hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria. We have supported the community of Las Vegas after the tragic shooting, and now, the Red Cross is helping thousands of families affected by the deadliest week of wildfires in California history. The Red Cross is on the ground, part of a large team of agencies and organizations responding to provide help to communities turned upside-down.

The response is massive and the needs are great. In the last 65 days, the Red Cross has sheltered more people than it has in the last 5 years combined. A total of more than 16,800 trained disaster workers, 91 percent of them volunteers, have been mobilized to support relief efforts. Many of these workers have supported multiple relief operations or deployed multiple times. Of those workers, nearly 250 are from right here in the Colorado & Wyoming Region and the opportunity and expectation that we will send more volunteers is anticipated to continue through the holidays as these communities move toward recovery.

California Wildfires
  • Since the fires began, the Red Cross, community and government partners have provided more than 27,800 overnight stays in emergency shelters.
  • With the help of partners, the Red Cross has served more than 159,000 meals and snacks, and provided more than 11,700 mental health and health services to support and care for those affected.
  • The Red Cross has distributed more than 129,000 emergency relief items such as masks, gloves, rakes, trash bags and comfort kits containing deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other hygiene items to people in need.
  • To help people recover and get back on their feet, the Red Cross has opened more than 580 cases, reaching more than 1,400 people.

Hurricane Response Efforts (Harvey, Irma and Maria)
With the help of partners, the Red Cross has served more than 6.7 million (6,768,000) meals and snacks—that’s more food than the past 4 years combined. Additionally, we have distributed more than 4.9 million (4,935,000) emergency relief items to people in need. Red Cross volunteers have provided more than 197,600 mental health and health services to support and care for those affected.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Red Cross disaster workers heading to U.S. Virgin Islands

Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as Puerto Rico. The Red Cross has been on the ground since the very beginning providing food, water, medical and other immediate needs. Nearly 720 Red Cross disaster workers have supported the relief efforts and it is expected to be a long recovery for the millions of people affected by the storms.
Red Cross disaster responders at the Red Cross office
on St. Thomas, USVI. Photo American Red Cross

Red Cross disaster workers continue to deploy to the region to replace those that have been working diligently.

Colorado and Wyoming Red Crossers will be deploying this week to the U.S. Virgin Islands:

Mary Crawford is deploying to St. Croix. She will support staffing services that provides support for our deployed responders. Mary is a long-time volunteer with the Mile High Chapter in Denver.

Larry Cornett is deploying to St. Thomas. He will support the logistics effort getting supplies onto the island and then distributing them to those in need. Larry is the Disaster Program Manager working from the Red Cross office in Pueblo.

Cindi Shank is deploying to St, Thomas. This will be her second deployment to the island. She deployed originally for Hurricane Irma support and endured the Hurricane Maria landfall. She is the Disaster Program Manager for the Red Cross of Wyoming and is from Gillette, WY.

Rodger Ortiz is deploying to St. Croix. Rodger is from Pueblo and is a relatively new volunteer with the Red Cross of Southeastern Colorado. This will be his second deployment following a deployment to support Hurricane Harvey response. Rodger will support the sheltering effort on St. Croix.

The latest news release about our response to Hurricane Irma is at Hurricane Irma One Month Progress Report.

The video below is a short example about the Red Cross response on the U.S. Virgin Islands. Courtesy American Red Cross.