Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Red Cross Reconnects Congolese Family after 14 Years Apart

By Patricia Billinger
One year ago, Yowali Kitungano had no idea of the fate of her father, brothers, sisters and nephew – where they were, whether they were alive, or how they were doing if they were alive.

She hadn’t seen or heard from any of them since at least 1997. During a pair of civil wars that wracked the Democratic Republic of Congo, she and other family members fled from their home town of Uvira.

Yowali's family when she was a child.
“There were a lot of guns and bombs and people went in different ways. Some crossed the lake to Tanzania, some goes to Burundi and it was like that, never found each other again,” Yowali recalled.

She eked out an existence first at one refugee camp and then another, struggling just to survive.

"There was no communication [with family], nothing,” Yowali said. “You tried to adjust yourself to see how you can survive. They give you a tent. It was so hard. In the beginning I have no time to think about the family. You just try to make yourself together and start over your life.”

Eventually, Yowali applied for and received refugee status to resettle in the United States. Along with her husband and two daughters, she made her way to Denver where, finally, her life became stable and safe enough for her to focus on rebuilding – and on reconnecting.

So, one year ago, Yowali came to the Red Cross. She initiated a Restoring Family Links inquiry to seek out the whereabouts and try to re-establish contact with her father, four brothers, two sisters and nephew. She knew it could be difficult to find them, and that it might take time – about 14 years had passed since she last had contact, and the DR Congo had thousands of refugees due to its civil conflict.
Red Cross caseworker Robbe Sokolove delivered a message
to Yowali from her sister. 

The key to success came about six months after she initiated the Red Cross tracing request. The Red Cross in the DR Congo had been able to find one of her sisters, who submitted an official Red Cross message. A Colorado-based Restoring Family Links caseworker hand-delivered the letter, written in the women’s native tongue, to Yowali at her home in Aurora in December 2014.

“I was so happy. Tears were in my eyes. I was so happy to know they were alive. I was so happy to see the letter and know how they were doing,” Yowali recalled with a giant smile.

Her sister knew the whereabouts and latest information on a number of the family members, and very quickly Yowali was able to reconnect via letter and phone with her family. The chain of reconnection had been started, and in July 2015, Yowali’s family in Africa were able to ascertain the whereabouts of the final two family members.

“I called to the Red Cross to thank them because this was not easy, it was hard work, but they did it. They make it,” Yowali said. “I am so grateful to Red Cross. I am so happy. Thank you so much.”
Yowali reads a letter from her sister.

Find out more about Restoring Family Links:

Monday, July 27, 2015

International Services Kicks Off New Film Series With "Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo"

The star-crossed lovers whose story is told in
 "Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo."
Since the beginning of cinematic history, independent filmmakers, documentarians, and occasionally, Hollywood directors have found inspiration in the communities and individuals affected by armed conflict. In recognition and celebration of film's ability to tell the stories of those silenced by violence and oppression, Red Cross International Services in Colorado will hold the first installment of the International Humanitarian Law Film Series Thursday, July 30 at 4 p.m., at Red Cross headquarters, 444 Sherman St., in Denver.

The first film in the IHL series is "Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo," a 1994 documentary co-produced by the acclaimed PBS Frontline series, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the National Film Board of Canada and WDR, a German broadcasting institution. Originally aired one year after their tragic deaths in 1993, the film tells the story of Admira Ismić and  Boško Brkić, lovers shot by a sniper while attempting to escape from Sarajevo. Ismić, a 25-year-old Muslim, and Brkić, a 24-year-old Serb, died in each other's arms on a bridge leading out of their besieged city.

Canadian director John Zaritsky received the Alfred Dupont Award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as well as an Emmy nod for the film. The film explores the horrific daily realities faced by those who lived in Sarajevo during the siege, and, like its namesake Shakespearean play, reflects on the tragic impact of violent conflict on the individuals caught up within it.

