Volunteering was never a very important part of my life before September 11, 2001. No matter how many material things you have, your life will never be complete unless you give something back. I learned this lesson through example that it's important to think about other people who are sad or lonely or recovering from a disaster and that life is not only about ME. I watched on TV all the volunteers as they were helping total strangers on that terrible September day. I watched as people stood in line for hours to give blood and that's when I changed from someone who never volunteered in my life to someone who would be the first to respond to any volunteer request that was asked of me. The dust was barely settled on the World Trade Center site when I contacted the American Red Cross Southwest Florida Chapter to refocus my life to voluntarism. After extensive Red Cross basic training and responding to over 40 local house fires on the Disaster Action Team, I noticed a need to get local youth involved with the Red Cross Chapter. I established the Youth Corps in 2002 and became their director; we started with a small group of 10 teenagers including my 14 year old twin daughters. Since then the Youth Corps now boast over 150 youth members from Sarasota and DeSoto Counties. My volunteer work has taught me so much! It's helped me to be more thankful for the family and good life I have. I've learned if a community works together for a good cause, good things are bound to happen. And I've discovered there are a lot of nice adults and kids out there who want to help. I've made a ton of new friends and have gotten to meet important people, including Governor Jeb Bush and Congress woman Katherine Harris, but best of all, doing this has shown me just how good it feels to help others. I like to make people happy, because that makes me happy too. Knowing I've made a difference in someone's life is an awesome feeling.
My first response to a hurricane started for me on the night of Thursday August 12, 2004 when the American Red Cross Southwest Florida Chapter was activated by the Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center. We quickly gathered at the Chapter for a briefing on the Hurricane Charley situation that forecasters said would hit Tampa Bay and should just brush the Sarasota County area over the weekend. We were told to start our family disaster plan and make sure that our property was secure before coming back to the Red Cross Chapter. So I left and returned home to warn my family about the approaching Hurricane. I met with my wife, Cheryl, my three teenage daughters Melissa, Megan, Nanci, and my teenage son Joey and informed them that the family was grounded and to stay in the house. I was told I was crazy and that they had no plans on staying home and also will not help me pick up the potential flying objects from outside the house. I really didn't say much to them. I actually starting thinking that they might be right, that I was crazy. You see this is not the first time I have activated my family during a hurricane threat. Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf! Well I was starting to feel like that boy. I decided to take the families advice and not secure the house like I normally would; that was almost a fatal mistake by about thirty miles. I stayed home that night at was glued to the weather channel through the wee hours of the morning. On the morning of August 13, 2004; I made contact with the Red Cross to get the latest report. I was told Charley was heading north and that people that were concerned could evacuate inland to Arcadia in DeSoto County. I continued watching the weather channel and was shocked at what I was listening to and seeing on the radar screen. Charley grew from a category 2 hurricane to a very strong category 4 and the forecast track had been changed from a Tampa touchdown to a Charlotte County touchdown. Charley took a hard right turn and barreled into Charlotte Harbor-Punta Gorda area as a killer category 4 storm that the residents of those communities will never forget in their lifetime.\r\n\r\nAll of a sudden at my house there was a special NOAA weather alert that said DeSoto County mobile home residents need to evacuate to the Turner Center one of our (Red Cross) shelters. Hurricane Charley and its sustained winds of 145 mph was heading right at them in the next 30 min. Wow! At this point I was getting nervous and wondering why I didn\'t prepare my house better with DeSoto County only 30 miles to the east and Charlotte Harbor 30 miles away on the south side of me. \r\n\r\nThe news reports starting flowing in one after another about all the destruction that Charlotte and Punta Gorda were dealing with and then the report came in that I will never forget as long as I live; The Turner Center emergency shelter had collapsed and there is 1500 people in there. I screamed