Their first volunteer assignment was for three months in 2001 during 9/11.
In February, 2013, they finished another three months of bringing aid to people involved in Hurricane Sandy.
And in the 12 years between Sandy and 9/11, Lew and Earlette Burdette have been on about 40 Red Cross missions, each lasting three-to-six weeks.
They have seen craters where buildings used to stand, whole towns destroyed by an outbreak of tornadoes, and hopeful kids who don’t know their dad has been killed in a disaster.
But if you ask them why they continue to volunteer for so many disaster relief operations, they will tell you it’s because there is so much need.
“I remember there was a tornado once – I don’t remember where – and I was working in Red Cross health services and was able to help a family whose children needed glasses,” Earlette Burdette said. “They had no money, and the kids were so excited just to get something as simple as glasses.”
Lew Burdette added that there have been more than a few times when they wished they could have done more.
Such as right after 9/11, for example.
One of their duties during that time was taking widows and widowers from the Red Cross processing center on Staten Island to a big hole in New York City where the World Trade Center had once been.
“And we gave them a red leather box with ashes from ground zero, representing the ashes of their loved ones lost in the tragedy,” Lew said. “It was to help them get some kind of closure to what had happened. And we’d both been registered nurses before retiring in 1999, and were used to dealing with trauma. But I tell you, that experience was heartwrenching.”
But helping victims is just one part of it. During Sandy, the Burdettes helped look after 2,000 other Red Cross volunteers, 250 of whom were staying on the S.S. Wright naval ship on Staten Island.
“It was very cold, and we took people to the hospital and stayed with them, supplied them over-the-counter medicines, and even accompanied them back home if they were too sick to fly by themselves,” Earlette said. “And then we would come back to New York and go back to work.”
Work often means 12-hour days. Every day. Until their assignment ends and they go back to their home in Easley.
But after 54 years of marriage and eight grown children, the Burdettes see it more as filling a need – and getting another day to be together.
“We never go on a mission unless we’re together – that’s part of our deal with the Red Cross,” Lew said. “As long as we’re together, it’s all the same to us – no matter the disaster or the places.”
And they have seen plenty of both in the last 12 years, including floods in Kentucky, fires in Colorado, tornado ruins in the Midwest, hurricane wreckage in Florida, single-family home burnings in the Carolinas, plus 9/11 and Sandy in New York.
“The Burdettes are a wonderful, unique and committed husband and wife volunteer team” said Ann Wright, Regional Chief Executive Officer for the Red Cross in Greenville. “They have seen some significant national emergencies, and provided aid and comfort to disaster clients who were experiencing very real crises. I hope Lew and Earlette will continue to help us deliver Red Cross assistance and support for many years to come.”
Which is exactly what they intend.
Once they get back from Hattiesburg and make sure their home is still OK, they’ll be back in the Red Cross volunteer pool for the next need – and chances are they won’t have to wait long.
“It brings us a lot of joy in helping others,” Lew said, to which Earlette added, “It doesn’t matter what your background is, the Red Cross has something for everybody. There are so many different parts of the Red Cross that people can volunteer for, and you can work locally, or on a national disaster like Sandy.”