During the Bosnian War, the International Committee of the Red Cross provided aid and comfort to those hurt and displaced in the Balkan region. Throughout the conflict, The Red Cross also helped to resettle Bosnian refugees. Today, the Red Cross Restoring Family Links program deals directly with the ongoing legacy of the Bosnian War, working to reunite family members separated by the conflict. Recently, the exhumation of mass graves in the region has allowed RFL to provide surviving family members of those killed in the conflict a measure of long-awaited closure regarding their lost loved ones.

A roundtable discussion on International Humanitarian Law and the responsibility of preserving human dignity during armed conflict will follow the film. Food will be provided at the event.

Please RSVP for the film event before noon, July 29, by clicking here. For more information regarding the series, contact Tim Bothe.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Two Reasons Why the Pizza Delivery Guy Who Performed CPR is So Special - and Why You Should Care

by Patricia Billinger
Google “pizza delivery guy CPR” and you’ll come across dozens of news articles from all over the country about Anson Lemmer, a 19-year-old who saved a stranger’s life using the CPR skills he first learned through Red Cross babysitter training when he was just turning into a teenager.

His all-American look, humble hero’s mien and unforgettable quote – “I left a pizza boy and returned a pizza man” – have endeared him to the world and thrust him into the spotlight. He’s a fantastic kid with a unique story.
Anson Lemmer (R) used CPR skills he learned in a Red Cross
Babysitter class to save a man's life.

But what’s most unusual about Anson’s story is that it got told at all.

Why? First of all, Anson’s story is unique because we found out and got a chance to thank him.

On July 17, the Red Cross presented Anson with a Red Cross Lifesaver Award for using his CPR skills to save a life. We present a handful of the awards every year, and it’s one of the favorite aspects of my job. Just like Anson, nearly all of the recipients are humble and say they were just doing what their training taught them to do. In fact, an untold number of the everyday heroes who perform CPR never receive recognition of any kind because no one alerts us or the media to the lifesaving work they performed.

The Red Cross honored Todd Nelson on the same day as Anson.
Todd saved a man's life by using lifeguarding skills he learned
decades ago through a Red Cross training.
On the same day we presented Anson with an award, we traveled 168 miles away to recognize a Kremmling man with a Lifesaver Award for pulling a man out of a lake and reviving him using CPR. The story made the local news, but didn’t sky rocket to national attention like Anson’s tale.

Reason #2 Anson's story is unique: Not enough everyday people recognize the importance of knowing CPR and First Aid, and so they don’t get trained. When an emergency strikes, bystanders often call 911 but otherwise might not know how to help. Some people make a valiant attempt to help, guided by 911 operators and/or what they’ve watched on TV. Others, unfortunately, fall prey to the “bystander” effect and assume that someone else will do something about the emergency.

 Cardiac arrest strikes more than 500,000 people every year in the United States. On June 30, 2015, the Institute of Medicine released a report outlining recommendations for increasing cardiac arrest survival rates. One of the key recommendations was educating and training the general public in how to recognize and respond to cardiac emergencies.

In my six years with the Red Cross, I’ve met about a dozen everyday heroes like Anson. Each story is different...
…But what they each share in common is that these heroes got trained and used their training – sometimes decades later! – to take action and save a life. As so many of the heroes have told me: “When you take the training, you hope you’ll never have to use it.”
“ I never thought I would use it.”
“I thought I would never remember what to do. And then it all came back to me.”

You never know when an emergency will strike. It could be at work, at home, at the park, on the highway.

We need more Ansons out there.  And we can have them!
YOU could be the next Anson. You could end up saving the life of someone you love dearly – or the life of a total stranger.  You might not achieve fame and fortune, but if you could save a life…wouldn’t it be worth it?

