HONEYVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Army veteran Charles “Mr. Charlie” Hall speaks softly and carries a big heart.
Hall is also a first-time disaster responder with the American Red Cross. He had been on the job as a disaster program manager for the organization in Southern New Hampshire/Vermont Region for just two weeks when he was dispatched to Florida to help with Hurricane Michael relief.
“I was blown away. I’ve never seen such devastation,” he said of his drive from Tallahassee, FL into Gulf County, which encompasses the hard-hit coastal cities of Port St. Joe and Apalachicola as well as devastated inland communities. “This is something I’ll never forget.”
Minutes after arriving at the Red Cross shelter in Honeyville, Hall was helping serve meals. In short order, he found himself managing the kitchen operation.
With guidance from the shelter managers, Luis Riera and Sue, Hall quickly hit his stride.
“I check with them. I’m here to learn from them and ask them what I can help with,” he said of his “battlefield commission.” “I’ll make mistakes and learn but keep doing what I’m doing with a smile on my face.
“All of my army training prepared me in a different way. It was very structured, where, with the Red Cross, I knew that anyone who comes through the door, we gotta help.”
Prior to joining the Red Cross, Hall spent 26 years on active duty and five years in the Army Reserves. “I had a successful career in the army. I wasn’t ready to stop, (but) working with the Red Cross is an unbelievable opportunity to see what humanitarian effort is all about. I have found my calling.”
Don Minchew, a member of the Community Emergency Response Team from neighboring Wewahitchka, Fla., helped open the shelter in Honeyville in the early days of the disaster and continues as support for the Red Cross.
“I’m diabetic and couldn’t eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches provided at lunch,” Minchew said, “but Charles here’s been making me peanut butter sandwiches every day, without the jelly, just for me! He’s a great guy, been taking good care of me and everyone else.”
“This work is about the people you work with, there are great volunteers here,” Hall said. “You’re also taught what it’s like to be human.”
He won't soon forget one experience: An elderly man came to the shelter to meet with FEMA officials, shirtless, assisted by a cane and shuffling in flip flops. “He was embarrassed to come into the shelter and I wanted to preserve his dignity, so we found him a shirt, so he could enter the shelter with self-respect.”
As a “visitor” from the north and a military culture, Hall aimed to build a rapport with shelter residents, learn the local values and norms, and understand what lines not to cross: For one, keep pancakes, cinnamon French toast and breakfast burritos in regular rotation.
Hall knows he’ll return a changed man to his “blue sky” job with the Red Cross in New Hampshire. “I know now what my co-workers are talking about,” he said. “You can’t truly know what it’s like to deploy until you’ve done it.
“Now I know now what real compassion looks like. I’m amazed, truly amazed, by what the Red Cross does.”