to my wife Cheryl from across the room \"that\'s our shelter\". The reports were still coming in \"Power out in Charlotte County, power out in North Port, power out in Venice, tornado warning for Sarasota County then the phone rang it was Inaki my boss from the Red Cross \" Bill get over to the chapter now; \"The Turner Center is coming apart\" he said. I gathered my Red Cross gear told the family to stay home and took off to the chapter. It was a ghost town around Sarasota! When I arrived at the chapter they were looking for replacements for the Arcadia shelter that was now across the road at the DeSoto High School. There was no communication between Sarasota based Red Cross and anyone in Charlotte and DeSoto Counties so we had to go by what the media was reporting and at this point they were reporting possible casualties at the Turner Center. We quickly got the new shelter team ready to roll, two of them were teenagers from my Youth Corps. They were told to prepare to stay 3 days. It seemed to take them forever to return from Arcadia but when they did they didn\'t bring much good news.\r\n\r\n\"It\'s another Andrew\" Inaki said to me with a shocking look on his face. \"Arcadia is gone\" he mumbled. There was only minor injuries to the folks that took shelter in the supposedly hurricane proof Turner Center. As more volunteers starting getting to the chapter I was told that the person that was to head up Mass Care would not be able to handle the responsibility and I was asked if I would take it on. I never even thought twice about it, the answer was yes and I was committed to given 100% of my self and time and nothing was going stop me from doing my job. I spent the rest of the night driving around town cleaning out neighborhood stores of defrosting food and ice and transporting it back to the chapter for future use if it was good. I did go home eventually that morning to shower and change clothes and talk to my wife about how lucky we were and the quickly returned to the chapter. \r\n\r\nChapter 2\r\n\r\nDeath and Destruction \r\n\r\n The big picture was starting to appear today and what we were about to get ourselves into. There was a look of shock in most of the volunteer\'s faces that were at the chapter and what could you say to them when there was total destruction just miles from some of these volunteers own homes including mine. The phones were ringing off the hooks with people looking for loved ones or friends. The big picture was in and it wasn\'t pretty at all. A path was cut out of Charlotte County destroying many homes, county and city schools, fire departments, police departments and other official and commercial buildings including the Charlotte Red Cross chapter and many of their volunteer\'s homes. So not only did we have to help DeSoto County but we have to help Charlotte County to, along with some isolated damage in Sarasota County. The reports were mind blowing, 400,000 homes without power, and 11 billion in damage, 12,000 homes destroyed and a death toll of around 22. I personally believed that the death toll was going to be in the one hundreds and was totally surprised by that low death toll number.\r\n\r\nI new that this was big and would be in the history books some day and if I was going to be a part of this relief effort and a part of a great organization like the American Red Cross that I wasn\'t going to fumble. The volunteer team was looking for leadership so I took the ball and ran with it and didn\'t look back. My job was to provide food and water to mass people including victims, emergency workers, military, volunteers, Emergency Management and shelters. I was also responsible for bulk distributing of water and snacks. I spent most of the day rallying the team of volunteers and contacting food, water and ice resources. We didn\'t have an active logistics function leader at the time so I had to put that in my job description also for the first couple of days and wing it.\r\n\r\nI will never forget that first day\'s after Charley\'s destruction. The natural high I was getting from being involved in this relief operation was intense and I felt on top of the world. No drugs that I took in my troubled past could ever compare to the way I was feeling.\r\n\r\nI started my Mass Care Operation with a lot of peanut butter and jelly that I was lucky to even get. All disaster agencies were out stocking up on relief items and competition was fierce. All Faiths food bank donated it along with snacks, cereal, soda and some dog food that I picked up, and yes I did say dog food and I was asked why I took the dog food by a lot of volunteers and staff from the Red Cross a humanitarian organization and I replied; the dogs will be hungry to. I\'m an animal lover and I admit it. I also made sure that the relief trucks that were heading out had bowls for water for lost pets that were dehydrating from the heat. The animals took a beating just like the humans and many did not make it through the storm and the extreme heat that followed for weeks after.