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Red Cross volunteer receives 'gift of a lifetime'

The Christmas season is one filled with seeking out gifts for family and friends, but Tacy Fleener of Alexandria said she received "the gift of a lifetime" when she was deployed to the American Red Cross disaster relief response to super storm Sandy in New York City, New York.

When Fleener arrived on site, she immediately got to work, despite the disorder. "It was chaotic when I got there," she recalled. "My job was to try to keep the peace with the hotels we had under contract, while making sure that volunteers were where they needed to be, with places to stay."

The situation served as a reminder of the importance of the jobs the volunteers were doing. "Just to see the need I had been hearing about with individual faces and stories kept me motivated throughout my deployment," Fleener said.

The distribution process was difficult, and volunteers were overwhelmed with the needs. A man leading one of the distribution teams reminded Fleener of the dedication of the volunteers.

"He had just got back from Stanton Island where he had been sleeping on pallets for two weeks," she said. "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.'"

Rooms were in short supply in Stanton Island, but various New York hotels gave the Red Cross a block of discounted rooms. "We spent 12 to 14 hours a day keeping track of hotels to try to save the Red Cross as much money as possible," Fleener said.

Though volunteering during a disaster requires constant work and few breaks, Fleener said she would do it again in a heartbeat. "I love the Red Cross, the volunteers, the people I meet," she said. "Everyone that is there wants to make a difference."

Fleener 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, with the help of her husband, she got the Red Cross chapter in Alexandria up and running. Her heart is most passionate about disaster relief and being of use during times of great need.

Fleener hopes her experience encourages others to volunteer. "It fills my heart to be able to give back by doing something truly important," she said. "I recommend that anyone become a Red Cross volunteer. It is the experience of a lifetime."