Read more about Anson's and Todd's heroic stories here: . If you're inspired, we hope you will sign up for a CPR class near you or take one online today at

Friday, July 10, 2015

July Lunch & Learn: Fighting Colorado's Quietly-Booming Human Trafficking Trade

Picturesque, rugged Jefferson County is known for many things, like cutting-edge science education at the Colorado School of Mines, the iconic Coors Brewing Company and charming, tucked-away mountain towns like Evergreen and Genesee. But Denver County's western neighbor is also home to a sinister and surprising distinction: the county serves as a regional hub for underage sex trafficking. Although Kristen Harness, the speaker for July's International Service Lunch and Learn, first became interested in advocating for victims of sexual exploitation on a mission trip to the Red Light District of Pattaya, Thailand, she came home to Colorado to find that the presence of an underage sex trade was not a problem unique to Southeast Asia's developing economies.

"Like a lot of people, the first place I was exposed to trafficking was overseas, I didn't even realize that it was happening here, at the same time, in the US, specifically in Colorado." she said. "Over the years, I realized, I don't have to move to India or Thailand [to fight trafficking,] there's a plenty of work to be done here in Colorado. Denver is ranked no. 4 out of the top six cities in the United States in terms of the revenue that sex traffickers bring in annually."

Upon her return to the U.S., Harness worked with several local non-profits and missions with a goal of preventing trafficking and helping the victims of forced sex work. She eventually established her own organization, Extended Hands of Hope, to resettle young women who were trafficked. The organization offers resources like a state-licensed shelter, medical support and mental health services to teenage girls leaving the sex trade.

Harness will speak about trafficking during a Red Cross Lunch & Learn lecture from noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, July 15, at the American Red Cross, 444 Sherman St.

According to Harness, victims of sex trafficking are too often placed in either the juvenile detention center or the foster care system, neither of which are well-equipped to address the needs of this vulnerable population.

"Our main focus is immediate housing, as an alternative to jail or detention centers, then addressing those mental health issues," she said. "70 to 90 percent of these children come from a history of sexual or violent abuse, so on top of the abuse they've experienced with trafficking, you can imagine the severity of their mental health issues."

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, is the second-fastest growing form of criminal activity in the U.S., with the illegal drug trade taking the top spot. An estimated 105,000 American children are exploited through prostitution or pornography each year and most children who enter the sex trade do so between the ages of 11 and 13. Due to its location at the junction of I-70 and I-25, the Denver Metro region is particularly well-situated as a "source state," from which young people are taken and transported across state lines for prostitution and exploitation purposes. About 60 high-risk juveniles have been identified in Jefferson County alone, a majority of them children who were born and raised in the region.

According to Harness, the biggest obstacles in fighting human trafficking are a combination of ignorance of what constitutes trafficking, and the stigma culturally associated with sex workers.

"We like to point fingers at the quote-unquote prostitutes, instead of asking, why is that 15-year-old girl selling her body," Harness said. "A lot of people believe these women want to [engage in sex trade], and they don't know, or they don't care, or they want to hear, that somebody is actually behind the scenes, controlling her actions. She may look on the outside like she wants to, but it's because she knows what's going to happen to her if she doesn't."

Harness says she hopes the Lunch and Learn event will help educate the community on the severity of the local issue and how to fight it.

"Mostly, I want to make people aware that this is happening. I want to say, hey, did you know this is going on? Did you know that Jefferson County has some of the highest [numbers of] cases? My goal has always been raising that awareness," she said.

Harness will offer suggestions for those who want to join in the fight against trafficking, including what to watch for, how to report activity, and how to become involved with organizations like hers who support DMNST victims in the area. In addition to services provided by organizations like Extended Hands of Hope, trafficked individuals can also take advantage of services offered by the Red Cross to all displaced persons, including Restoring Family Links and, in cases of international trafficking, the protection of applicable International Humanitarian Laws.

