Gift of A Lifetime

During the holiday season there is much to be thankful for as we gather with loved ones, participate in traditions and winter festivities, and search for the perfect gifts to give to family and friends. However, there are some gifts that are less tangible than others. Tacy Fleener from Alexandria, Minnesota, describes her recent deployment to the Red Cross disaster relief response to Superstorm Sandy in New York City, and the special “gift of a lifetime” she received.

Red Cross disaster relief volunteer worker Tacy Fleener. (File photo: American Red Cross)

Tacy has been with the Red Cross for 30 years as the first national responder out of Douglas County. She started at 16 years old, teaching swimming lessons and CPR training. Later on, with the help of her husband, she got the local Red Cross chapter in Alexandria up and running with different classes and opportunities of involvement for local community members. Her heart is most passionate about disaster relief and being of use during times of great need.

During past deployments, Tacy  specialized in mass care shelter management and hands-on experience. However, this deployment was a different involvement; one that was also very intense but rewarding. Tacy’s job was behind the scenes to guide volunteers through the deployment process. She would enter these volunteers into data bases and designate hotel rooms to keep track of individuals during their deployment.

Tacy expertly handled stress the minute she arrived on site, “Things were chaotic when I got there, my job was to try to keep the peace with the hotels we had under contract. I played detective to try to spend Red Cross’ money the right way, while making sure that volunteers were where they needed to be, with places to stay.”

“Just to see the need I had been hearing about with individual faces and stories kept me motivated throughout my deployment. It was easy to see that the distribution process was very difficult. People on the distribution team were bringing supplies to outskirt areas, such as Stanton Island where 12,000 people are still without power.” She remembers that distribution volunteers are overwhelmed with the need. One story that impacted her life was one gentleman leading a distribution team. She recalls, “He had just got back from Staten Island where he had been sleeping on pallets for two weeks. He looked like death warmed over and I thought to myself, oh wow, we need to find a hotel for this guy so he can rest and get cleaned up.”

Josh Holper card
A “thank you” from Josh Holper and his friends to the Red Cross. (Photo credit: Sue Gonsior/American Red Cross)

Though rooms were in a shortage in Stanton Island during this time, various New York hotels were gracious and gave American Red Cross a block of discounted rooms. This is an example of a reoccurring theme of camaraderie and teamwork throughout the east coast disaster relief. Even with support and understanding, every day was mentally and emotionally stressful. “We spent 12-14 hours a day keeping track of hotels to try to save the Red Cross as much money as possible,” says Tacy. “Every volunteer constantly gave it their all and was very supportive. Thanksgiving was especially a wonderful time to be volunteering; we had the opportunity to make sure that people had a Thanksgiving dinner. Citizens were very appreciative and it was neat to spend Thanksgiving by giving back to this community. To hear someone say ‘thank you’ was wonderfully rewarding.”

Volunteering during this disaster is a constant 24/7 job, without many breaks, yet Tacy says she would do it again in a heartbeat. “I love the Red Cross, the volunteers, the people I meet. Everyone that is there wants to make a difference. Even when you had been working 12-14 hours a day, you just go and give a big hug to each other and say thank you.”

Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf , Ed Newman (c) and Sue Buelow, in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.
Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf, Ed Newman and Sue Buelow in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.

Thank you’s and appreciation can go a long way. The American Red Cross Northern Minnesota would like to extend its gratitude to Tacy and more than 100 relief workers who have donated, volunteered or been involved with the Red Cross mission to reduce human suffering during the Sandy disaster response on the east coast.

Tacy hopes her experience encourages others to volunteer. “Just to meet one person who says thank you brightens my whole day. It really helps me when I come back home to Minnesota; to appreciate what I have; to appreciate helping others in a time of need. It fills my heart to be able to give back by doing something truly important. I know my whole heart is into it when I’m there. I know the other volunteers feel the same way, young and old. I recommend that anyone become a Red Cross volunteer–it’s an experience of a lifetime. Make the time, take some classes and experience the opportunity to give back to others, because you never know when you will need it yourself. Some of the friends you meet will touch your heart for a lifetime.”

Click here to find out more about how you can help with Superstorm Sandy relief this holiday season and give the gift of a lifetime.

Story by Megan Barnes/American Red Cross

Remembering Sandy: “Minnesota, I got your back”

Red Cross responder Sue Buelow is back from New Jersey where she helped with Superstorm Sandy disaster relief efforts. Below, Sue looks back.

The very beginning was a lot of trying to figure out the response system and getting used to hurry up and wait. But soon after arriving I was assigned to supervising special field teams doing “seek and serve” emotional support and traveling to Moonachie, Newark, Jersey City, Toms River and nearby damaged communities.

Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.
Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.

I learned a few things along the way: 1) speed limit signs are a suggestion, 2) many cities are not on a map, 3) there are few places that allow left turns, 4) be thankful for clean clothes; and 5) they love Minnesotan accents there!

