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Couple helps the Red Cross at home and away

Published: Monday, March 10, 2014 12:24 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, March 10, 2014 12:29 a.m. CDT
(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Joe and Sharon Dillett of Somonauk are volunteers with the local chapter of the American Red Cross. The couple gives educational presentations, such as this one about common household fire hazards at a Feb. 22 seminar in DeKalb, and Joe travels to disaster sites around the country to provide relief.

SOMONAUK – In a way, Joe Dillett is like a modern day Minuteman. With an emergency bag packed, he is ready to go wherever he is called at a minute’s notice.

For the past three years, the semiretired Somonauk woodcarver has been a member of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team, which can be called out to any disaster anywhere in the country and remain on-site for two to three weeks at a time.

“I’m on call 40 hours a week,” Dillett said. “We leave [home] before that hurricane or tornado hits. They need that food right away. They can’t wait. The Red Cross is there before the National Guard is.”

After serving in the Red Cross’ tech department and as a shelter manager, Dillett was recently promoted to mass care supervisor.

“When there’s a big disaster, like a tornado or a hurricane, we have a large mass of people,” he said. “We have to feed them and shelter them and give them supplies. We have nurses on staff that can fill prescriptions. Mental health is also important. ... We also give a lot of teddy bears to the kids.”

Dillett has made three trips to the East Coast to help to with ongoing Hurricane Sandy relief, spent three weeks in Denver and three weeks in Chicago when those cities were damaged by floods, and two weeks in Coal City aiding tornado victims.

He said he didn’t have to go back to the hurricane site after the first trip, but he couldn’t ignore the need there.

“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “The first time, I didn’t think we had finished the job and it kind of bothered me. ... In the beginning, there’s a lot of volunteers because everyone wants to help. After a month, it’s not in the news anymore and there isn’t as much help. That’s when we need to get back in there and finish up the job.”

Dillett’s wife of 50 years, Sharon, is a retired nurse who volunteers with the Red Cross locally. She works at blood drives and teaches fire safety to schoolchildren. She said Joe has invited her to accompany him on disaster trips, but she stays behind and tends to practical matters at the couple’s home, which she said allows her husband to concentrate on the task at hand.

“This is the way I can give [to the Red Cross], by supporting him,” she said.

The couple got involved with the Red Cross thanks to their daughter, Kazia Blair, a night shift supervisor in the Red Cross blood department in Peoria.

“She said, ‘Now that you’re retired and have more time, you might want to think about volunteering with the Red Cross,’ “ Joe Dillett said. “We thought it was a great idea. The Red Cross is such an important organization.”

Patricia Kemp, communications manager of the Red Cross Greater Chicago Area, said husband-wife volunteer teams are not uncommon. No special skills are needed to volunteer, she said, and the Red Cross offers training.

The couple was among a dozen area volunteers who gave presentations at a Red Cross fire safety seminar Feb. 22 in DeKalb. They gave presentations about fire safety hazards around the home.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 22, Kemp said there had been 210 fires reported in the 13-county greater Chicago region. Although that was about the same number of fires as last year, the fires this year have been more severe, she said.

Alternative forms of home heating, such as space heaters, make November through March the most common time for house fires, Sharon Dillett said. Most house fires occur on weekends between 6 and 7 p.m., when homes are using a lot of electricity and people are often cooking.

Joe Dillett said half of all house fires are caused by electrical problems. He said people should never cover up a wire that doesn’t work, especially if it is frayed or broken. Such wires should be discarded and replaced.

Sharon Dillett said the clothes dryer causes more fires than any other appliance, and that all appliances should be unplugged when not in use. She also warned against going to bed under an electric blanket.

Joe Dillett said flashlights – never candles – should be used in an emergency when the power goes out, especially in homes with pets or small children.

“These are the things that kids love to play with,” he said, holding up a pair of small white candles. “Now we have flashlights.”

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