Tragedy is transformed by warm volunteers, later by beautiful art


by Cynthia Price

Alla Dickson, who with her husband was a recent U.S. citizen after moving here from Russia,  endured a devastating loss when her house burned down in 2013 — and on a cold Christmas Eve morning.

Though grief-stricken, Dickson was impressed and amazed at the American Red Cross volunteers who gave up their family festivities to comfort the couple. Providing warm blankets and hot cocoa, as well as a listening ear as she tried to make sense of the tragic event, the volunteers really helped her after the firefighters left.

So Dickson wanted to do something to honor the Red Cross, which consistently pulls together people for disaster relief, whether for a personal tragedy or something like the mudslide in California or Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Since she is an artist, what she thought to do was create a visual thank-you. The Zeeland resident went to her local arts collective and asked them to help her come up with a fitting tribute.

The resulting 9 foot by 9 foot piece was part of ArtPrize 2017, and now it is coming to Muskegon.

"Connections for Life" will be shown at Centraul United Methodist Church's "Corner Building" at 280 West Muskegon Ave., adjacent to the American Red Cross offices, on Feb. 2 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The public is invited. The event will honor the Red Cross volunteers in other ways as well, including those who have gone on long-distance Disaster Relief Operations (DROs).

Event Coordinator Ethan Santangelo, an Americorps volunteer  from New Mexico who went to Michigan State University, and is now living in Holland, comments, “The piece is a bunch of beautiful scenes in various settings. It’s a great tool to showcase the Red Cross; between viewing that and talking with the people who’ve experienced DROs, it should be really fun.”

Santangelo said that this past year has been extremely busy for the Red Cross. “2017 was a record year. We provided more shelter stays than the past two years combined, we handed out some 13 million meals, and we’ve seen an influx of several hundred volunteers after they saw the devastation in places like Puerto Rico and Texas, all around,”?he said.

To create “Connections for Life,” artist Alla Dickson joined Pam Murphy, Cindy Bender, Jan Vanderkooi Mulder, and Judy Kruis to make 81 small tiles that were assembled into nine 1-foot-square components in a wide variety of artistic media.

After ArtPrize was over, they donated the artwork to the Red Cross of West Michigan.

There is also a YouTube video detailing the process and the purpose at