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Recognizing Everyday Heroes in Central Florida

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Red Cross Month is a special time where we honor and thank the many everyday heroes who power our humanitarian mission with their hands and hearts. With tremendous gratitude, we acknowledge the following local volunteers with more than 25 years of service in Central Florida.

Greater Orlando – Liz Welker

In 26 years as a Red Cross volunteer, Liz has done a lot of jobs she really liked – and others not quite as much. But through it all, commitment and compassion kept her moving up in the organization and providing aid to people affected by disasters.

“Sometimes you have to push yourself,” she says. “You have to be really committed to help people. You have to understand that, gee, somebody’s house has burned down – I’ve got a house to come home to, they don’t.”

Liz started with the Red Cross in Greensboro, N.C. and moved to the Greater Orlando chapter seven years ago.

She has managed people involved in running shelters and in feeding operations, serving at some 50 disasters large and small including the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9-11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Floyd.

She’s also been an instructor for classes that volunteers take on mass care, sheltering and feeding.

“I’ve gotten to do a lot of things that for me were fun,” Liz says.

She’s also worked in volunteer services. “I try to encourage them, tell them I’m a volunteer too and that it’s a great organization – you certainly feel like your contributing to your society.”

Mid-Florida Chapter – Elizabeth “Libby” King

Libby had a friend at the Red Cross who encouraged her to join. That was 38 years ago and she’s still happy she did.

“I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said. “The people you are with are excellent. We always enjoyed doing things together and you always felt like it was something you should do.”

Libby volunteers at Regency Hospital now and says that over the years has done a little of everything -- always sticking with needs in her local communities. She’s helped feed firemen and policemen during disasters, load relief trucks and provide assistance during a local distillery fire and a train derailment.

“I enjoyed going out and seeing people and being able to help them,” she says. “I think the Red Cross is a super organization -- it’s great to belong to an organization like this.”

Southwest Florida – Larry and Carol Palmer

It was seeing the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that inspired Larry and Carol to volunteer with the Red Cross. They joined shortly after that, and still go out on disaster calls.

“We still like helping people -- doing what we can -- we’re just getting a little tired,” Carol says with a chuckle, noting they’re both now 80. “It’s just a wonderful thing to help other people and that’s why we’ve stayed.”

Carol started out answering the phones. Then Larry’s experience as a former Pentagon supply officer landed him in a role in logistics and Carol joined him there. They deployed to hurricanes Floyd and Katrina, tornadoes in Tennessee and spent six weeks near ground zero after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

“Both my husband and I agree, there’s nothing better than the feeling you get when someone comes up to you and gives you a hug and says, 'thank you for helping.' Or when a young child comes up to you and gives you a poster they made,” says Carol. “You just get goosebumps.”

Tampa Bay – Mary O’Geary

What motivates Mary? A lesson she learned from her father. “It all goes back to something my dad used to say to us all the time: ‘Service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy,’” she says. “That was how he instilled the idea of community service in all of us” -- that's Mary and her eight siblings.

She started after her daughter’s Girl Scout troop wanted to take a camping trip -- but none of the adults knew first aid. “I took the Red Cross class and was invited to become an instructor and it just kept going from there,” Mary says.

Though she’s been retired for 20 years, Mary was also a paid Red Cross staffer for 16 years. She has deployed to more than 54 disasters throughout her service.

She says her proudest accomplishment was a leadership training program she helped set up that offered a week-long camp for teenagers, lasted 14 years, and “ended up leaving behind a generation of better-trained leaders for the community.”

Florida’s Space Coast – Donna Ahnert

Donna remembers the volunteer work her parents did at their church, and she remembers her dad driving widows to their chemotherapy or going to a widow’s home to help with a repair.

“I saw giving,” says Donna, who this year celebrates her 41st year of service with the American Red Cross. “Volunteering is in my blood.” She started volunteering with the Red Cross in 1977 in New York and now is a member of Florida's Space Coast Chapter.

Educated as a nurse, Donna’s profession was teaching nursing students and she is still a camp nurse for a children’s retreat in the Adirondacks. She’s been an instructor of Red Cross health classes, which include programs such as first aid and CPR, and now is staff wellness coordinator for the Central Florida region.

But she also enjoys disaster duty. Donna has worked as a damage assessment supervisor, a caseworker and in other Red Cross jobs that provide emergency assistance to people affected by disasters.

What is her trick for remaining so committed to the mission for so long? “Step one: Enjoy what you’re doing,” she says. “Step two: Constantly be training and enlarging your knowledge.”

She said learning how to do a number of different jobs gives volunteers a greater sense of the organization. “You get a much bigger picture -- the national picture of what the Red Cross does -- and how important we are,” Donna said.