Celebrating Austin’s Diversity

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By Judy Abelman, American Red Cross Public Affairs Volunteer

On Sunday, May 6 the smells of popcorn, gyros and strawberry snow cones joined the sounds of languages from across the globe, laughing kids and shouting teammates at Givens Park in east Austin. Welcome to the third-annual Austin Refugee Day Festival.

Since 1975, the U.S. government has welcomed over 3 million refugees for resettlement from all over the world and these refugees have built new lives and homes in all 50 states.  Including Texas of course.  Austin has about 12,000 refugees, primarily from Bosnia, Burma, Cuba, Sudan and Vietnam.

Red Cross staffers Reihaneh Hajibeigi and Ivana Krejci joined volunteer Izadora Martinez to make this a day to remember for refugees and their families.  They partnered with eight other organizations including Amaanah Refugee Services, Caritas, Catholic Charities Central Texas, GirlForward, Interfaith Action of Central Texas, Multicultural Refugee Coalition, Austin Soccer Foundation and Cece’s Veggie Noodle Company on the thousands of details that needed to be considered to pull off a successful event.

And successful it was.  While the kids jumped on bouncy castles, played games and had their faces painted, a heated competition played out on the soccer field as ten teams kicked their way toward one of two money prizes!  According to Reihaneh, “Soccer is the sport that unites everyone across the world.”

Snacks were supplied by the partners, and the presence of a Gyro truck run by Syrian refugee Ahmed Alzahoori ensured that there would be Halal options for any Muslims at the event.  And the entire event was free to the community.

Tables from participating organizations described the resources available to Austin refugees and migrants.  And attendees could “experience” what it feels like to be a refugee from Latin America – with a simulation that took you from the beginning of the journey in your country of origin, through detention centers, bus stations and finally to hosting families.

Reihaneh added, “Hosting this event is parallel with our Austin identity.  We celebrate what makes us unique.  This event is especially important today so that we can demonstrate that we stand with refugees in our community.”

Want to get involved with the Austin Refugee community?  Reach out to reihaneh.hajibeigi2@redcrossorg or ivana.krejci@redcross.org.  There are great volunteer opportunities in the community such as be an advocate, teach English/tutor, resume writing and job search, provide transportation and help reconnect families.


Five Things You Should Know About Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces in Central Texas

By Judy Abelman, Volunteer Contributor


A few weeks ago on yet another dreary February day, I took a road trip out to Fort Hood to learn more about Red Cross Services to the Armed Forces (SAF). Having never stepped foot on an army base, I had no idea what to expect.

The first thing that hits you is the sheer size of the base –38,000 troops that swells to 100,000 people when you count in all their dependents. No wonder it’s the second largest army base in the world. And it’s right here, just an hour outside of Austin in Killeen, Texas.

Gigi Winburn (center) with fellow Red Cross staffers Sharron Gilkey (left) and Hansel Delgadillo (right) at the 2017 Fort Hood Red Cross holiday party.

Gigi Winburn – an engaging Red Crosser who is a prior military spouse and proud Army mom – runs our office at Fort Hood. Gigi volunteered with the American Red Cross for 10 years before taking a staff job in Dallas in 2015 and then recently transferred to Fort Hood. She was thrilled to move back on base; she notes “When I first heard revelry, I knew I was home.”

Managing approximately 225 active volunteers on post and in the area, Gigi and her team are an integral part of life on the “installation” (you learn a new vocabulary when you visit an army base). This huge group of volunteers also provide thousands of man hours to the Carl R. Darnall Army Hospital.

Gigi gave us a tour of the huge installation and we saw first-hand the broad scope of services the Red Cross provides to our military. Sure, I knew about the emergency communication messages and the cards we distribute during holidays, but clearly there’s so much more.

