The Survivors, and Gift, That Changed Me
Reflecting on delivering food, resources, and one very cool toy chainsaw to a family in Florida
In December, just before Christmas, I logged my final #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors service for 2020. It was a follow-up to a delivery I had made on June 18, as part of Team Rubicon’s Emergency Feeding Assistance Program with the Patient Advocate Foundation, part of the COVID-19 response.
Back then, the program was new, and one step I took with all the clients I was connected to was to ask if they needed food assistance while they waited for their check. Since the program was targeted to people with cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis—people at highest risk during the pandemic—there was a chance they hadn’t been out of the house in a while. Several of the people I served through the PAF operation did confirm they were in much need. On June 18 I ended up talking with one of those folks, a man in Miami-Dade County. I delivered an emergency food package, like the ones provided at the Feeding America drive-thrus.
It was a simple act and I never met the man on the other end of the phone. I could only hear the pain of what was going on inside his body through his voice. He could have said any number of things, but what he said repeatedly was he had to take care of his sons, that was his only concern. Greyshirt Kevin Reyes and I met one of them—his eldest, an 8-year-old who came out to retrieve the box outside the door as mom stood at the doorway. We gave a thumbs up and then it was off to the next one.
I might have forgotten about the family if, two weeks later, the man’s wife hadn’t called me because, as she stated, she had “found my number in his phone and didn’t know who else to call.” She requested another food box and informed me her husband had lost his battle with cancer and departed. She broke down and so did I listening to every word in between tears. Right then, I decided I would get a Broward County pantry we were working with to provide a package, or I would grocery shop at my own expense, or both. The first pantry declined. Then, I reached out to the Jewish Federation of Broward County which connected me with the Jewish Community Services of South Florida food bank and they stepped up big, providing a very large and well-thought-out package. They also gave me resources to pass along.
When I rolled up with all the food and resources we had gathered from the JCS, they were just taking the man’s empty hospital bed out of the house. I dropped everything off and had a conversation with the widow—part consoling, part informative. That was followed by quite a long, quiet, and reflective ride home.
Fast forward: From August through November, the United States faced a record-breaking hurricane season. The U.S. Gulf Coast got pounded. In August, Hurricane Laura struck the Lake Charles, LA area, then Sally struck in the Florida panhandle and Alabama, then Delta hit right around where Laura had.
In early September, I deployed with Team Rubicon to Lake Charles on Operation Crying Eagle in response to Laura. Less than six weeks later, I deployed there again in response to Delta messing up Team Rubicon’s work.
Then, in a group chat around 2020 Thanksgiving, Greyshirt Nikki Bradley chimed in that giving thanks through service would be nice. I was already considering it, but that was the push I needed and while Nikki got sent to the Sally response, Damn the Torpedoes, I went back to Lake Charles for a third deployment. All were fantastic waves, impacts, and teams.
After Thanksgiving, those two boys were on my mind from time to time. At the time I was reading Jake Wood’s “Once a Warrior,” which was even more inspiration.
I called the widow to follow up. She said she was getting by—these were hardworking people and COVID had impacted her work. But, she said she had found work, although it still wasn’t steady. The tears started, though, when she said she couldn’t “do Christmas.” I told her don’t worry, it will be taken care of before Christmas.
I had worked with a lot of great Greyshirts during the COVID response and assistance we provided at the Kick the King Feeding America pantries, and we had formed a close-knit group that remains in contact. So, I reached out to them via a local chat group and explained what was going on and that I was looking for folks interested in a toy drive for these kids. The immediate response from Greyshirts was humbling. I didn’t want to put anybody out financially or time-wise, but by the time we rolled up to the widow’s house, we had a construction site size garbage bag full of toys.
On December 22, my girlfriend Sandra and I, along with Greyshirts Anthony Mako and David and Debbie Comesanas (she became a Greyshirt this February), delivered the toys, food, and essential supplies. The family is all alone here, without any family on either the widow’s or her husband’s side. Pretty soon, David had pulled her aside and was dropping resources to her—connections to a local church, business cards, etc.
We also spent some quality time with the boys—ages 8 and 4—too. We’d found this Stihl toy chainsaw and it’s a toy, but it has a real safety on it—you have to flip a switch and do something else before it will actually turn on when you pull the cord, just like the real thing. It comes with a tool bag, too, just like the real bags for the 261s. And there’s a little wrench so you can change the rubber chain. I personally am a huge fan and advocate of the Sawyer program—the work that we do and just the program in general and the safety aspect of it—so we did an actual Team Rubicon-like sawyer training with the kids right there, which was fantastic.
Those kids… Looking at them, I thought of the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” The older one still seems to be in a bit of shock. It’s in his eyes. It’s similar to what I’ve seen in the eyes of disaster survivors if that makes sense.
We did our best to do good with the time we had there. And, we walked away with some of the same feelings as when we complete a job at the home of a disaster survivor. I credit our outstanding Greyshirts everywhere for those results.
I’ve only been a Greyshirt for just over a year, but already I have so many fantastic memories and experiences. I did quite a bit of immunocompromised deliveries during EFAP, but I still can say wholeheartedly that this one, this survivor family, is the one that has changed me.