When disaster strikes, the American Red Cross is there to help, from large-scale events, like floods and wildfires to local emergencies, like home fires. And the response to these situations is possible thanks to the combination of volunteer work and our fleet of Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) which are the keys to reaching communities in times of need.
People like Stuart Chessen, the Specialty Vehicle Lead for the Pacific Division, oversee the maintenance of our ERVs, Mission Ready Vehicles and sheltering trailers. In particular, Stuart also handles the training of our drivers across the Northern California Coastal Region.
Stuart – a Red Cross volunteer in San Jose since 2009 – has always enjoyed volunteering. He feels that there is a special sense of purpose in it. “That is our mission in action,” he says. “I like the way we all work together to help people. We are there to ease some of their pain in this difficult situation, where they just don’t know which way to go because their world’s been turned upside down.”
Stuart has deployed to many disaster response operations, not only in our region, but also nationwide. The longest and furthest was to New York as an ERV driver after Hurricane Sandy. “We took the vehicle here in San Jose and drove it all the way to the East Coast. We had a small delay in Pennsylvania avoiding bad weather and we reached our destination on Long Island after five days. We did mobile feeding around the neighborhoods where people had no gas or power. They were in cold homes, waiting for us to arrive with a hot meal for them.”
For Art Sullivan, being an ERV driver is a rewarding job that fits well with his skillsets. He describes ERVs as a beacon of hope — as a way to “present to communities the visual idea that they are not out there alone. That someone’s thinking about them. That there is hope.”
Art started volunteering with the Red Cross in 2005, supporting the disaster relief operation after Hurricane Katrina. When asked why he became an ERV driver, he said it provided him with the perfect opportunity to see the Red Cross mission in action following disasters, because volunteers that drive and work inside ERVs are so dedicated to offering aid and service to the victims of these devasting events. After each one of his many deployments, Art has arrived home with good memories and the rewarding feeling of helping folks when they need it most. He says he is always humbled by his encounters with different people and is grateful for the chance to help.
“During floods in Texas, our ERV Team went to a donut shop and asked employees if they knew about communities that could use Red Cross help and they directed us to where they lived,” Art recalls. “We went there and found that hardly anybody was home or that could speak English. But we did find one household in the neighborhood with a resident who was at home, could speak English, and knew everybody in the neighborhood. Trust was built up and her household became the neighborhood pick-up center for disaster supplies. Turns out, almost all of that neighborhood was off working or helping others. This senior citizen re-reminded me of what can be done when you are trusted.”
Virginia and Albert Becker
Virginia Becker has been a Red Crosser for the past 10 years and since her husband Albert also signed up as a volunteer following his retirement in 2017, they have enjoyed being deployed together as a team.
“Being with people is my oxygen. I am not a desk person; I am a people person,” says Virginia. “With the Red Cross, I can pick assignments that are best suited for me. There is something for everyone to do in the Red Cross – plenty of work for those that want desk work or to work remotely, and plenty of work for those that want direct contact with the people we serve.”
After the Beckers started their Red Cross volunteer journey in public affairs — using their photography expertise to help tell the Red Cross story and ensure the right information reaches right people at the right time — they expanded their volunteer service to include operating ERVs and ensuring the right meals and supplies reach the right people at the right time, too.
“Without ERVs, the heartbeat of the Red Cross would be silent. Everything is moved and put in place using these vehicles. ERV drivers also see the disasters on the ground and can gather information,” Albert said, and Virginia agrees. “This is the real work. Going out into affected communities to bring food and supplies makes a positive difference in the lives of someone who has lost everything,” she said.
For Virginia and Albert, there are a lot of things to love about being ERV drivers –- the comradery of the drivers, the many opportunities to communicate directly with community members affected by disasters, and the constant change of scenery and variety in day-to-day activity that comes along with the role. “You get to meet so many community members when you’re out. You hear their stories and see how the community is doing. You also see parts of the country you otherwise may never visit,” Albert explained.
“It is a fast-paced role that challenges me at times. The work is never the same. Some days I pass out cleanup supplies, some days it’s food, and some days it’s transporting goods from one Red Cross location to the next. Also, I have never met an ERV driver that I didn’t like! Such a powerhouse of wonderful human beings,” Virginia said.
Virginia and Albert both pinpoint the help ERV drivers provided to those affected by the Lightning Complex Fires in Santa Cruz in 2020 as one of their most impactful experiences yet. Because those displaced were staying in multiple hotels rather than shelters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the planning and scheduling of routes was more challenging than ever. “No individual or family went without food during this time thanks to the impressive logistics team and the actual drivers themselves. I thought that was a herculean effort by the Red Cross. I was proud to be just a small part of such an important team,” Virginia said.
We thank all the volunteers who sit behind the wheel of our ERVs, helping to deliver comfort and hope to everyone who needs it across our region and beyond.