Here are the top five things I never knew:

  1. Manifest volunteers – Anytime a serviceman or woman deploys, they leave from the same hangar on Ft. Hood. For safety reasons, their families aren’t allowed to be there when they depart … but the Red Cross is. No matter when they leave, day or night, Red Cross SAF volunteers are there with a warm cup of coffee and a friendly conversation.
  2. Dental assistant program – Military spouses find it challenging to have a career as they move so often. That can lead to frustration and pressure on the family. So the Red Cross stepped in and put together a dental assistant program right on post. Since its inception in 2009, the program has graduated 79 dental assistants, with 5 more graduating in June.
  3. Fisher House – Much like a Ronald McDonald house, the Fisher House Foundation builds comfort homes at military and VA centers around the world where military and veterans’ families can stay free of charge while a loved one is in the hospital. And that takes lots of volunteers—most of which are Red Cross Volunteers at the Fort Hood Fisher House.
  4. Books – From book drives to driving book carts, we’re on site at the Carl R. Darnall Army Hospital bringing books and magazines to hospital patients.
  5. Patient listening – Sometimes you just need a hand to hold and an ear to listen. Trained Red Cross volunteers step up all year long and meet with military patients and their families at the hospital to offer a listening ear and open heart.

If you’re interested in volunteering or learning more about the Service to Armed Forces, reach out to gigi.winburn@redcross.org.

Volunteer Spotlight: Yasuko Atkinson

By Kaley Hearnsberger, Staff Contributor


For the last 36 years, Yasuko Atkinson has volunteered for the Red Cross in Service to the Armed Forces. She is originally from Japan where she met her husband, Romane Atkinson, when he was serving in the Navy. They married in March of 1953. Yasuko moved to the United States in 1955 to be with her husband and soon after became a citizen.

Yasuko Uniform
Yasuko holds up the uniform she once wore regularly as a Red Cross volunteer

Romane commented that Yasuko’s service was a way of demonstrating her citizenship in America. “She wanted to do something to prove she was a citizen of this country.” She wanted to give back to the country that welcomed her. Yasuko says that volunteering for the Red Cross “was a way to support this country and this military.”

Yasuko opens a container and delicately unfolds a vintage Red Cross uniform. She recalls, “When I put on my uniform it made me happy. Coming from Japan, I felt I had a place to be.” Back then, Red Cross volunteers still wore uniforms, like the nostalgic image of Red Cross nurses in white on the battlefield with their hats.

Romane shares that his wife felt a strong sense of duty with the Red Cross, “If she said she was going to be there, she was going to be there.” Romane’s pride in his wife was as strong as her pride for serving the military.

Serving the military is in Yasuko’s blood. Her father was an officer in the Japanese Army. She grew up fascinated with the military. She had great aspirations to join the Army like her father. “I was too short to join the military myself. I wanted to be a nurse in the Japanese army, but at the physical examination they said I was too short.” She was 14 years old at the time. “When I saw that big red cross, I felt like I was reliving my dream of being a nurse in the military,” Yasuko recounts.

Yasuko-Romane Art Piece
Yasuko and Romane (right) have served their country together for decades–her through the Red Cross and him through the U.S. Military

Service runs deep within the Atkinson family. Romane served in the Navy for seven years and in the Army for 20 years. Romane volunteered to join the Navy during the Korean War. He became a Seabee. Later he served three deployments in Vietnam. Their daughter is a retired Lieutenant Colonel and their son served in the Navy for six years as well. They have two grandkids and a new great grand-daughter who undoubtedly will be inspired by the military service that runs deep in their family.

Yasuko found volunteer opportunities with the Red Cross wherever her husband was stationed. They spent about three years in Hawaii, five years at Fort Riley, Kansas, and 10 years at Fort Hood. At each installation she worked in the hospital or clinics. She spent time in the physical therapy department, medical library and records, and helped at the front desks across clinics.

Yasuko Pins
Yasuko treasures her various Red Cross awards, pins and mementos. 

In her 36 years, Yasuko’s dedication garnered countless awards and even recognition from two Texas governors (Bill Clements and Ann Richards). Her collection of pins adds up her years of service: five years, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, and finally the 35-year pin. She displays them in a decorative shadow box along with her Clara Barton’s 150th birthday coin she received while at Fort Riley in Kansas. “When I volunteer something good happens to me,” Yasuko beams a proud smile.

