Gift of A Lifetime

During the holiday season there is much to be thankful for as we gather with loved ones, participate in traditions and winter festivities, and search for the perfect gifts to give to family and friends. However, there are some gifts that are less tangible than others. Tacy Fleener from Alexandria, Minnesota, describes her recent deployment to the Red Cross disaster relief response to Superstorm Sandy in New York City, and the special “gift of a lifetime” she received.

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Red Cross disaster relief volunteer worker Tacy Fleener. (File photo: American Red Cross)

Tacy has been with the Red Cross for 30 years as the first national responder out of Douglas County. She started at 16 years old, teaching swimming lessons and CPR training. Later on, with the help of her husband, she got the local Red Cross chapter in Alexandria up and running with different classes and opportunities of involvement for local community members. Her heart is most passionate about disaster relief and being of use during times of great need.

During past deployments, Tacy  specialized in mass care shelter management and hands-on experience. However, this deployment was a different involvement; one that was also very intense but rewarding. Tacy’s job was behind the scenes to guide volunteers through the deployment process. She would enter these volunteers into data bases and designate hotel rooms to keep track of individuals during their deployment.

Tacy expertly handled stress the minute she arrived on site, “Things were chaotic when I got there, my job was to try to keep the peace with the hotels we had under contract. I played detective to try to spend Red Cross’ money the right way, while making sure that volunteers were where they needed to be, with places to stay.”

“Just to see the need I had been hearing about with individual faces and stories kept me motivated throughout my deployment. It was easy to see that the distribution process was very difficult. People on the distribution team were bringing supplies to outskirt areas, such as Stanton Island where 12,000 people are still without power.” She remembers that distribution volunteers are overwhelmed with the need. One story that impacted her life was one gentleman leading a distribution team. She recalls, “He had just got back from Staten Island where he had been sleeping on pallets for two weeks. He looked like death warmed over and I thought to myself, oh wow, we need to find a hotel for this guy so he can rest and get cleaned up.”

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A “thank you” from Josh Holper and his friends to the Red Cross. (Photo credit: Sue Gonsior/American Red Cross)

Though rooms were in a shortage in Stanton Island during this time, various New York hotels were gracious and gave American Red Cross a block of discounted rooms. This is an example of a reoccurring theme of camaraderie and teamwork throughout the east coast disaster relief. Even with support and understanding, every day was mentally and emotionally stressful. “We spent 12-14 hours a day keeping track of hotels to try to save the Red Cross as much money as possible,” says Tacy. “Every volunteer constantly gave it their all and was very supportive. Thanksgiving was especially a wonderful time to be volunteering; we had the opportunity to make sure that people had a Thanksgiving dinner. Citizens were very appreciative and it was neat to spend Thanksgiving by giving back to this community. To hear someone say ‘thank you’ was wonderfully rewarding.”

Volunteering during this disaster is a constant 24/7 job, without many breaks, yet Tacy says she would do it again in a heartbeat. “I love the Red Cross, the volunteers, the people I meet. Everyone that is there wants to make a difference. Even when you had been working 12-14 hours a day, you just go and give a big hug to each other and say thank you.”

Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf , Ed Newman (c) and Sue Buelow, in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.
Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf, Ed Newman and Sue Buelow in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.

Thank you’s and appreciation can go a long way. The American Red Cross Northern Minnesota would like to extend its gratitude to Tacy and more than 100 relief workers who have donated, volunteered or been involved with the Red Cross mission to reduce human suffering during the Sandy disaster response on the east coast.

Tacy hopes her experience encourages others to volunteer. “Just to meet one person who says thank you brightens my whole day. It really helps me when I come back home to Minnesota; to appreciate what I have; to appreciate helping others in a time of need. It fills my heart to be able to give back by doing something truly important. I know my whole heart is into it when I’m there. I know the other volunteers feel the same way, young and old. I recommend that anyone become a Red Cross volunteer–it’s an experience of a lifetime. Make the time, take some classes and experience the opportunity to give back to others, because you never know when you will need it yourself. Some of the friends you meet will touch your heart for a lifetime.”

Click here to find out more about how you can help with Superstorm Sandy relief this holiday season and give the gift of a lifetime.

Story by Megan Barnes/American Red Cross

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