\r\n\r\nBack at the Chapter volunteers were coming out of the woodwork and into the chapter hot and heavy. These volunteers had no training and you had to be careful who you chose to help out. Some volunteers just couldn\'t be used because there emotions were out of control and I would have to send people like that home daily. Then there are the volunteers that would crack under the pressure and emotions of disaster relief once they entered the disaster field. It was tough out there on everyone and the weather was hotter then hell. Volunteers were passing out from the heat all the time and some even had to be taken to the hospital. Most volunteers didn\'t make it to long out there and a lot of them are still MIA today. The Youth Corps were clutch for Mass Care; they made over 3000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a two day period. My two daughters Megan and Nanci and their mother Cheryl were always there to help and did an awesome job and made me very proud of them. \r\n\r\nMy cell phone would not stop ringing and continued through out the job, I would have to recharge it two or three times a day and sometimes I would have over twenty five messages on it after the one hour charge time. The biggest caller by far would be my father. He was setting up interviews for me with the Buffalo, New York media daily it seemed like. He also was my biggest fan and supporter and I believe that it was the first time in my life that I made him proud. The Buffalo News printed a huge story on me including a color photo that my dad hand delivered to them. It was a great story and after its release the city of Buffalo and my family were backing me all the way. I did an interview with a couple Buffalo, N.Y. news stations and a live radio interview one morning as I was bringing meals to the special needs shelter in Sarasota. The letters of support I received were amazing and some of them still bring tears to my eyes when I read them today. \r\n\r\nThose first few days were wild, to say the least. The pressure and tension were tuff to deal with at times but I held up and kept my composer. Everything seemed to always work out for me and that was unusual for me. I remember when Emergency Management started calling in the Mass Care requests to me and that\'s when I thought I was in trouble and I wondered if I was up for this challenge. I don\'t like to lose and I\'m a very completive person in heart so bailing out wasn\'t an option like it was for some volunteers. Some of the orders that I had to fill were unreal at times. One thousand meals and drinks for emergency response personnel at Kings Highway, two hundred meals for EOC, snacks and drinks for different shelters all over Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto Counties, three meals a day for the special needs folks staying at the Roberts Arena here in Sarasota, fifty meals and drinks for search and rescue people, Sheriffs Dept., SPD, Kid\'s Connection plus we took care of all Red Cross Volunteers and Military. It was crazy at times order numbers would change all the time and at times I would have a one hour window to supply five hundred meals to hungry people, somewhere. \r\n\r\nI started with a lot of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken who donated everything free that first weekend along with those Youth Corps peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and snacks. Thank god we had about ten pallets of water stored in the back that Winn-Dixie just donated weeks before because the groceries shelves were completely empty of all supplies every where in town. I remember on one occasion when I picked up some dry cereal from the food bank and thought I could use it at the special needs shelter in Sarasota for breakfast, well the next day I went to five stores looking for milk and it was a no go everywhere I went, I did find some dry powered milk that we used but that was the kinds of obstacle\'s that I would have to go through all the time. Ice was also hard to come by anywhere that first weekend. If you didn\'t have those emergency supplies on stock like the Red Cross recommends somewhere in your home, then you were out of luck until the relief trucks made it down your street. I did a lot of pizza meals to that weekend; the problem was everybody was closed up. My volunteers where eating stale doughnuts from Never a Day Old Doughnut all weekend and some out dated cookies and snacks that we had around the Chapter. I was hurting and wondering what I was going to do for supplies. \r\n\r\nMy luck changed Monday when I received a call from Laura from a local restaurant association. Laura asked me what I needed and said she was going to help me. For the next six weeks I coordinated the feeding