Weather Forecast


Bringing a sliver of joy in dark times

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)

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.

Each of the volunteers have unique stories to tell from their experiences and all said their deployments were worthwhile and that they feel privileged to have had the opportunity to serve the people and communities that suffered through these two horrific weather events.

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.

Kathy Johnson

Johnson arrived in Orlando, Florida on Sept. 6, prior to Hurricane Irma, which ended up hitting the area she was at on Sept. 10. She was first in Sarasota, Florida, preparing an evacuation shelter. After the storm passed through, Johnson said a group of Red Cross volunteers moved to North Fort Myers, Florida 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. The storm was downgraded right before Sarasota, turning inland. I wasn't afraid, as I was confident the Red Cross put us in a safe place."

Her duties were in health services as a nurse, but she also assisted with the sheltering needs. She stayed at a recreation center in Fort Myers for about 10 days. She said on average there were about 200 people in the center.

The last five days she was there, she served meals out of an emergency response vehicle to neighborhoods that were hit the worse. They fed between 200-250 people each meal.

Johnson said 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.

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

This was Johnson's first deployment since retiring last summer and going through the rigorous Red Cross training. She said she felt fortunate that she was able to serve in three different capacities — evacuation sheltering, aftermath sheltering and serving meals in the ERV.

When asked to clear up any misconceptions people may have about the Red Cross, Johnson shared some advice. "The social media gossipers should turn off their computers and get out and volunteer," Johnson said. "Just consider all the details and the vast area that Red Cross serves. More help is always needed."

Johnson said she will serve again when the need arises but that for now, she plans to "rest up a bit first."

"I've learned that you can't fix everything right now," she said, "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."

For details about the experiences of the other Red Cross volunteers — Solheid, Sudmeier and Bolinger — see this week's Echo Press.

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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