Oct. 4, 2011 - Cheryl Fleet and her husband, Tom, began volunteering with the American Red Cross in Mercer and Butler Counties three years ago after the pair retired from their teaching jobs at Reynolds High School in Greenville, Pa.
“After we retired, we decided we were both healthy and sane enough to volunteer,” said Cheryl. “We have the time to give back to the community now.”
This past September, when Cheryl and Tom would normally have been starting back at school, the retired teachers were instead preparing for a two-week deployment with the American Red Cross. The husband-and-wife duo spent much of early September driving a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) around parts of Pennsylvania and New York to assist residents whose homes had been damaged, destroyed or lost after Hurricane Irene ravaged the Northeast.
The Fleets were two of nearly 30 local volunteers deployed from the American Red Cross Southwestern Pennsylvania Region. After picking up the ERV from Beaver, Pa., they headed to the Pittsburgh office of the Red Cross where they packed up the Emergency Response Vehicle with nearly 2,000 shelf-stable meals before driving the vehicle out to Reading, Pa. where the vehicle was being staged.
The duo spent their deployment primarily in Reading, Philadelphia and the Albany area in New York where they would drive the ERV to different disaster sites as well as work with, and provide meals and other necessary items to, disaster victims.
Cheryl described her and her husband’s role, as well as that of the other ERV drivers, as being the “eyes and ears for the Red Cross mental health volunteers and for the national office,” since they were actually driving out into the affected areas and could see what was going on firsthand.
Cheryl said she was constantly in awe of the experiences she and her husband encountered during their deployment. There were many families they helped who had lost everything from the storm and subsequent flooding.
“You can’t understand the impact that the Red Cross has for people who have lost everything,” says Cheryl, “You are the first people they see who are positive.”
Cheryl described a sad instance when they were out in one of the communities. There, she met a little girl with polio who had traveled back to her home to see if her wheelchair had survived Irene. Sadly, it had not. The girl’s mother knew this, but also knew that her daughter had to come for closure.
Throughout the course of their deployment, Cheryl noticed that the disaster victims were always very humble and grateful for the assistance of Red Cross volunteers.
“They were kind of shy about coming up to the vehicle to get meals,” said Cheryl. “One day, we were serving chicken parmesan. [It took a little while, but] once people saw it was hot and smelled good, more [of them] started to come over.”
These moments of comfort for the victims are what really made the volunteer work worthwhile to Cheryl. Almost everywhere Cheryl and her husband went on their deployment, they sensed people’s gratitude.
“That is something that was amazing to me – when you put that Red Cross vest on - which we wore from the beginning [of our journey] - and even when we would just stop at rest stops, we would get out of the ERV and walk across the parking lot, and most everyone that saw us would say, ‘Thank You.’”
On the last night of their deployment, Cheryl and Tom were in Windham, N.Y. serving pot roast. One of the people they were serving was a man who didn’t speak English. When he smelled the food, he started to cry.
“It was so fulfilling to see people who hadn’t had a hot meal in more than a week and didn’t have electricity yet able to stand together and eat and share,” said Cheryl.
While the Fleets have helped with many local fires and disasters over the past few years, this was their first time deploying to the site of a national disaster. During the two-week stint, the couple met many volunteers from across the country.
“It was amazing to me how many different agencies get together to help with major disasters,” said Cheryl, “You don’t see that through local disasters as much.”
After they returned from their deployment and took a few days to unwind, Cheryl came across a quote she felt to be extremely telling of the role of a Red Cross volunteer:
You can make a difference in the quality of life for those around you. People need your love, support and encouragement. Take your position seriously, and use your influence well.
“Isn’t that the truth for the Red Cross,” Cheryl said.
Cheryl and her husband look forward to volunteering both locally and nationally with the American Red Cross again.