Red Cross volunteer Derek van Veldhuisen often wished he could do more to help desperate families in the remote mountains of Puerto Rico.
At one home, an elderly woman lay in bed while a cognitively disabled girl curled up on a cot in their tiny hurricane-battered house.
Van Veldhuisen and two other Red Cross workers in December delivered a badly needed generator to power a medical device.
The woman was grateful.
But the family faced huge problems the team could not fix.
“We drove away feeling guilty because we couldn’t give them more,” van Veldhuisen said. “We could not solve their overall problems of living without a roof, money or medical facilities.”
Van Veldhuisen volunteered for five weeks in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last year.
“We came face to face with people who were poor and sick,” he said. “Many people told us with tears in their eyes that we were the first to help them.”
Without the help of GPS, Van Veldhuisen drove 2,000 miles delivering generators in remote areas to people who needed them for medical reasons.
He steered the delivery van over narrow mountain roads, often littered with fallen power lines and debris from mudslides.
He crossed rivers on battered bridges that had all but disappeared in the devastating storm.
“I had to be focused all the time,” van Veldhuisen said.
At the end of the day, the Janesville man often felt exhausted.
“Mentally, I saw things that are unforgettable,” van Veldhuisen said.
The retired Janesville teacher, like so many other Red Cross volunteers, was stretched to the limit in 2017 when back-to-back disasters sent him on multiple deployments.
Puerto Rico was van Veldhuisen’s third out-of-state deployment in four months.
For two weeks in September, he delivered meals, water and personal hygiene kits to residents of Orlando, Florida, who were recovering from Hurricane Irma.
In October, he went to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where people were suffering after hurricanes Irma and Maria. For three weeks, he drove throughout the island distributing meals, water and supplies. He labored in heat and humidity and drove on rough, debris-littered roads.
In late November, he deployed to Puerto Rico, where the power went out Sept. 20.
He returned home before Christmas.
In spite of the hardship, van Veldhuisen would not hesitate to return.
“People are still waiting in the mountains for help,” he said. “I would go again in a heartbeat.”
Concern for volunteers
Tom Mooney, chief operating officer of the American Red Cross in Wisconsin, said 2017 was unprecedented in the number of large disasters, many of them occurring back to back.
In summer, the Red Cross responded to widespread flooding in Wisconsin. In August, Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas and caused $125 billion in damage to infrastructure. More than 400 Red Cross volunteers from Wisconsin responded.
Then, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Florida. Soon after, Maria blasted the islands and Florida again.
In addition, California and Canadian wildfires caused record-setting devastation and suffering.
“The disasters just kept coming,” Mooney said. “With so many happening one after another, we started to see and hear about issues with volunteers that were not coping well, especially if they were on their second or third long deployments.”
Normal procedure is for mental health professionals to contact volunteers and staff after they come home.
“It is a way to determine how they are doing both mentally and physically once they return,” Mooney said. “This year, we even went a step further…we told volunteers they had to stay at home and rest for at least a minimum of one week and even two, in some cases.”
Mental health professionals needed to clear them before they were allowed to leave on another deployment, he explained.
“If we know a situation is going to be especially trying, we send someone who is a veteran or someone with a certain skill level and who is aware of what they are going to see,” Mooney said. “When we deployed people to Puerto Rico, we asked them if they are ready to live in tents with limited water and communications.”
Ready to give back
When Gail Slepekis of Milton retired in 2012, she decided to give back by volunteering for the American Red Cross.
At the end of August, she deployed to Giddings, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey pillaged the state.
“It is hard because people have lost everything,” Slepekis said. “You feel sorry for them. But you also feel good because you are there to help.”
She said volunteers are paired with other volunteers.
“We help each other,” Slepekis explained. “We share things with each other.”
She described Giddings as a small town like Milton.
“A lot of community people were there to help,” Slepekis said. “It was nice to see all the compassion the community had for its people.”
Both Slepekis and van Veldhuisen also help local disaster victims, including people who have lost their homes to fires.
“We are indeed so very fortunate to have volunteers like Derek and Gail,” Mooney said. “They are both so very special as are all of our volunteers, whether they are able and willing to deploy nationally or they stay home right here and help with local disasters 24/7.”
Wisconsin has 433 Red Cross volunteers, and the Southwest Chapter of the Red Cross, which includes Rock County, has 108 volunteers.
Mooney called volunteers “absolute saints.”
“I have so much respect for them,” he said. “All they want to do is help their neighbors and provide hope. It is really humbling.”