Note: This story first appeared in the Great Falls Tribune. To read more Tribune stories, visit www.gftribune.com.
GREAT FALLS — Crisis has come in many forms in Alice Klundt's nearly 75 years.
She's comforted Great Falls folks who have watched their homes burn. She's huddled with Oklahoma high-schoolers during tornadoes and stood with Floridians as they faced devastating losses after a hurricane.
She's eased the way for grieving families at funerals in the Holy Spirit Catholic Parish. She's reached out to military families with emergency messages. She's helped frazzled Red Cross volunteers grapple with the aftermath of disasters.
Klundt's children were grown when she decided she needed to do something to help her community in a new way 33 years ago.
"The year I joined the Red Cross would have been our 11-year flood. My husband was in the National Guard, which always helped with the floods," she said. "I said that year I would help, too."
New levees prevented a flood, but Klundt likes to take a little credit, too.
"We haven't had a flood here since I joined Red Cross," she said.
Klundt started her Red Cross service responding to single-family fires. There she learned the importance of helping people maintain their dignity.
“First, we never refer to them as victims," she said. "They might start thinking of themselves as victims and that stalls their process.
"Dignity, too, means providing a hygiene kit so they can wash their face and feel like they can face the day. The dignity of a place to stay, of new clothes they can choose. Advocating for them," she said.
"We're doing whatever we can do to help people not feel stigmatized by something that wasn't their fault," she said. "I want people to feel they have value. I know they have value."
'Proud of my age and what I can do'
This fall Klundt went to Virginia and North Carolina for post-hurricane relief.
"North Carolina had a lot of water, and the water was so bad. The smell so bad," she said. "People are having to clean out their house and get out of their yards."
She was home for two weeks and then off to Florida in November after Hurricane Michael, which caused about $15 billion in damages.
She saw metal wrapped around posts and snapped telephone poles. Ships were flipped. She said she can hardly imagine how hard the recovery will be in Panama City, which "really took the brunt," but she's always found inspiration in how people respond to crisis.
“The linemen, I couldn’t believe how fast they were out. The garbage trucks were so fast. It’s heartwarming to see the linemen come and know people are starting to recover and get back to where they were”
At her age, some staff worried about her dealing with the privations of deploying to a disaster zone, such as sleeping on cots with thin pads. Klundt brushed that aside.
"It's like camping. Montana girls can do this stuff," she said. "I slept like a baby, but of course we were working 12-hour days."
Klundt is almost 75, but she's "proud of my age and what I can do," she said. “A lot of it is staying busy and doing things that are meaningful."
Klundt stayed at a shelter in a school with 470 others.
"Toward the end, people were able to start leaving," she said. "They could access their homes, but for some they were notified their places were destroyed. That was a hard blow for people."
In 1989, Klundt started responding to national emergencies with the organization. Her first deployment took her to Texas, where she worked at a shelter for Central American refugees seeking political asylum.
"The people, it was so nice to meet everyone, and I practiced my Spanish," she said. "It was a really different thing, and then we're seeing the same darn thing happen again."
Seeing the refugees leave for sponsors' homes with their paper bags of supplies "just made my heart full," she said.
On another deployment, she worked out of a warehouse delivering supplies around Guam. She also became a Red Cross trainer and traveled around the country doing advanced training.
In 1993, Klundt changed from volunteer to staff, becoming director of emergency services for the local Red Cross chapter. She helped Montana communities prepare for emergencies and facilitated loans to military service members and emergency notifications to airmen.
She changed gears again in 2002 and was hired for the National Red Cross Reserves. During Hurricane Katrina, she trained volunteers to work in the call center and to work in data entry to support casework.
Responding to a cyclone in American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, Klundt encountered on her three-week deployment "a culture so different from what we have."
"The cyclone stalled over the island for six days. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for the children, the storm beating down everything," she said.
Now she's a volunteer again. With her experience, Klundt has found a niche in support positions with the Red Cross as training manager, staffing chief or volunteer relations specialist for large disaster operations.
"I look at what I can do to support the others. I want to do what I can to make things easier and work better so we can help our clients," she said. "That’s the bottom line. Anything I can do to help volunteers is going to make them more effective.”
This year, Klundt added volunteering with the St. Jude Society to her plate. The group helps local residents make rent and utility payments. She delivers food and toiletries. Oh, and she's been a 4-H leader, too.
'To any of God's people'
Klundt is a past state president and current historian with the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, the women's branch of the Irish Catholic fraternal organization. The state board of the Ladies AOH recently unanimously and successfully nominated Klundt for the Bishop Alexander J. Brunett Medal for Social Justice.
"I was so tickled,” Klundt said.
The award goes to Montana Irish Catholics who have "demonstrated a commitment to their community and state in any area of social justice" and ties back to the discrimination and injustice Irish Americans faced. The goal is to recognize those who "committed themselves to making sure that this is not repeated to any of God’s people."
The oldest of 12 children who remembers a "very wonderful childhood" in Great Falls, Klundt said she came by caregiving naturally.
As for volunteering, "you can find the time,” she said.
"I stay the course. I really like our mission so I stick it out,” she said. “It just gets in your blood.”
Tribune reporter Kristen Inbody is a Red Cross volunteer.