Christy Bernacchi of Marshall's first visit to the East Coast was an especially memorable one - she spent 11 days helping the Red Cross serve Superstorm Sandy victims.
Bernacchi sits on the board that gives out Otto Bremer grants to non-profit agencies at Bremer Bank where she works. One of those agencies receiving grants was the Red Cross. She went a step further and signed up for Red Cross disaster training, which calls for citizens to learn basic sheltering, feeding, disaster assessment, public relations, client assistance and CPR and first aid to help their neighbors during a disaster.
Red Cross volunteer Christy Bernacchi of Marshall posed with volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians in New York earlier this month.
"I've always wanted to help people," said Bernacchi of why she signed up to be a disaster responder.
Bernacchi, who is originally from Nebraska, was soon to add hands-on experience to enhance her recent education. October's Superstorm Sandy stretched 1,000 miles across, killed more than 100 people in 10 states, knocked out power to roughly 8.5 million and canceled nearly 20,000 flights. Property losses are estimated at least $20 billion, putting the storm among the most expensive disasters ever in the United States.
When Minnesota American Red Cross volunteers were deployed to the New York area to help in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, she volunteered to help out. Her employer gave the go-ahead.
"They were more than happy (to let me go)," she said. "Volunteering is a big part of Bremer. The employees put in tons of hours. It's really rewarding."
In New York, Bernacchi rode in an emergency response vehicle, which is like an ambulance, she said, in some of the hardest hit areas - Breezy Point, Jamaica Bay, Howard Beach and Rockaway where she helped serve thousands of hot meals and gave out blankets to those who were left with little or no shelter or had no power.
At night, Bernacchi stayed in a staff shelter with around 300 other Red Cross volunteers in the gym at State University of New York in Old Westbury. She said the cot she slept on was surprisingly comfortable, but she could have slept on anything; she was so exhausted at night.
She put in 11-hour days but was sustained by the camaraderie of her fellow volunteers and by the people they served.
During one telephone call to thank a donor, she talked to the man's 9-year-old son. The boy wanted to know what he could do to help people who lost everything. "He wanted to donate clothes, toys, whatever he could get this hands on," she wrote in her blog www.christybernacchi.blogspot.com.
Blogging using her smartphone, it was hard to read what she wrote on her phone so there are a lot of typos, she said.
"An old war vet sat on the bumper of the ERV and told his story," Bernacchi wrote in her blog. "He and his wife had lived there for over 60 years and everything was ruined. The people around here are like walking zombies. They are working hard to clean and salvage what they can. They just want someone to sit and listen. It's been the best experience just being that person. To give someone a break from this reality for a couple minutes while they eat their meal."
Far Rockaway, Queens, was one of the hardest hit by Sandy.
"Rockaway had a terrible fire that burnt down an entire city blockleaving them no chance of returning to their beloved homes. That day was one of saddest since I've been here," she wrote.
"There have been boats in the middle of roads, numerous kitchen appliances, and other items that have been completely destroyed. I asked one gentleman we served food to said that he helped his neighbor that was stuck up against his fence drowning from all the water coming up. Another lady was still without heat so we handed her a blanket but wanted to give a me huge hug. Almost broke my heart. Another family braved the storm to get a grill and be able to cook a warm meal. We caught them on the way home disappointed because they couldn't find gas to get the grill going. Our chili put the smile right back on their face. One boy said how excited he was to just take a hot shower. I've realized how much I've take small things for granted."
With all she learned and experienced Bernacchi knows she was part of something bigger than her small role.
Bernacchi said a fellow volunteer said to her, "'you and I are a part of history now.' I'm just glad I was a part of helping people and making their lives a little easier. I had the best experience and I wouldn't change it for anything."
People can still help by making a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief online, by text or by phone. Donations help the Red Cross provide shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance to those affected by disasters like Superstorm Sandy. To donate, visit www.redcross.org, call 1-800-RED-CROSS, or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to the local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013.