Seven Days of Giving: Volunteers bring hope to Sandy survivors

Written by Paul Srubas Press-Gazette Media

From left, Jan Traversa, Joe Gerrits, Bonny Chapman, Rudy Senarighi and Gayle Hein stand as five members of a group of 19 volunteers from the local community who traveled to the east coast to help during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. / Matt Robinson/Press-Gazette Correspondent

Charity begins at home, but it doesn’t have to stay there.

That’s the mindset of 19 volunteers with the Red Cross of Northeastern Wisconsin, all of whom recently pitched in to provide disaster relief in New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. They each spent about two weeks there, sleeping on cots in a gymnasium full of strangers, working 16 hours a day or more packing and trucking goods to people in areas of heavy devastation, going door to door to provide relief where needed.

For their volunteer efforts, they are being featured in the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s series, “Seven Days of Giving,” which identifies some of the local heroes of charitable efforts.

“There’s nothing like someone giving you a hug and saying ‘thank you,’” said one of them, Jan Traversa, 59, of Pulaski. “I’m so grateful I was able to go. I wish I didn’t have to work so I could do it full time.”

Like most other Red Cross volunteers — and there are 41 of them throughout Northeastern Wisconsin — Traversa and the other 18 do local disaster relief work. They can often be seen at the scene of fires, for example, where they do everything from providing temporary shelter for fire victims to handing out coffee to the tired firefighters.

The people

Red Cross volunteers recently returning from providing Hurricane Sandy relief: Joe Gerrits and Mary Roellchen, De Pere; Jan Traversa, Pulaski; Bonny Chapman, Dean Ekberg, Deb Harrington, Gayle Hein and Denise Mooren, Green Bay; Phil Everhart, Marinette; Ron Maloney, Rudy Senarighi, Judy Dobbins and Diane (Dee) Knutson, Sturgeon Bay; Donna LaPlante, Little Suamico; Mary Beth (Betsy) LeClair and Joel O’Connell, Two Rivers; Keith and Yvonne Stukenberg, Luxemburg; Lori Delain, Casco.

But these 19 also were willing to take their show on the road. In this case, that meant the Eastern Seaboard in the wake of some of the worst storm damage the nation has seen.

“A lot of the people who did this and Katrina felt this was worse because it’s a much more populated area,” said Jody Weyers, volunteer coordinator for the Red Cross of Northeastern Wisconsin.

Joe Gerrits, one of 19 local volunteers who helped out after Hurricane Sandy, celebrates with a group of friends at Legends in De Pere earlier this month. / Matt Robinson/Press-Gazette Correspondent

“You drive down the road, and all you see are piles of debris out on the street,” said Joe Gerrits, 46, a volunteer from De Pere. “Everything is junk — appliances, furniture. People are tearing out their dry wall. It’s because of the mold.”

Gerrits saw a lot of the devastation while he was out there, but he spent most of his volunteer time working in a warehouse, loading trucks with supplies.

He spent a little bit of his time on “search and serve missions,” in which Red Cross volunteers simply drive around looking for people who need assistance.

“We brought them drinks, Meals Ready to Eat, cleaning supplies,” he said. “People wanted coffee terribly. There was no power, and it was cold and damp.”

To get the time off from his office job here, Gerrits used up vacation time and also went without pay for the two-week period.

Traversa joined the Red Cross 11 years ago specifically because she wanted to help at the scene of the World Trade Center devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, the first of six national deployments she has participated in. That has included two hurricanes, two floods, tornado damage and the terrorist attack.

In the hurricane disasters, “I drove a 26-foot truck for bulk distribution,” Traversa said. “It’s awesome, because you’re driving around with a truck filled with supplies like tarps, bug spray, heater meals, comfort kits, cleanup kits.

“You just drive around doing search-and-serve, just looking for people … I like being with the client.”

Judy Dobbins, 60, of Sturgeon Bay is a newcomer to Red Cross volunteering and went on her first ever national deployment for the hurricane relief.

