Celebrating local Red Cross heroes

by Suzan Travis-Robyns

The Central Upper Peninsula Chapter of the Red Cross is filled with volunteers who are local heroes, providing disaster assistance, aid to the military and their families and life-saving training for the local community. Headquartered in Marquette, the local chapter encompasses ten counties.
For the second year, the Central U.P. chapter is saluting those who make a difference in their community through their heroes campaign in March, which is Red Cross Month. Development director Annie Stanger said the organization is filled with local heroes, but also needs people who will be heroes for the Red Cross by helping the Central U.P. chapter raise money needed to care for people in the region.
0902loc“The Red Cross is water when you are thirsty, lunch when you’re hungry, a blanket when you are cold and somebody there who is compassionate and gives you a hug,” Stanger said.
Providing emergency services over such a large area is challenging work that keeps executive director Kayla West inspired because of the commitment of volunteers, the core of the organization.
West said the Central U.P. chapter is focusing on rebuilding its volunteer base, providing strong volunteer leadership, accountability, local sustainability and collaboration with other human service organizations.
The most pressing need for volunteers is in Iron, Baraga and Ontonagon counties, she said.
“Untrained volunteers get in the way,” West said. “Well-trained volunteers are priceless. The Red Cross provides the structure and training for people who tend to the human side of disaster.”
Three well-trained Red Cross volunteers are heroes for those in their local areas.

Renee Stamofy of Munising fights fires without a hose or hatchet; compassion and immediate aid are her tools.
Stamofy, 47, is the Red Cross disaster action team leader for Alger County. She balances her role of mother to her children Ian, 14, and Keira, 9, her job as a realtor and her volunteer work as an emergency responder.
Volunteering is a family ethic for the Stamofy family. Renee’s husband serves as a volunteer firefighter in Munising.
Stamofy trained for disaster relief with the Red Cross in 2002. On a bitter cold night, she got a call to meet her volunteer coordinator at a fire in Christmas.
A father and two young sons had been in their trailer home when the fire erupted. The father got the younger son out but when he returned to save his older son, both father and son lost their lives.
When the Red Cross volunteers arrived on the scene, the mother, who had not been home at the time, and her surviving son, were huddled in the back of an ambulance.
“The snow was crystalline that night,” Stamofy said. “The little boy walked barefoot across the snow. He had abrasions on his feet. I knew the mother. I had worked with her many years before. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
Stamofy said people need to be aware of the dangers of house fires.
“Mobile homes are like chimneys,” Stamofy said. “As the wife of a firefighter, the basic knowledge is that you have three minutes to get out of a mobile home.”
She warned that older homes built before updated building codes, with older wiring, and sometimes multiple roof layers, are more at risk of fire than newer homes. Many Munising homes were built at the turn of the century.
Stamofy balances the emotional hardship of being present at disasters with her need to help people.
“I’m one of those people who is OK during the disaster,” Stamofy said. “It’s after the emergency that I fall apart. I guess that’s a good thing.”
Stamofy said she knows several people who became Red Cross volunteers after experiencing firsthand how much the organization can help fire victims.
Stamofy recently has taken on a new commitment for the Red Cross. She is the race director for the Pictured Rocks Road Race. The event formerly was the Pictured Rocks Run for Shelter fundraiser for the Marquette Women’s Center. This is the first year the Red Cross will be taking over the event. Scheduled for June 28, the event will feature a half marathon, 5K run and a fun walk.
“No one else stepped forward,” Stamofy said. “I didn’t want to see it end. I know it will be a lot of work, but it will be fun.”
The race is being dedicated to William Bruce MacNeil, a Wisconsin teacher who regularly participated in the event and died recently of pancreatic cancer.

Don Kopacz, 62, spent more than thirty years as a firefighter in Milwaukee. He retired as a chief officer who worked directing his crew and ensuring the health and safety of everyone involved.
As a firefighter, he saw the Red Cross tending to people whose homes were burning. When he and his wife Jean retired to Escanaba eight years ago, volunteering with the Red Cross seemed like a natural fit.
The experience has opened the eyes of this veteran firefighter to the human cost of fires.
“Firefighting is very physical and strenuous,” Kopacz said. “Now I’m on the humanitarian side. Unfortunately, most of the fires are a total loss. Most (fire victims) are renters who now have only the clothes on their back.”
Kopacz said only about twenty percent of the people the Red Cross helps during house fires have insurance. He recently responded to a trailer home fire where all the family’s possessions were lost.
Kopacz is the disaster action team leader for Delta County. Like all Red Cross volunteers who respond to fires, Don has training in filling out paperwork that ascertains the needs of the family, and the ability to attend to people’s immediate needs by giving them a debit card to cover clothing and food. The Red Cross has agreements with local hotels that allow fire victims to stay at reduced rates, which the Red Cross covers.
After immediate needs are met, the Red Cross refers fire victims to human service agencies who can help rebuild their shattered lives.
“No one thinks a fire is going to happen to them,” Kopacz said. “A smoke detector is like an alarm clock. It just gets you out. It doesn’t put the fire out.”
He noted that with the recent spate of disasters—hurricanes Katrina and Gustav and the California wildfires, the Red Cross is in need of funds.
Local chapters are responsible for raising funds necessary to assist people in their local communities.
“Everybody thinks that the government funds the Red Cross,” Kopacz said. “The services we provide are mandated by Congress, but we receive no government funding.”
Kopacz said his volunteer work with the Red Cross has made him more compassionate.
“I just have a lot of empathy,” he said. “I think: ‘What would I do if I lost everything I have?’ I’m absolutely not hardened.”
The Red Cross has been a strong presence in Yvonne Clark’s life. At 74, Clark had three uncles in World War II, stationed in Europe, Africa and the Pacific.
“My uncle was hurt,” Clark said. “(German Field Marshall Erwin) Rommel blew up his supply convoy in Africa.”
While hospitalized downstate, he was cared for by the Red Cross.
“Mother and Grandma were always talking about the Red Cross,” Clark said. “After that, it just seemed natural to volunteer.”
In 1951-52, she helped run her high school’s campaign for the Red Cross. While serving on the board of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Clark became aware of the Red Cross need for volunteers and stepped up to the plate.
Clark found her volunteer niche assisting military families.
At least one week a month, Clark volunteers for the Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES). The AFES is the only government-approved way to transmit important messages of births, deaths and medical emergencies between military personnel serving abroad and their families. The AFES line is a cell phone that rotates among volunteers. During the day, it is answered at the Red Cross office in Marquette.
In the evening, it is handed off to a volunteer. Clark said most calls come in the middle of the night.
She collects information from the caller, verifies it and then transmits it from the servicemember to his or her family or from the family to the person serving overseas.
“I’ve had families contact me and an hour later, someone was knocking on the door in Germany,” she said. “Sometimes it takes longer, but it helps people. And the paperwork has to be done right. We’re dealing with the government.”
Clark’s only sibling, a brother fifteen years younger, died while serving in Vietnam in 1970. During his service, he received assistance from the Red Cross.
“I suppose that’s my soft spot—people who are in the military—because that affected me,” she said. “I’ve been accused of having red, white and blue blood. When the national anthem came on the car radio, my mother would stop the car along the side of the road and make us stand.”
Clark said the local focus of the Red Cross is important to her.
“We are a community organization to serve ourselves and our community,” she said. “If we don’t take care of our own community, who will?”
Clark said throughout her life the Red Cross has provided meaningful assistance to her family as well as giving her an opportunity to make a difference in her community.

— Suzan Travis-Robyns
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