September 17, 2004

Vanderbilt employees pitch in with Red Cross hurricane relief

Featured Image

Two Gainesville, Fla., residents were spray-painting their fence to reflect the approaching hurricane, Ivan, after weathering Hurricane Frances last week. Photos by Lisa Peper

Vanderbilt employees pitch in with Red Cross hurricane relief

Kelly Kron serves Red Cross Shelter client, Santos, dinner.

Kelly Kron serves Red Cross Shelter client, Santos, dinner.

Red Cross volunteers assemble 2,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be delivered to local families in need.

Red Cross volunteers assemble 2,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be delivered to local families in need.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Each donning plastic gloves, the five Vanderbilt employees who were sent by the Red Cross to assist hurricane victims in Florida approached a daunting — and sticky — task. Their first assignment: slather 5,000 slices of white bread with peanut butter and jelly.

Although this work wasn’t as high profile as providing medical assistance or repairing damaged homes, it was still needed and very much appreciated.

Those living in the area have battled two hurricanes in the past month and were nervously preparing for the worst with yet another approaching storm, Ivan, which fortunately should spare residents of Gainesville.

Vanderbilt’s volunteers and others stepped in where The Southern Baptist Volunteer Group, who normally supplies all the food to be distributed by emergency relief vehicles, left off. The group left the area early because of the threat of Hurricane Ivan.

After an hour or so of assembly line sandwich-making, the situation was left wide open to some bad food humor.

“Look at that, we got the peanut gallery over there,” said Roy, an older volunteer with a devious smile. “You know why I wear gloves? So there’s no fingerprints and they can’t trace this sandwich back to me.”

A volunteer at the end of the table bagging potato chips made a sarcastic remark.

“Oh don’t listen to her,” Roy quipped, “she’s got a chip on her shoulder.”

Vanderbilt volunteer Kelly Kron sat between two older women volunteers who had an opinion about everything.

“They were very focused on their jobs and took it very seriously,” she said. “It was a catastrophe to come across a flattened loaf of bread. And one kept saying she was ‘up to her elbows in peanut butter.’ They kept me on my toes — and laughing.”

It was the end of day one on the job, and thousands of sandwiches later, the Vanderbilt group went back to their hotel, wondering what the next day would bring.

Arriving initially in Orlando, Fla., known as “America’s playground,” it was hard for the volunteers to believe this was a city suffering from the effects of not one, but two, powerful hurricanes. The sun shined, the city streets were abuzz with traffic, and the vivid green palm trees swayed gently against a clear blue sky.

But then the group saw the subtle signs of destruction — a street sign was flattened several feet from its designated posts; traffic lights dangled five feet lower than they had before; plywood boards still covered windows of some local businesses. All this in the downtown area of a city that considered itself blessed to have avoided much of Hurricane Frances’ wrath.

Vanderbilt volunteers peered out at the city through the windows of a rental car on Wednesday, Sept. 8, as they traveled to the Red Cross staging headquarters. They arrived at an Orlando hotel/convention center around noon to report for duty, eager to begin helping in any capacity they could.

But the group soon learned that the call to duty would take time. After registering with those who staffed the state’s shelters and disaster relief teams, the group waited for their assignments.

And they continued to wait until after noon the next day. The Red Cross was still assessing damage to find where the need was the greatest, to figure out where the thousands of volunteers would be sent.

Joanne Rains, Kelly Kron, Brad Corr, Tammy Suggs and this reporter would have to wait their turns like the hundreds of other volunteers gathered in the convention center. When their call to action came, it came with mixed feelings.

They were to go to Gainesville, an area that, like Orlando, hadn’t felt the brunt of the storm.

“We were a little disappointed, since we had originally thought we’d be going into a harder hit area,” Rains explained. “We were pumped up for a challenge, and it didn’t seem like we’d find that in Gainesville. But it was a relief to finally know what we’d be doing, and come to find out, there was a great need in that area.”