through Laura and her restaurants and these were the best restaurants in Sarasota County like The Colony on Longboat Key, Michael\'s on the East to name a couple of them. The best part about this deal was it was all donated; the Red Cross didn\'t pay a dime for anything. I figured a dollar amount of $250,000.00 in donated meals and supplies that I personally received. I remember when EOC called to say bump up my order number for Kings Highway from one thousand to two thousand meals and it was due in an hour. I called Laura and minutes later I had a thousand subs from the Italian Cuisine down the street. It was amazing the number of meals that we started pumping out of that Chapter. The ice problem was also solved by Laura, she let the \"Hot Shots\" go to all her restaurants and clean out the ice machine every night until we received our large stock supply. The \"Hot Shots\" were a couple of volunteers who would go out all night long dressed up in a combination of Red Cross and Military gear and were asked to do odd jobs during the grave yard hours of the morning, they were awesome volunteers and I will never forget them and their dedication. One of them was even fired from his job, because he didn\'t want to stop helping with the Red Cross relief operation.\r\n\r\nMy luck even got better when I recruited Lena who is a Mennonite and a great cook and had some great community connections that I quickly utilized. Everyone that I was responsible to feed by this time was eating like kings including the volunteers back at the Chapter and the special needs folks at Roberts Arena. I would walk in that Chapter at six in the morning and I could smell Lena\'s homemade sticky buns from the parking lot. Then there was the pies oh... those mouthwatering pies were to die for and it almost came to that on some occasions. My family and friends also stepped up to the front lines by providing fixed meals to our many volunteers and also driving with the Damage assessment and ERV teams and showing them the rural areas of DeSoto County were many illegal immigrants would be afraid to ask for assistance because of the fare of deportation.\r\n\r\nOne of the thrills of the operation was when I would shop. I remember going into SAMS Wholesale and spending 17,000 dollars on one shopping spree quickly snatching up all the water, fruit, snacks and cans of stew. We even bought a truck load of water from them that wasn\'t due in to SAMS until the next morning. We had them reroute the delivery from SAMS to our Chapter. I say the Chapter but it was more like Headquarters as far as I was concerned. We had semi trucks and deliveries all day and all night long at the Chapter; it was a site to be seen for sure. \r\n\r\nIt has been a week into the operation and it looks like I\'m going to finally get a chance to look at the damage first hand. I have been working about 15 hours a day at the Chapter for a week straight and I needed to get out and see for myself what Mother Nature had done in my backyard. I can\'t possibly write everything that I seen that day I have hundreds of pictures in my mind and some of them will probably haunt me forever. Many things I learned about life that day are still encapsulated in these pictures. I\'d like to do my best to share just a few of the many snapshots I\'m still processing. Like the look of shock I saw on many victims\' faces or the families that were hanging out in their house with no power, running water and no roof and acted like everything was normal. The odors I smelled also will stay etched in my mind like the pine smell from all the trees down or the stench of flood water filled with human fesses. The damage was just as bad as advertised and that did get my attention.\r\n\r\nSome examples of other strange things I noticed are Sod doesn\'t rip up; it just lifts and bends with the ground. The grass and tree roots looked like a table cloth draped over a pile of laundry. You never realize how dependant we are on electricity, until you walk into a room knowing full well that when you flip the switch nothing is going to happen, but you do it anyway. You cannot reach your family because cell sites are down, and cordless phones do not work without electricity. Just because you are not parked by a tree, does not mean that your car is safe. There are a lot of stars out there. It is possible for a town with a population of almost 2 million people to be QUIET. Pop Tarts are good hot or cold, early or late. Even your closest friends are really annoying when there is no option to run away and you are HOT. \r\n\r\nBut what really hit me the hardest was the community spirit I was witnessing; it would give me such a good feeling that I couldn\'t get rid of the goose bumps on my body. The barbecue grills could be seen on every corner I met this one couple who lost their ice cream business so they brought the remains to a street corner and stood in the sweltering heat scooping out ice cream to hundreds of sweaty, tired refugees. The outpouring of care was almost too much to handle without choking up. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and pitched in to help someone in need and it was amazing.\r\n\r\nThere were also the strange things that happened during the Hurricane Charley relief efforts. Besides dealing with three more hurricane threats named Francis, Ivan and Jeanne of course; which did put a delay on the Charley operation each time we were threatened. No Im talking about the strange volunteers like this one guy who was helping with the phone bank and decided to start a top ten stupid question list on the black board at the Chapter and if that wasn\'t bad enough this other guy had the nerve to start sharing that list to the morning radio show until he got caught and eventually let go from the Red Cross. The lady that came into our kitchen and started cooking the snake that smelled like it was just taken out of the contaminated Pease River was a story I will never forget either, the chapter stuck and we almost had to call the police to remove her. But the one that got to me the most was this guy who worked for us for about a week and seemed to be a godsend until he stole a credit card and one of our rental trucks and split to California and never was herd from again. \r\n\r\nWell after eight weeks and working an average of fifteen hours a day with out a real day off for the Red Cross, the operation was switching gears and looking at the long term recovery plans for the victims of Hurricane Charley and I was trying to get back to my normal job of cleaning and restoration. I owned and operated the business for ten years and I turned down many jobs during those eight weeks, to continue with my hurricane relief efforts. We specialize in crime scene clean up and I was doing pretty well but I couldn\'t get over what I felt during those eight weeks of hurricane relief operation. Then about a week passed and I found out that there was going to be some funded positions available soon. I decided to go for the DeSoto County Coordinator position that would be funded for a one year period and quickly wrote a resume and submitting it to the Red Cross.\r\n\r\n I waited for weeks after my interview to here anything and I was getting quite frustrated with the wait. It was a long shot that I would get the position I was told by many staff and volunteers but I kept my head high and stayed persistent. Finally the word came down and I received the position I was flying high and my self confidence was to. \r\n\r\nSo its been four months since Hurricane Charley and this small town of Arcadia Florida still struggles, bright blue tarps still cover homes damaged by Charley\'s wrath. Grocery stores that used to bustle with migrant farm workers are boarded up. Downtown dinettes that fed lunch to locals now serve out-of-town emergency workers, volunteers and contractors.\r\n\r\nHurricane Charley hit this rural, landlocked county hard and by surprise when it took an unexpected turn Aug. 13. It left a mark of devastation on an already poor county of working class families and farm workers who have faced an uphill battle to recovery.\r\n\r\nFor various reasons, long term recovery has been slow and Charley caused so much damage to buildings and homes that in some areas of town it still looks like a war zone. Many residents are living under tents or mold infested damaged homes that start affecting my breathing just doing a two hour family service interview in their home... Many live in isolated rural areas of DeSoto County.\r\n\r\nSuch residents don\'t have the strength, the money or the neighborhood support to help them selves. And the county\'s farm workers, many of whom live here illegally, don\'t speak English and don\'t trust the relief agencies enough to seek help. If they do seek help from government agencies, most of the time they won\'t qualify for the assistance.\r\n\r\nDeSoto, once known for its manicured orange groves, Arcadia\'s historic antique district and a popular annual rodeo, is still hurting today.\r\n\r\nYards are strewn with broken toys, stained clothes and sun-faded insulation. In some areas, trailers still stand, one side intact, the other splintered and exposed. Homes collapsed in on themselves, leaving heaps of sagging brick and plaster. Piles of twisted aluminum siding and shards of trees cling to nearly every roadside, and that\'s just the storm debris. There\'s also secondary debris from cleanup: rotted cupboards, ruined clothes and armchairs in yards and driveways and along curbs.\r\n\r\nCharley wiped out so much of the county\'s citrus groves that thousands of farm workers won\'t have jobs, let alone a place to live.