Yasuko volunteer spotlight 1
Yasuko Atkinson

How to “Thank a Hero” with the Red Cross

By Judy Abelman, Volunteer Contributor


“Thank you for your service!  Happy holidays!”

Jasmine distributes cards at the Austin VA clinic

These warm greetings rang out over and over in mid-December as American Red Cross Services to the Armed Forces (SAF) volunteers handed out holiday cards at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Austin.

Volunteer Jasmine Posey, a military spouse, joined the Red Cross so that she could continue volunteering wherever she and her husband are stationed.  Driving down from Killeen to the VA Center in Austin was well worth it because she “really likes being able to give back and provide veterans with holiday cheer – as they have done so much for us.”

The nationwide “Holiday Mail for Heroes” program was started by the Red Cross in December 2007 as an outlet for the American people to express their appreciation to service members during the holiday season. People create cards, send them to the Red Cross, and we help distribute them to military members, veterans and their families.

Card delivery at Luke Air Force Base

This year alone, the Central Texas office received more than 4,000 holiday cards.  The cards arrived from all over the United States, and many of them were “home-grown” with lovely messages and drawings that were greatly appreciated by the service members and their families.

According to Red Cross SAF Specialist Ames Davis, the “Holiday Mail for Heroes” program empowers all volunteers, with just a small commitment of time, to make a big difference in their community.

Lorelei greets veterans with a smile at the Austin VA clinic

That’s precisely what prompted local Red Cross volunteer Lorelei Supapo to come out to the VA in December; her job prevents her from taking long-term Red Cross assignments but she found “Holiday Mail” and was happy to get involved. She loves Christmas and found this program to be a “small thing you can do to make a difference in a person’s life.”

“Many vets don’t have families anymore or are separated from their families at the holidays,” explained Lorelei. “This is an easy way to do something that’s meaningful to them.”

A huge success over the years, the “Holiday Mail” program brings in so many holiday-specific cards each December that Red Cross volunteers have a hard time getting them all distributed while the holiday messages are still timely.

So a transformation is underway.

Sorting at the Austin office
Volunteers sort cards at the Red Cross office in Austin

The program is now run locally by Red Cross regions across the nation, and it has grown into a year-round opportunity to support our service members. “Thank a Hero”—as it’s now called—is the perfect opportunity for anyone to submit thank-you, get well and holiday cards to the armed forces all year round.  You can even submit an original banner or sign, or share a social media video to show a service member you care.

“We know that the enthusiasm and warm wishes people have during the winter holidays extends throughout the year,” said Bristel Minsker, Communications Director for the American Red Cross Serving Central and South Texas. “With ‘Thank a Hero’ we hope to remind Central Texans that their military community needs their support year-round.”

When asked why we’re extending the program, Ames recalled two emotional encounters.  The first with a veteran who told her with a sob that he hadn’t received a Christmas card in years.  And the second when she extended the holiday gratitude to a 5-year-old son of a veteran and thanked him for his own service to the country.  “Just like my daddy? “the toddler asked.  “Yes, just like your daddy,” Ames replied.

Want to help?  Send your thank-you, get well and holiday cards (all holidays – remember Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day) to:

Thank a Hero

c/o Ames Davis

American Red Cross Serving Central Texas

2218 Pershing Drive

Austin, TX 78723


Want to help distribute cards?  It’s a great team-building event for companies and organizations.   Simply send an email to  ames.davis2@redcross.org and sign up to volunteer with the Red Cross at volunteerconnection.redcross.org.






Twelve lives saved thanks to functioning smoke alarms

By Judy Abelman, Volunteer Contributor


Fire response 2 - Jan 2018
Red Cross volunteers, Stephen and Mary, sit down with “Miss Shirley” and the other residents to provide recovery assistance after the fire

On a frigid January night in northeast Austin, “Miss Shirley”—as she is called by those close to her—awoke to the blaring sound of a smoke alarm. A fire had broken out in the garage of the home where she is caretaker to ten adults and one child with developmental disabilities.

“Thank God we had working fire alarms.  I just can’t imagine what would have happened without them,” she exclaimed as she met with Red Cross volunteers later that night, dressed only in her bathrobe. Everyone made it out of the home safely.

