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With meals came tears for Red Cross volunteers

FARGO - When faced with a natural disaster, those thrown from their homes and uncertain when the lights will flicker back to life often need a little side of love served along with a warm meal.

Red Cross volunteers
From left, Rich and Sonja Johnson of Fergus Falls, Minn., and Barb and Paul Henke of Valley City, N.D., share their stories about the experiences they had volunteering with the Red Cross on the East Coast after Superstorm Sandy. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

FARGO - When faced with a natural disaster, those thrown from their homes and uncertain when the lights will flicker back to life often need a little side of love served along with a warm meal.

However, with a stern smile, Rich Johnson admitted his wife would dish out the mushy stuff more often than he would.

"I'm not a big hugger. I'm too Norwegian," he said, laughing. The Fergus Falls, Minn., man, along with his wife, Sonja, spent 15 days serving meals in New Jersey with the Red Cross in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in late October.

"It lets them know there's somebody out there," Sonja said.

The Johnsons are just two of 19 volunteers from the Minn-Kota Region Red Cross that lent a helping hand in the Northeast during both Sandy and the blustery nor'easter that followed her.


Ninety percent of about 5,500 Red Cross workers in the region were volunteers like the Johnsons, said Judy Green, interim chief executive officer for the Minn-Kota Red Cross. Nearly $70 million from the Red Cross has been pumped into the area, Green said.

"When I think about this state and what we have gone through," Green said. "When we needed help, national support came to us, and now this is our opportunity to give back."

This wasn't the Johnson's first Red Cross rodeo. The couple also volunteered during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And while the devastation in the Northeast is much the same, Sandy had her own unique qualities, they said.

"Mountains of sand," Rich Johnson said. "It's like it took the whole beach and dumped it on the houses."

The two drove through affected areas and served hot meals from an Emergency Response Vehicle in Toms River, N.J., commuting an hour from a motel in Princeton.

Another local couple, Barb and Paul Henke, of Valley City, served up hot plates in Long Island, N.Y., and they agreed that a listening ear was sometimes all someone needed.

"My problem is I cry with them," said Barb Henke, who has volunteered with the Red Cross since 1995. "Sometimes that is just as important as the food."

When the work day was over - sometimes lasting from sunup until sundown - the Henkes lay down on a Red Cross cot in the basement of a school. After a day of serving meals, they often discovered that they had forgotten to eat themselves.


"You get too busy, and you don't even think about food," Paul Henke said.

Despite being in different states, both couples learned that even in the face of utmost destruction, people were grateful for the help.

A young cab driver from Bangladesh gave the Henkes a scenic ride across the Brooklyn Bridge at night.

"His father was with the Red Cross in Bangladesh. So he grew up with Red Cross," Paul Henke said. "He wouldn't take any money."

For both couples, charity isn't just about dollars and cents, though.

"If you can give talent and help somebody, it's a great feeling," Rich Johnson said. "You come away from that with a new appreciation of life and the things you have."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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