By Michael Coleman, American Red Cross
Lu Eshelman was a star for the American Red Cross -- the kind that bursts through your blinds at dawn every day, providing warmth and brightness. The light, warmth and strength she provided during her lifetime of service helped her fellow volunteers, staff and especially those she helped during disasters.
Lu was nominated for the National Presidential Award for Excellence in 2018 and was posthumously recognized at a ceremony in June as the North Central Division finalist for her dedication to serving people through the Red Cross.
She passed away on May 4, 2018 at age 80, a few days after she became ill while on her way home from a day’s work at the Greater Kansas City Chapter.
Since her early days as a Disaster Action Team (DAT) coordinator and through three decades of service, Lu’s strength and dedication made her an incredible volunteer. She had an ability to relate to those in need with power blanketed in compassion.
“Lu was a very soft-spoken woman,” said JoAnn Woody, external relations manager for the Missouri-Arkansas Region, who worked closely with her and still keeps a photo of a smiling Lu on her desk. “She was non-confrontational, but she was also no-nonsense. She was going to take care of you but not let you be lazy about it. She exuded that compassion,” JoAnn said. “Even in the midst of destruction, she was warm. She had a way about her that made you feel – this is going to be alright.”
During her years of volunteering, Lu worked in a number of areas. She was a Community Disaster Education Team member providing preparedness information to many groups in the Kansas City area. She also was personally motived to help with the Cause4Alarm group before the Home Fire Campaign or Sound the Alarm began.
“As a Disaster Action Team volunteer, she saw fires all the time. When you see those fires, it becomes very personal,” JoAnn said. “You are willing to do whatever you can to prevent that for somebody else.”
To that end, she conducted door-to-door canvassing with other Red Cross volunteers and Kansas City firefighters after fatal home fires to ensure that neighbors had access to working smoke alarms. Soon she was going on deployments to help with disaster recovery.
“She was always ready to go wherever she was asked to,” said her son, Charlie Empson Jr. “She went to Hurricane Katrina and to 911, a couple times.” He recalled her bravely going out in the large Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV), driving all across the country.“She couldn’t have been more committed to it if it was her full time job,” the son said.
JoAnn agreed, noting that Lu’s length of service was impressive. “It speaks volumes to the commitment she had to the mission,” she said.
Sometimes Lu would have to miss out on family events or pass on a chance to watch her grandchildren because of Red Cross duty. The sacrifice made to help others was part of her life and it touched family at times.
“My brother used to joke that she was cheating on us with another family,” Charlie said of her Red Cross family.
Both families came out to see her work and dedication be recognized by the Red Cross recently and it was overwhelming for Charlie at the ceremony.
“It was a mix of emotions -- certainly a lot of pride, people hearing about her work. But it brings up the heartache as far as losing her,” he said.
Lu’s dedication and strength was an important part of her service to the organization and to clients because the devastation wears on volunteers.
“You really have to be in a good place mentally and emotionally to deal with it,” JoAnn said, noting that Lu consistently volunteered for fire coverage the second week of the month. “It was a niche; she was good at it.”
Her drive to help others was sparked by the sudden death of her husband, Dr. Albert (Doc) Eshelman, in 1985. The loss was difficult for her, Charlie said, and she sought a positive way to respond. “That hole,” Charlie said, “if you don’t do something, it gets deeper and deeper.”
Shortly after that was when she discovered her passion for the Red Cross. “She just dove into that and it really was her life,” he said.
Lu, from Lees Summit, was recognized in 2001 by her local chapter with a Volunteer of the Year award. She garnered the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. But, she was just hitting her stride.
She was part of the chapter’s Services to the Armed Forces team, working with families of those serving in the military, sharing information with them about Red Cross efforts to keep family connected to deployed members of the military during critical life events. She followed up with military families who wanted to contact loved ones about deaths and other family emergencies.
“When you have someone with that kind of experience and dependability it takes a lot of the weight off,” JoAnn said. “Having someone with that kind of experience is a rarity. You know that it’s going to be done and done well.”
As Lu gained more experience she began to train other DAT volunteers. Her first lesson to DAT volunteers she trained was simple -- those in need come first.
“She knew how to guide them and she had a lot that she could draw on,” JoAnn said. “I leaned on her a lot in the years that I’ve been here. She was one of a kind.”
One of the key areas that Lu was instrumental in was the mobile meals program, which was not even a normal Red Cross program. But for Lu, it was an area she was passionate about serving in.
“There is nothing more direct to improving a person’s life than bringing them food,” JoAnn said.
She said they got a canteen truck that was donated by a local organization and Lu and friend and fellow volunteer JoAnn Hill took it out, going into areas that not a lot of people would go to.
They went straight to the hungry and homeless in the community. As her time volunteering stretched on, the challenges never waned for Lu. She continued to serve as a Mass Care worker on many deployments.
“She was doing God’s work,” Charlie said, which was inspired by how close she was to her church family at Blue Ridge Trinity Lutheran in Raytown.
JoAnn shared that after Lu passed away, it was bittersweet to give the award to her family.
“I wish it could have happened while she was still with us,” she said. “But to be able to share with her family how much she meant to us was great.”
Charlie said that his mother would have deflected the attention. “She would be a little embarrassed,” he said. “She was very humble. She would definitely say she didn’t do that alone. She’d say everybody she worked with deserved the same accolades.”