The work was hard emotionally and physically. My first partner had to return home to California for health reasons. Then, for the next 12 days I had the pleasure of partnering with Lizzie Kampf, a new “just-in-time”  disaster mental health responder who was also from the Twin Cities. It felt like we’d known each other a lifetime. I was sad to see Lizzie leave before I finished my final week there. I didn’t know what I’d do without her driving the truck — she took on the persona of a New York cab driver quite naturally.

Lizzie and I went to New Jersey’s upper Barrier Island as the residents returned to see their homes, or absence of, for the first time. The devastation to the townships there was beyond words. The water and sand was 4-5 feet deep and the waves were up to 12 feet high.  The stories of the emergency medical services (EMS) workers and residents who rode out the storm there were frightening. We bonded with these communities and it was not unusual to hear “Hey,  Minnesota….” My last contact with one of the EMS workers that had been struggling was “Minnesota, I got your back.”

Being there when the residents saw their condemned or empty lot of debris was indescribable as they collapsed into my arms, sobbing and needing a “Minnesota hug.” We helped look for mementos in the debris, from small things to stones of a child’s hand and foot prints. We were there for those in shock who couldn’t think to pack up some clothes. Listening to them tell their stories and showing us their homes or pictures was moving.

I certainly have received a great gift from the same people: I believe I have helped them. I am blessed to have had a small part of their lives and in their recovery from this disaster. I will always remember my time spent there.

Sue returned home a few days ago. She is among more than 100 Red Cross disaster relief workers (mostly volunteers) from Minnesota who have responded to Sandy.

Staffing Red Cross Disaster Response

Red Cross volunteer Kris Posey (right) helps get other volunteers, including Lori Olsson (left), quickly and safely out the door for disaster response.

Question: Who are those people working tirelessly to get Red Cross relief workers deployed to disaster locations, such as Superstorm Sandy? Answer: They’re Emergency Services Staffing volunteers!

In the case of our American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region, we’re  talking about volunteers Kris Posey, Susan Waananen & Cari McCollor. Although they’re often not working on the ground in affected disaster areas, they’re working hard to get those who are responding in the field out the door quickly and safely.

Emergency Services volunteers work behind the scenes 24/7 when disaster occurs. They’re in the Red Cross offices on weekends monitoring email, helping arrange training and processing volunteers. They’ve been doing this nearly every day since before Superstorm Sandy made landfall on the East Coast. Every day, they return calls and answer emails that come in from our 700+ volunteers across our Red Cross region.

Hey, Cari, we like that henna tattoo!

In addition, we’ve had staff services volunteers in the office these past few weeks learning all there is to know about national deployment.  Thank you Steve, Marcia, Lois, Bonnie, Barb, Jan & John. We’re building great capacity throughout our region.

Thank you to Emergency Services staffing volunteers. You help make our mission happen. And we love you for it!

P.S. Emergency Services staffing volunteers also deploy to disasters. Cari (pictured) is now on the East Coast working as part of the Red Cross field response to Superstorm Sandy. Return home happy and safe!

P.P.S. Question: Do you want to join our team? Answer: Yes, I do. I really really do 🙂


Field Photos: Sheldon Checks In From Sandy

Red Cross volunteers Sheldon Bruce and Lori Olsson deployed to Superstorm Sandy days ago–how many? (Too many to remember.) They drove a Red Cross emergency response truck 1,200 miles from Minnesota to New York and since then they’ve been busy handing out hot meals and relief supplies to people in devastated areas. We’re grateful for the work that Sheldon and Lori are doing. Here, through Sheldon’s eyes, we share with you a bit of what they’re experiencing.

A street after flood waters receded.
Families wait for meals and supplies from a Red Cross disaster relief truck.
Red Cross disaster relief workers at their temporary home-sweet-home accommodations.
Red Cross trucks waiting to refuel.
Beach front damage.
Clean out after the flood.
Loading Papa John’s.
Delivering clean up kits in affected neighborhoods.

Sandy Postcard From Choua

Greetings from Greater New York, Superstorm Sandy Aftermath Followed by Nor’easter, November 7, 2012

Hello from Greater New York,

I’ve been going out doing Disaster Assessment (DA). There are so many homes affected and or destroyed by the storm. DA is on hold right now due to the snow mix with rain. Based on the data that we collected, upper managements are planning to deliver supply of goodies to those affected areas. Yesterday, I went to eat with my team and our server asked where we were from. One of the teammates told her that we are with Red Cross and the server just broke down and cried. She was very grateful and happy that we were there for her community. She thanked us for leaving our families and friends to come help out.  It was such an amazing experience  with this disaster response so far. I am so happy and proud to be Red Crosser!!!


Choua Yang is one of 5,700 or so Red Cross disaster relief workers responding to Superstorm Sandy. (Around 50 are from Minnesota.) 90 percent of Red Cross responders are volunteers. You can help support Red Cross humanitarian disaster relief.

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