As an American Red Cross course instructor, local disaster responder and accomplished mobile-feeding vehicle driver, Roberto Baltodano is a true Red Crosser at heart. National Hispanic Heritage Month brings the perfect opportunity for Baltodano to build on his experience in Nicaragua, Florida and New York to reach Latinos and encourage others to prepare for disasters. Similar to many fellow Red Crossers, Baltodano’s dedication and love of the Red Cross mission started when he was on the receiving end of Red Cross help.
As a boy in his native Nicaragua, Baltodano and his family were impacted by the country’s instability caused by a 30-year civil war. After rebels staged a coup and toppled the government, his family and 300 other Nicaraguans sought refuge at the Salvadorian embassy. During their one-year stay at the embassy, the Nicaraguan Red Cross was a constant presence outside the embassy walls, making sure the Nicaraguan people who sought asylum were safe, well cared for and connected to visiting family members. Baltodano’s family left Nicaragua the following year, ending up in Miami, Florida.
Years later in 1992, Baltodano and many other South Floridians sought help and food from the Red Cross after Hurricane Andrew leveled the southern end of Miami-Dade County.
“I remember seeing the emergency response vehicles and pallets of food,” Baltodano said. “There were many people. It was a hectic environment with a lot of movement.”
While waiting for his food, he overheard a conversation that more volunteers were needed. Baltodano offered his help and became a spontaneous Red Cross volunteer. After some training, he was on a mobile feeding vehicle distributing food and dry goods to some of the hardest hit areas in South Florida.
After Hurricane Andrew, Baltodano went back to school, entered the work force and got married. It wasn’t until 2010 when his job was cut that Baltodano returned to the Red Cross. “I was laid off on Friday and on Tuesday I was at the Miami Chapter of the Red Cross,” said Baltodano.
Since his return to the Red Cross four years ago, Baltodano has been deployed throughout the state of Florida, and even to New York to help with the Hurricane Sandy relief effort. Just like his work after Hurricane Andrew, Baltodano helped others get food in New York, but this time from the operational side. Baltodano oversaw the coordination of the more than 300 mobile feeding vehicles for the state of New York. “I wanted to learn as much as I could about food and mass care,” said Baltodano.
One of Baltodano’s most memorable moments of his Red Cross service was the night of Christmas Eve last year. He received a call to a property that once held a beautiful five-bedroom house, now burned down. Baltodano met the man who had lived in the house, along with his wife and three-year-old daughter. While Baltodano was helping the family with paperwork, the man mentioned that his little girl had a teddy bear collection that was destroyed by the fire. Baltodano reached into his Red Cross bag, pulled out a teddy bear and gave it to the father. The father melted to his knees. As the father looked at the teddy bear, he said that the little bear represented the beginning of the recovery. Baltodano said, “I have been fortunate to impact a lot of people on big operations, yet this father made more of an impact on me.”
In observation of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Baltodano encourages Latinos to be better prepared for disasters and volunteer with the Red Cross. “We can’t wait to the last minute to prepare and depend on others to help,” said Baltodano. “It is up to us to be Red Cross ready. We can start with the basics: talk with your family, make a plan, identify the vulnerabilities of your home and look for ways to fix them.”
“One day you may be on the receiving end,” said Baltodano. “Everyone has the power to help. I like going out and helping.”