Although Harness will be speaking about domestic trafficking issues, the topic is part of a series of Red Cross Lunch and Learn that address the broader themes of humanitarianism, international humanitarian law, and protecting the basic human rights of refugees and migrants.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement focuses on assisting people made vulnerable by migration, and human trafficking and exploitation in particular, whatever their legal status. The commitment includes not only material help, but also advocacy to combat discrimination against migrants and promote respect for human dignity. To find out more about these efforts, visit:

To attend the July 15 lecture, please RSVP by noon, Tuesday, July 14, by clicking here. Webinar options are also available for remote audiences. For more information, contact Tim Bothe.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Creating Trust in the Refugee Community - One Meal at a Time

by Julie Leebove
When most people think of American Red Cross, they think of disaster relief, but the Red Cross does so much more than that.  These other services range from supporting military families to providing education on International Humanitarian Law.  One of the lesser-known but still very important Red Cross service is Restoring Family Links (RFL). Restoring Family Links helps reunite loved ones who have been separated by war, conflict, disaster, and other humanitarian crisis.

Attending events such as World Refugee Day is
one way to reach people who may have
a need for RFL services.
Outreach for this service is crucial, so we connect with potential clients through a variety of creative channels – including attending special events.

One such outreach was World Refugee Day in Colorado Springs on June 27.  The event drew more than 90 people from nearly a dozen countries, including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Myanmar, Liberia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hosted by Lutheran Family Services, this potluck-style event served dishes from around the world to bring together different cultures and people.

The Colorado Springs potluck provided
an opportunity to connect.
After an American Red Cross spoke at the event about RFL Services, a Liberian woman approached the Red Cross table asking if we could help locate her family who she lost contact with in 1990 due to the civil war. Such an immediate connection to a person in need provides gratifying proof of the effectiveness of direct outreach to the community.

RFL outreach goes beyond attending cultural events; it also involves developing sustainable relationships with community organizations. Creating a relationship of trust as well as a reputation of dependability allows RFL to grow and prosper.

As part of the International Services department, RFL deals with very sensitive material. When clients come in asking for our services, we want them to feel comfortable sharing their stories. Gaining trust from their community is one way we create that security.

Outreach is an ongoing process that requires dedication to communities served and people affected. As we advance outreach for RFL services, we continuously seek new opportunities while equally investing in our current relationships.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What the Women's World Cup Can Teach About Disasters

by Patricia Billinger
We paused for this photo (mom's elbow at left).
Dad disappeared into the crowd.
On Sunday, my husband, mother, father and I were among the more than 50,000 jubilant fans swarming to BC Place in Vancouver for the Women’s World Cup Finals.

The buzz among the crowd was palpable. Red, white and blue overtook the color spectrum, and fans decked out in their country’s colors thronged in every direction. We paused to take a photo.
And then we realized that my dad had continued on and disappeared somewhere into the swelling crowd.

He had no ticket – my mother had both of theirs.
He had no cell phone, because he hadn’t wanted to risk incurring exorbitant international usage fees.
And they had no emergency meet-up plan. It hadn’t dawned on them that they might get separated.

We told my mom to stay put by a landmark (the statues of runner Terry Fox), and we fanned out in a widening circle in search of him. It was nearly impossible to tell one fan from another – everyone was wearing red, white and blue! Within 100 yards in either direction, the crush of the crowd became so tight that it was impossible to see past more than a few fans in any direction.

Imagine trying to find someone in this crowd,
 everyone wearing the same colors. Photo by Patricia Billinger
We retraced our steps, sought higher ground to look out over the crowd, circled back to my mom twice. No luck. My mom’s panic rose as she considered the possibility that one or both of them might miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For me, the minor personal emergency really drove home the importance of a message we at the Red Cross tell the public all the time: it is so important to have an emergency communications plan. Your plan should include an emergency meet-up location and a plan for how you’ll communicate if you can’t do so by cell phone.

The stress of being disconnected from my dad and unable to reach him was intense – but nothing remotely comparable to the fear and anxiety that accompanies being separated from your loved ones during a real emergency.

Having a plan gives you "hope" in the most dire
of circumstances. Excuse the pun.
Photo by Patricia Billinger
The worst thing that could happen to my parents that day was they could miss an amazing and historic soccer match.

