Archive for Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Red Cross volunteer returns home

September 28, 2005

Robert Bartels would be more than happy to return to the Gulf Coast to help hurricane victims.

But first, he'd like to catch up on his sleep.

Like many other Americans, the 37-year-old Tongan-oxie man volunteered with the Red Cross after Katrina slammed into Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. He left Kansas for a three-week tour, returning Sunday.

"I would go back," said Bartels, who spent the bulk of his time in Hattiesburg, Miss. "Let me get rested for awhile. I have a little bit of sleep to catch up on."

And he'd be glad if others did as he did and called the Kansas City chapter of the Red Cross

"I would encourage as many people as I could to do it," he said. "To just do it, without any expectation of any reward. Go in there with an open mind and an open soul and just do it."

In the hurricane-stricken region, Bartels initially helped at a feeding shelter. He was part of the first wave of volunteers to arrive after Katrina.

"When we first got there, there was no power," he said. "... They were a bit overwhelmed. We were the saints marching in when we came in. To hear them say it, we were the saviors."

And although he thought he likely would spend his three weeks serving meals, within days, Bartels was put in charge of transportation. He handled allocation of up to 65 vehicles for groups of volunteers.

"I had to prioritize a lot of things very quickly," said Bartels, who is a volunteer with Tonganoxie Township Fire Department. "For the organization down there, it worked very well. It was a no-nonsense deal."

During a trip to Gulf Port, Miss., Bartels realized just how fortunate he was.

"It was a very depressing trip," he said. "Bulldozers on the highways were pushing piles of debris. You then saw it was whole neighborhoods, just in piles. It was a very humbling experience."

The devastation was incredible, he said.

While away, Bartels missed the 13th birthday of his daughter, Alexandria, and spending time with his 4-year-old son, William. His wife, Tammy, was a single-parent for three weeks.

"Alex understood, and she bragged about it to all of her friends," Bartels said. "For my son, it was harder to grasp. All he understood was that daddy wasn't here. I think that was the hardest part, because he's my buddy and we hang out."

Despite his time away, he did enjoy getting to know other volunteers -- both those from the area and others who had traveled many miles to help.

Local churches helped feed the volunteers, making space in their buildings.

"The biggest impression I came away with was the unbelievable hospitality, how gracious they were because we took time out of our lives to come help them," Bartels said. "That was the greatest feeling and the most embarrassing feeling. Everybody you talk to, everybody wants to say thank you."

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