As they drove through Gainesville, Suggs pointed out the windows to familiar sights. “That’s where I bought my first car,” she said as they passed by an auto dealer. “It was a red Pontiac Sunfire.” Suggs had spent every summer, every Christmas break in the area, first visiting her grandparents, then her parents, who moved there while she was in college.

“My mom has been wanting to me to visit, so maybe I’ll get to,” she said.

They continued through the town and met up with other volunteers at the local headquarters. After two days of traveling, waiting, and traveling more, they waited again. The local Red Cross chapter wasn’t entirely sure where the volunteers would go yet. For the time being, it was back to a hotel to sleep for the night.

The next day would bring the peanut butter and jelly sandwich assignment. Then it was off to a shelter, where they would spend most of their time. The shelter housed around 50 local residents, which the Red Cross considers clients.

In a unique relationship with the local health services, many of the clients have special health needs, and a team of nurses also manned the fort. The clients were provided cots, which were spread out throughout a gymnasium.

Margaret came to the shelter because she is oxygen-dependent and had no electricity in her home. Her son, Mikey kept her company, and her fellow church member, Barbara, weaved her hair.

“She’s gotta stay and finish it this time, or I’m telling pastor on her,” Margaret said.

Barbara, her husband and three children were also staying in the shelter. Two large trees fell on their home during Hurricane Frances. Though was hard to share a living space with so many other people, she said they are making the most of the situation.

“The kids are having a great time, running around and playing,” she said, as her fingers quickly moved in and around Margaret’s hair.

“I’m amazed at the sense of community among the residents,” Corr said, having worked in the shelter multiple times. “At one point I saw a 6-year-old girl ask an older man if she could help him with his bed-ridden wife.”

Joan, an 80-year-old client, was itching to help around the shelter. She said she hates watching other people work, but she was enjoying her time here.

“My daughter keeps telling me I need to move into an assisted living facility — and I’ve found it! There’s so many nice people here, that I’m not leaving,” she said, crossing her arms. She kept the volunteers on their toes with her sassy remarks.

Suggs worked the night shift in the shelter and was able to lend an ear to the clients.

“A lot of the guys here had insomnia, and I talked with them,” Suggs said. “We talked about life and whatever was on their minds. They were so excited that Ivan was going to miss them, and they were able to go home. I was there as someone to listen.”

Along with visiting with clients, the volunteers helped with cleaning, feeding and managing the shelter. On the days they weren’t in the shelter, they took turns helping on the ERVs, a large ambulance-like vehicle that provides life support in the form of food and other necessities, dropping off food to the cities in the outlying areas.

Bill volunteered with the Red Cross for three weeks, and manned the ERV.

His first stop that day was at the Otter Creek Baptist Church. The church still had plywood covering its windows, but the sounds of a piano managed to escape as the vehicle drove up. It was Sunday morning and services were under way. A group of men met the ERV and quickly began helping to move the supplies in to the reception hall.

“The Lord has been blessing us,” said John, a church member. “The Red Cross has been able to help us with water and food — they’ve been great.”

After unloading the truck, Bill grabbed a cup of coffee and some snacks the church members offered him, and took the time to visit.

“They want to give us something back, so I take the time to let them show their appreciation and to show them I care about their community,” he said. Then it was back into the truck and on to the next stop.

“I was helping to hand out the lunches at one drop-off site,” Rains said. “I was able to meet some of the people in need. Everyone was saying ‘Thank you, thank you, you really have to know that we have nothing. This is such a Godsend.’ I was really touched by their appreciation.”

Though it seemed as if they had just started their mission, after a week in Florida, the Vanderbilt group of Red Cross volunteers prepared to leave the disaster relief operations and return to their normal lives in Nashville.

“There’s a sense of excitement to be a part of something that doesn’t stop here in Gainesville,” Suggs said. “I can go back and be a part helping with disasters at home, and that’s something I’m looking forward to.”

“After this experience, I want to get involved with the Red Cross on a local level,” Kron said. “It was one of those rush decisions [to go to Florida], and it was great to make that first step into community involvement. I would go again in a heartbeat.”

The group arrived back in Nashville Wednesday afternoon.