During a disaster, your life, safety and property are at risk. Time is of the essence; you may not have time to circle in search of a husband, wife, daughter, son or pet.

During a disaster, there is a good chance that you won’t be able to reach each other by cell phone – cell towers get damaged or inundated, people flee without their phones, batteries die, phones get dropped or damaged.

During a disaster, you may not be surrounded by 50,000 fans dressed alike, but you may be evacuating alongside hundreds or thousands of other people. And unlike the limited geographic area of a city stadium, you may find yourself wondering which of many routes your loved ones took, which shelter they fled to – did they make it to a shelter at all? – which town they may be in.

Prior to the USWNT match, I recalled seeing media coverage of increased potential terrorist threats against the U.S. for the 4th of July weekend. A small part of me worried whether the World Cup match would be targeted. Thankfully, peace prevailed and the weekend was without incident – but it also got me thinking about what we would have done in such a scenario when we couldn’t even find each other amid the peaceful pre-game chaos.

Reconnecting with family feels a lot like this.
Photo by Patricia Billinger
Ultimately, our story has a happy ending: as the crowd dispersed into the stadium, my parents found each other and made it to our seats in time to watch the U.S. score 5 goals, the most ever scored in a Women’s World Cup Final. All was right in the world.

But we learned our lesson, and hopefully you can learn from our mistake. The next time you settle in to enjoy your favorite sport on TV, I encourage you to take a few minutes to make your emergency game plan. Sit down with your loved ones over half-time and talk about where you’ll meet up and how you’ll get in touch if disaster strikes. You can find sample plans, tips and specific steps to incorporate into your plan here: .

You may never need it, but you'll be glad you have it so that you can focus on more pleasant things. Like winning the World Cup.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Red Cross Opens Shelter to Help Campers

Update at 12:00-Shelter at Buena Vista HS in Buena Vista, CO has closed.

Buena Vista, Co.,9 a.m., Friday, July 3.2015 – The American Red Cross shelter at Buena Vista High School remains open as Chaffee County officials assess damage from a mudslide that occurred Thursday evening.

Overnight the Red Cross provided support and comfort to campers who were evacuated from the Cottonwood Lake Camground near Buena Vista. Ten people, all adults, stayed at the shelter overnight. Cots and blankets were available to the shelter residents as they waited to hear about impact of the mudslide. A local restaurant, Jan’s Restaurant, in Buena Vista provided breakfast for the campers at the shelter.

The shelter will remain open at the Buena Vista High School, located at 559 S. Railroad St. in Buena Vista, CO until Chaffee County officials determine if it is safe for the campers to return to the Cottonwood Campground.  Red Cross volunteers are at the shelter to provide comfort and support.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Red Cross at the Glory Days Festival in La Jara

Story and Photos by Missy Bueltel/American Red Cross

(L-R) Volunteers Randy Lightfoot, Michelle Stubbs
Darnai McMullen and Dodie Day at the Glory Days
Festival in La Jara.
Our San Luis Valley team hosted a display and games at the annual Glory Days Festival in La Jara, Colo. June 20, 2015. This was the first time we had set up a display at the festival. We felt it would be important to be there this year after the devastating apartment fire that occurred in La Jara April 15, 2015 and displaced 9 families.
Kids play Be Prepared, Don't Be Scared game at the
Glory Days Festival in La Jara

We had a wonderful day talking about the Red Cross, emergency preparedness and sharing information about home fire safety. Most importantly, we had more than two dozen people sign up for the Home Fire Preparedness Campaign to receive a free home fire inspection and a free smoke alarm. 

A visitor signs up for the Home FIre Preparedness
Campaign at the Glory Days Festival in La Jara

In addition, we set up a “Be Prepared Not Scared” game for children.  The kids, using pictures of important items filled a pillow case with things they would take with them in case of an evacuation.  The kids won prizes of candy and helium-filled balloons.

It was a great day, and a great opportunity to share the Red Cross story and spread the word about home fire safety.