Shortly after the fire broke out, next-door neighbors Jennifer Biundo and Stephen Pipkin were there to help.  Stephen recalled that, “we awoke to the sounds of the people outside and then realized that the house was on fire.”

The good Samaritans rushed out with blankets, and warmly welcomed all twelve individuals displaced by the fire into their home. They waited together while the Red Cross Disaster Action Team was en route.

Fire response 1 - Jan 2018
Jennifer and Stephen offered tea and comfort to their neighbors while the Red Cross workers started the casework process

With “tea and sympathy”, Jennifer and Stephen temporarily sheltered their neighbors and opened their home to the Red Cross volunteers who responded to help each resident with resources for a nearby hotel, comfort items, prescriptions, food, clothing and mental health support.

Thanks to working smoke alarms, kind neighbors and Red Cross volunteers and donors, “Miss Shirley” and those in her care are on the road to recovery.

Need a smoke alarm? The Red Cross provides free smoke alarms across Central Texas.  If you don’t have enough smoke alarms or aren’t sure if yours are working, contact us. Visit soundthealarm.org/austin to schedule an appointment or call 512-928-4271.

Want to help prevent home fire deaths and injuries? If you would like to volunteer for a Red Cross Sound the Alarm smoke alarm installation event, visit soundthealarm.org/Austin. Here are just a few of the upcoming installation events in Central and South Texas that you can be a part of:

  • January 20 – Bryan/College Station
  • March 24 – Comfort
  • April 28 – Austin
  • May 12 – San Antonio

A three-alarm birthday, Red Cross style

By Patricia Fraga, Volunteer Contributor

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On Saturday, December 9th, the American Red Cross Serving Central Texas held a Sound the Alarm event in Southeast Austin as part of the nationwide Red Cross effort to help reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by home fires.

Since its launch in 2014 this preparedness program has saved 285 lives by providing free smoke alarms in homes across the country.

During this Saturday event, Red Cross volunteers installed more than 84 smoke alarms in homes of the Pecan Grove mobile home park.

One of the families visited by the Red Cross was the Alvarez family (below).  The family of six received three free smoke alarms in their festively decorated home for the holidays.


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The Alvarez family was educated on the importance of working smoke alarms, putting together a fire evacuation plan, and other safety tips.

Pricilla Alvarez, an 8th grader, listened intently to the fire safety tips and even provided a local television station with an interview about what she learned.

Even more touching was the impromptu birthday celebration for another of the Alvarez girls, Marissa. When the Red Cross team heard that Saturday was her eighth birthday, they serenaded her with “Happy Birthday,” and of course left behind three special, potentially life-saving gifts that will ensure many more birthdays to come.

At the end of the 30-minute visit, the entire family was very grateful and thanked the Red Cross volunteer team for their efforts and expertise.

Two months after Harvey, my service continues

By Marty McKellips, Regional Chief Executive, Central and South Texas

It’s been more than two months since Hurricane Harvey caused the largest flooding event in U.S. history. The Red Cross has provided shelter, food, relief supplies, casework, health services, emotional care, direct financial assistance and other support to help people whose lives were turned upside down by this disaster – but our work isn’t finished.

I’d like to share some important news with you. While the last two months have brought some of the most tragic and challenging circumstances you can imagine, they have also been inspiring. I am committed to seeing my fellow Texans through this incredibly difficult time, however long that takes. That is why I’ve accepted the role as Interim Regional Chief Executive for the Texas Gulf Coast Region for the next several months. I will oversee the ongoing relief efforts and develop a transition plan to guide the region back to “blue sky” operations. Our Regional Chief Operating Officer, Alex Villa, will act as Interim Chief Executive here in the Central & South Texas Region in my absence. While this will be a challenge, I know we are up to it. We will come together as one Red Cross and support our statewide network of volunteers, disaster workers and hurricane survivors.

To every volunteer, every donor, every partner, every advocate: thank you for supporting your fellow human beings in their time of great need. For a complete report on the Red Cross response to Hurricane Harvey, download the one-month update.