Chuck and Janet Boehme sat watching a movie on Oct. 9 when they got a call asking if they could leave the next day for a cross-country trek.
The retired Spokane Valley residents are regular American Red Cross volunteers, so they agreed to drive one of its specially equipped feeding vehicles from Kennewick to a flooded region of the East Coast after Hurricane Matthew.
“The hurricane hit from Florida all the way up to Virginia,” said Janet Boehme, 72. “There were people all along the coast affected, so it takes a lot of vehicles to feed all of them.”
While traveling, they were diverted twice by organizers from original destinations in South Carolina, until given a final destination near Greenville, North Carolina. The couple set up the vehicle to distribute lunch and dinner - about 400 meals a day.
During the stint Oct. 10-23, they often slept on an air mattress in the back of the rig, also known as an emergency response vehicle. The flooding killed at least 26 people in the state and caused about $1.5 billion in damage to 100,000 homes, businesses and government buildings.
“We started feeding people the first nights in a couple of hotels where people were evacuated and staying, then we went to a little town called Grifton, North Carolina, where people were very much in need of a feeding vehicle,” Boehme said. “Their only grocery store had been flooded.”
The Boehmes picked up food each day prepared in temporary industrial kitchens by Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers. After serving 200 hot meals for lunches and again for dinners from the Red Cross vehicle, the couple cleaned and sterilized it twice daily.
“People in this little town were really grateful,” added Chuck Boehme, 71. “They didn’t have transportation to go anywhere, and many were of low means. A lot of the homes were flooded.”
Rather than easing back in retirement, the Boehmes are among hundreds of Spokane-area volunteers who regularly spend time supporting nonprofit organizations such as the Red Cross. Some tap into Volunteers of America or Salvation Army among other causes.
Jim Loudermilk, a 72-year-old retired mental health therapist, often gives his time to the Red Cross, usually helping people after home fires or at shelters during wildfires, including recent ones in Chewelah, Omak and Colville.
He describes it as rewarding work, and said the organization’s mission to help others aligns with his own beliefs.
About six months ago, he supported flood disaster relief in Louisiana. Last year, he went to Spokane neighborhoods with damaged property because of the November windstorm, connecting people to community resources or temporary housing.
“Red Cross provides that opportunity to give to another, to be helpful, to kind of have a purpose,” he said. “I guess I bought into what John F. Kennedy said a long time ago and that is to give to your community and make it a better community.”
Along with the chance to be helpful, the service work fills a post-retirement void, Loudermilk said.
“What I learned being retired is there is a lot of intimacy generated in work, and I couldn’t replace that in retirement very easily without going out and finding something else that I liked to do,” said Loudermilk, who also taught at Eastern Washington University.
“I think a lot of people find when they retire, they feel kind of empty and lonely and can’t quite fill the void,” he said. “You think you’re just going to find fun things to do like golfing and sailing, which I did, and it was great, but it wasn’t enough.”
Chuck Boehme said he first heard about Red Cross work from a friend and started helping in 2011. His wife joined him by the next year as work they could do together. They’ve helped people affected by home fires in Spokane and traveled to aid residents after the Oso mudslide and Hurricane Sandy.
“There are volunteers who spend way more hours than we do,” he said. “We do this maybe once a week each month on call.
“At the Red Cross, they’re very appreciative of what you do. We’ve taken a lot of classes, but at the same time there are so many ambiguous areas, you kind of use your own judgment. They’re not always second-guessing you.”
Both of them enjoy staying active and exercise regularly, including kayaking, camping and hiking. He previously worked as assistant principal at Medical Lake High School. She’s a retired family nurse practitioner who runs both for exercise and in competitions.
The Red Cross work is challenging, but in a good way, she said. “I’d tried other volunteer things, and I wasn’t challenged enough.”
Other retirees who volunteer also describe a desire to help others blended with a way to be productive.
Gary and Deb Veltry of north Spokane were inspired a few years ago to train as Red Cross volunteers after seeing the region’s response to help wildfire victims. Because of a friend who lives in the Okanogan County community of Pateros, they had heard about the devastation in that city.
“The Red Cross was collecting items in downtown Spokane and sending truckloads of stuff up to that area, so we took a pallet of water down there,” said Deb Veltry, 66. “It was very inspiring to see all the people who wanted to help and the great need out there.
“That year they had so many fire events they were running on empty. We joined about September and took a bunch of classes online and did a security background check.”
She’s since witnessed how people affected by fires or floods respond with gratitude to American Red Cross volunteers. “The people I’ve met are so grateful that someone cares about them. It gives you more energy. It motivates me to do more.”
A former railroad conductor, Gary Veltry, 72, also said he enjoys both the work and collaboration.
“With the Red Cross, considering it’s all volunteers that they use to manage and reach out with programs, they seem to get everything lined up pretty good,” he said. “We meet a lot of other people volunteering from all over the country.”
The organization also remains flexible about volunteer schedules, Deb Veltry said. Usually on call one week a month, they can notify organizers of any need to make different arrangements. Her husband golfs, and she also volunteers at Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.
“We don’t always help at events together,” she said.
She traveled to Louisiana on two separate trips in August to help flood victims, as her husband staffed a shelter opened during a wildfire north of Davenport. They’ve worked together at shelters.
“An apartment fire this summer affected 22 residents,” Deb Veltry said. “They open a church or have a contract with different properties, and the Red Cross has to go man it. You feed them, comfort them, and see to their needs.”
Retirement doesn’t have to be about easing back, she added.
“Sometimes you can only take so much easy. It was something I needed to do. I like to help people.”
Loudermilk sees connections.
“When you go out to fires or disasters and are there to help people, it’s a pretty rich time in terms of people are kind of overwhelmed, and you’re then able to be helpful, and how appreciative they can be of that,” Loudermilk said.
“You really need those kinds of connections. It gives me a chance to make those connections with other people in kind of a heartfelt way.”
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