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'Part of something special:' Red Cross volunteers back from disaster relief missions

Rich Solheid (left) of Alexandria, a Red Cross volunteer, drove a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle around the Houston, Texas area after Hurricane Harvey hit that area. Helping him out is Red Cross volunteer, Chuck Reeves, from Knoxville, Iowa. (Contributed) 1 / 4
Juanita Bolinger of Alexandria (far right), stands with other Red Cross volunteers and a police officer at the Bay Harbour Church in League, Texas. Bolinger was deployed to Texas to help out following the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (Contributed)2 / 4
Richard and Suzanne Sudmeier of Alexandria, both Red Cross volunteers, capture a quick selfie before Richard is deployed to the Virgin Islands. Suzanne was deployed to the Naples area of Florida following the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. (Contributed)3 / 4
Kathy Johnson of Osakis (left), waits with two other Red Cross volunteers, Carol and Jay Tomaseski of Gainsville, Georgia, to load the Emergency Response Vehicle with lunch for residents in the North Fort Myers area in Florida following Hurricane Irma. The food was prepared outdoors under tents for thousands of people affected by the hurricane. The outdoor ovens, grills, burners and fans were powered by huge semi truck generators. (Contributed) 4 / 4

Devastated. Shocked. Deserted. Thankful.

These are just a few of the words used by four Red Cross volunteers from Douglas County after being deployed to Texas for Hurricane Harvey and to Florida for Hurricane Irma.

Two of the Red Cross volunteers were deployed to Florida — Kathy Johnson of Osakis and Suzanne Sudmeier of Alexandria. The other two were deployed to Texas — Rich Solheid and Juanita Bolinger, both of Alexandria.

Each of the volunteers have unique stories to tell from their the opportunity to serve the people and communities that suffered through these two horrific weather events.

Rich Solheid

Solheid served in the kitchen of a church in Woodlands, Texas, which is north of Houston.

"I delivered hot meals to shelters, community centers and neighborhoods affected in the north and east side of Houston," said Solheid. "I saw devastated neighborhoods. Most residents were in shock and needed our help to start their recovery."

Once the water receded from the neighborhoods, Solheid said he saw where houses had up to 5 feet of water on the main floors. Boulevards were stacked with damaged furniture and Sheetrock as far as they could see.

"As we drove through these areas, we would serve hot meals and water to the families and volunteer workers there," he said. "They were so appreciative because they had no way of preparing meals because of the damage that was done. I was overwhelmed with the gratitude of these people."

Because Hurricane Harvey was his first deployment to a major disaster, Solheid said he didn't know what to expect. He found himself surrounded by many church groups, youth groups and individuals that came to help.

"I felt like I was part of something special. It was the most worthwhile thing I have ever done in my life," he said. "The need for assistance is great and I know the recovery will take a long time."

Solheid said it was grievous to see some of the falsehoods being spread about the Red Cross on social media. The one that frustrated him the most was that only 8 percent of all donations reach those in need.

"The opposite is true; 92 percent of all donations reach those in need," he said. "I was also asked if the Red Cross charges for their meals. All meals and services such as shelters are free. The Red Cross operates on our generous donors and those donations reach those that need assistance."

Solheid said the Red Cross gives assistance without any judgment.

"If they asked for 10 meals for their families, we gave them 10 meals," he said. "Everyone was so grateful. I can't even guess how many hugs and smiles I received while I was there. They made the 12- to 14-hour days worth it."

Kathy Johnson

Johnson arrived in Florida on Sept. 6, prior to Hurricane Irma, which hit Sept. 10. She was first in Sarasota, preparing an evacuation shelter. After the storm passed through, Johnson said a group of Red Cross volunteers moved to North Fort Myers, to what she described as an "aftermath" shelter.

"Hearing the hurricane pass over was intense," Johnson said. "The music from the movie, 'Jaws' kept playing in my head."

Her duties were in health services as a nurse, but she also assisted at a shelter. She said on average about 200 people stayed at a recreation center in Fort Myers where she worked for about 10 days.

The last five days she was there, she served meals out of an emergency response vehicle to neighborhoods hit the worst, feeding 200 to 250 people each meal.

When her group moved from Sarasota to North Fort Myers, which was Monday after the storm, it was "deserted and quiet," except for the emergency vehicles, utility repair trucks and the Red Cross vehicles, Johnson said.