“It makes you think, because none of these folks thought this could happen to them, and here they ended up jumping out of second-story windows and getting into boats to escape,” Dobbins said.

She spent her entire time working in an evacuation shelter, serving as a shelter supervisor.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “There were almost 500 people in the shelter, such a diverse group, from older adults to heroin users taking methadone treatments and everything in between.”

The shelter, actually an arena attached to a high school, had to accommodate patients evacuated from a hospital and who were on oxygen and intravenous feeding tubes. It had a group of developmentally disabled adults evacuated from a group home. It had a collection of registered sex offenders who came in from various locations around the community but who were kept together and segregated from the rest of the shelter residents during the nights.

“We had everything from residents with total destruction of their homes and cars to those just not having power and not being able to stay in their homes,” Dobbins said. “It kind of ran the gamut.

“At one point we had a bus driver stop and tell us he had three busloads of seniors who had to evacuate their high-rise. They were in wheelchairs, had canes and walkers. They were scared to death. We had to accommodate, on the spur of the moment, large groups of very needy, very frightened individuals.”

As hard as it was, the volunteers agreed that the hardest part was leaving.

“It’s heart-breaking, because even though you’re working 16 hours a day, you know there are so many more in need,” Traversa said.

“I felt guilty, because there was so much left undone,” Dobbins said. “You get so close to the families and then just leave not knowing what’s going to be next for them. I still wake up and think, or I have a certain resident in mind, or a family, and wonder how they’re doing.”

— psrubas@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter@PGpaulsrubas

Volunteer Spotlight: Brother & Sister Disaster Duo: Joe Gerrits & Mary Roellchen

(l-r) Disaster Team Members participating in 9/11fundraiser: Jan Traversa, Barb Flanigan, Carrie Carlson, and Mary Roellchen

National Volunteer Week, April 10-16, is a time to celebrate volunteers. This year’s theme, Celebrating People in Action, aptly describes volunteers from Northeast Wisconsin. Red Cross volunteers are doers. Red Cross volunteers are people in action. Learn more about some of the amazing people who give of their time, talent, money and blood to support the organization.

Mary Roellchen joined the American Red Cross after the tragedies of September 11, 2001. She was watching the news and wanted to do something more than simply make a monetary donation.  She attended an informational meeting that the Red Cross was having, signed up, went through disaster response training, and has been a volunteer ever since. 

Within her first year at the Red Cross, Mary became a team lead. As a disaster team lead, Mary is on call about every 6-7 weeks and during that time, if her pager goes off, she puts her personal life on hold, and answers the call to help.

As part of the disaster team Mary has responded to many national assignments including the tragedies of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 WI flooding.  Locally, Mary has been on site for some large disaster situations including the explosion in Ellison Bay in 2006, Lakewood tornado of 2007, and many structure fires.  

Being on the Disaster Team is exciting, and at times emotional.  “One thing that really sticks out for me is seeing people come out to help people they don’t know in times of a disaster, said Mary.  “You tend to see the best in people during these times.”

Grilling brats on the 4th at the Festival Foods Fire Over the Fox (l-r) Rich Hermans, Joe Gerrits, Larry Staszak and Steve Maricque

Her brother Joe Gerrits, became a registered volunteer with the American Red Cross in 2010, after helping for many special events with his sister, Mary. He is now a trained disaster team member and responds to calls with his sister.    

The Disaster response team also works pre and post deployment events for the military units in the area. “The thing that stands out most for me at these events is how grateful the military personnel are when we are the ones that owe them and others like them for the freedoms we enjoy every day,” said Joe.

What is the best part of being a volunteer?  According to Mary its “Helping someone that needs assistance through no fault of their own.  I know I made an impact when someone says to me I never knew what the Red Cross did, but I am going to start donating to them, or how can I get involved with the Red Cross?”

Her brother Joe agrees.  The best part of being a volunteer is “helping people when they really need it.”