\r\n\r\nDeSoto residents are getting help from the DeSoto County Unmet Needs Committee, a rotating group of out-of-town volunteers who have come to their aid with a rare, yet effective method of documenting problems and doing outreach. Members of the Unmet Needs Committee knock on doors and fill out lengthy questionnaires about the damage and residents\' needs. The committee works in tandem with another out-of- town groups and local and national disaster relief agency\'s like the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and Church groups, EOC and FEMA to meet residents unmet needs. \r\n\r\nTrinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia, Florida is operating as \"ground zero\" for DeSoto County\'s Long Term Recovery program. Arcadia was one community which was in the pathway of all three hurricanes which struck Florida last summer. Since November, the shift in DeSoto County has gone from providing \"relief\" supplies and services to \"recovery\", the long, slow process of rebuilding people\'s homes and lives. Volunteers from businesses, civic and religious organizations across the country have flocked to Arcadia to participate in the clean up and rebuilding process. In the beginning of April, Arcadia received its one hundredth volunteer work team. These teams have helped replace over 60 roofs and assisted in various repairs to another 60 homes in Arcadia. In February volunteers broke ground for construction of five new homes to replace those lost in the storms. Plans are in the works to build another forty-eight this year.\r\n\r\nA lot of the residents are also still in shock and very scarred and when the sky\'s turn black over DeSoto County and winds pick up and thunder is heard overhead, that\'s when my office phone will start ringing of the hook with residents and volunteers wondering if they are going to get whacked again. The small town is shell shocked for sure and the need for counseling is obvious. \r\n\r\nRight down the street from ground zero, in the heart of Arcadia, about a block away is the branch office of the American Red Cross Southwest Florida Chapter. I am heading up that office now as a paid staff member and have been busy recruiting and training DeSoto County volunteers. The response from the local community on the presence of the Red Cross office in DeSoto County has been great.\r\n\r\nThe office is great and I love the location and appreciate the history of down town Arcadia. The residents have had no problems with me being an outsider from Sarasota and invading their tiny town. Actually it has been quite the opposite they our glad the Red Cross is here and appreciate everything we did for them after Charley sucker punched them that Friday the 13th afternoon The residents of DeSoto County treat me and all Red Crossers like hero\'s and look to us for leadership. They also want Sarasota County to now that they will never forget what that community did and continue to do for the folks of DeSoto County and they thank them from the bottom of their hearts. Many of them became volunteers because they feel they owe Sarasota and want to be ready in case Sarasota County ever gets hit with a major disaster like Hurricane Charley. To appreciate everything I just said I will need to give you a little history lesson on Arcadia Florida.\r\n\r\nRemember the Ray boys? Remember the City without Pity? That was Arcadia. A small southern town on the banks of the Peace River, Arcadia is no progressive paradise. There is a night and day difference between DeSoto and Sarasota Counties. DeSoto is more like the Walton\'s with shades of Deliverance. Sarasota is like The Rich and Famous in comparison and DeSoto County has yet to recover from the Ray case, in which parents, teachers and preachers protested against the Ray family sending their HIV infected kids to school and the Ray family left after their house (somehow) caught fire. The community is segregated, black, white and Hispanic. There is literally a railroad track separating black and white. The schools, city and county commission are all Democrats - Reagan Democrats. Each public meeting begins with a prayer (even school boards) in which Jesus Christ is praised as the only Lord and Savior. God (the white Christian Republican version) is alive and well in the classroom. Supreme Court cases are slow to get to this part of Central Florida. This is cowboy country. No tree huggers, feminists, liberals, homosexuals and atheists need apply here. Pat Robertson is their hero (curiously Rush Limbaugh is not a hero, too much of a loud-mouthed Yankee). You\'d also be surprised at the number of murders (black, white and Hispanic). It\'s like a Stephen King novel, with a southern accent sometimes. It\'s a simple place, a simple town and a very dark and bloody past. Yes all I can say is racism and the good ole boy mentality still rules in DeSoto County and that\'s why this city slicker/ Yankee was very surprised with the acceptance I have received so far in Arcadia.\r\n