"Traveling was slow and difficult due to debris, trees and water-covered roads, along with a widespread power outage," she said.

This was Johnson's first deployment since retiring last summer and going through the rigorous Red Cross training. Johnson worked as a nurse for 43 years.

"I've learned that you can't fix everything right now, but to soften the blow of devastation with an act of kindness, a listening ear, respect for everyone and attempt to bring the glisten of joy during those dark times, well, then, I've accomplished the Red Cross mission and it feels good," she said.

Suzanne Sudmeier

Suzanne Sudmeier, a nurse and certified nurse midwife, was deployed to the Naples area of Florida. She was gone for nearly three weeks, extending her original deployment in order to fulfill a shortage of nurses.

"Service to others has always been a part of my life. When I retired and had more time to devote to volunteerism, I turned to the Red Cross," she said.

This was her first deployment after a few years spent in local service and training. She said the Red Cross is very good about training its volunteers and that the work done both locally and in national disasters, such as Hurricane Irma, requires long hours and stamina and background in the Red Cross Humanitarian Mission.

"This deployment was also a personal triumph as I severely broke leg two years ago and had to recover from that with good use of my leg before I could safely go into any disaster situation and be of assistance," she said.

As the lead nurse of a shelter, she was in charge of guiding a team of health professional to respond to the health and wellness of the residents of the shelter, as well as the staff.

"Picture a gymnasium filled with 500 cots with a variety of people of all ages and health circumstances and then someone sneezes and coughs!" she said. "Keeping people healthy and being alert to health emergencies is a 24-hour duty shared by the team in shifts."

She said sometimes the team needed to send someone to the hospital due to heart symptoms or other illness. Another time, they had to help a family with a 3-day-old child.

Her team also dealt with a diabetic crisis, mental health problem, an evacuated person with chronic health problems and also the common cold.

"Preventing the common cold ... from becoming an epidemic in the life of a shelter is challenging but basically comes down to teaching hygiene and handwashing to everyone," she said.

When Sudmeier first arrived, more than 500 people had just moved into her shelter. They had come from other shelters housing more than 1,000 people. By the time she left, she said, 211 people had no homes to return to.

"As I return home, I am overwhelmed with thankfulness for the opportunity to serve as well as the relief to come home to my pleasant circumstances," she said.

As she returned home, her husband, Richard, was getting ready to deploy to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands with the All Hands Volunteer group for three weeks help re-open the hurricane-damaged school.

Juanita Bolinger

Juanita Bolinger has been a Red Cross volunteer for six years and has been deployed five times. This time, she went to La Marque, Texas, 13 miles from Galveston Island. She arrived before Hurricane Harvey and was at a shelter that had no protection, such as boards on the windows, from the approaching storm.

When the rain started coming, Juanita said those at that shelter were loaded into vans and brought to a different shelter in League, Texas.

"We drove through rising water to reach League," she said.

The Bay Harbour Methodist Church, which became their shelter, housed more than 800 people. On her first day, Bolinger said she went to a Walmart and bought about $400 worth of groceries until a truckload of food and provisions could be delivered.

"The next day, the Walmart store, which was only a mile away, was flooded and we were surrounded by water," she said. "The semis were then unable to drive through the flooded roads and we were on our own."

She said because the semis couldn't make it through, local businesses donated food and a man stepped up and became the chef for the group and they put together some "tasty hot dishes and soups." Bolinger said nothing was wasted and everyone was able to eat good meals.

"Cots were set up wherever there was an empty spot," Bolinger said. "People arrived wet, cold and hungry. Hot showers and donated clothes and hygiene products were at their disposal."

Once that shelter closed, Bolinger ended up at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, which she said was two city blocks long and when she arrived, was housing about 8,500 people.

Bolinger said she worked 12-hour shifts and walked anywhere from 10-15 miles per day.

All the walking she did aggravated a bunion and as soon as she got home, Bolinger said she had surgery immediately so she could be deployed again.

"Being a shelter worker is like having guests in your home," explained Bolinger. "We set up cots and make beds and when the people leave, we sanitize the cots and wash the bedding. And when the disabled couldn't walk to the other end of the building to get food, we got it for them, along with anything else they needed."

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. She enjoys running and has participated in nearly 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon distances.

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