Beyond Good Cheer

Nick Mrzlak

Reflecting on a lifetime of holiday volunteering and service. Plus, advice to every Greyshirt deployed this season.

The holiday season is here, and this time of year always brings mixed emotions for me. The challenges faced by our community are not gone for the season and, in many ways, are worse. For many, the holiday season often brings a different kind of crisis—one of loneliness, hunger, and hardship. Serving is a powerful way to extend a helping hand, and our mere presence helps reduce the sense of loss for those left after a disaster. Volunteering allows us to be proactive in addressing these challenges and ensures that everyone in our community experiences the warmth and joy the season is meant to bring. As a firefighter, I’ve seen firsthand how small acts of kindness can ignite a flame of hope in someone’s heart.

Yet, while we may be out there serving—whether in our own communities or on a disaster operation with Team Rubicon—we also miss the time we build some of our most valuable memories with our family and friends at home. The sacrifices made by people who choose to go and do essential work can take a heavy toll on our personal lives, and finding that balance is even more critical. 

After leaving the Navy, I served 20 years as a paramedic firefighter in New Mexico. I always felt it was a privilege to work on holidays, and, coming from a family with a long history of service, there is an understanding that someone must be out there, and if not me, then who? 

When I started volunteering with Team Rubicon, I saw a greater need as whole communities struggled with the hardships of surviving disasters. Dozens of families who had lost everything in a hurricane or a tornado were now staying in a shelter or crammed in a tiny hotel room or sleeping in their car. The holiday season adds to how desperate the situation is, and often, I will find myself in the field trying to lend a hand. In fact, since joining the TRibe in 2012, I’ve tried to flip-flop deployments between Thanksgiving and Christmas, serving on one or the other each year. 

Nick Mrzlak talks with another Greyshirt during a deployment.

I deploy during the holidays to spend time with the Greyshirts who chose to volunteer then. I feel an obligation to support them from a staff and field leadership position. I would not ask them to do something that I am not prepared to do myself. 

And, I deploy to serve those for whom the holidays often hit the hardest.

The impact of volunteering is immeasurable, and during holidays, it initiates you into a particular club, a unique community of folks who choose to spend their most valuable resource to help someone less fortunate. You build deep connections and create meaningful memories with a team of people who share a sense of purpose and become like family. During this time of year, I feel a true spirit of gratitude, unity, and giving back that helps me appreciate the season’s meaning. 

This is also a time when I have seen some of the most extraordinary examples of humanity and charitable acts of gratitude. In Beaumont, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey, a single mom with her house gutted and leaking and most of her possessions in a pile on the curb set up a makeshift kitchen in her garage to cook Thanksgiving Boudin and Beignets for the team. In Punta Gorda, a widowed grandmother whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Ian insisted on baking Christmas cookies for “her Team Rubicon.” There are countless examples of people who have lost so much and given selflessly. 

At times, I feel that the emotions that come with serving during the holidays are so rewarding that I am forced to remind myself of my own family’s sacrifices at home. Out there, my attention is focused on this incredible mission, while at home, my own family is spending another holiday without me. It struck home for me this year: With my son stationed overseas and my daughter scheduled to work the Christmas 48 on an ambulance, I find myself on the other side of a family in service during the holidays. I have immense pride and understanding of what they need to do, but at the same time, I’m experiencing a sense of loss. I recognize the hypocrisy, but my hope is that we Greyshirts can strive for a balance between our desire to help and our dedication to family. 

Serving with Team Rubicon over the holidays is some of the most compelling work I do, and it borders on addictive. My family’s support makes volunteering with TR possible. And while we Greyshirts are gone, it is important to be conscious of the need to balance our life priorities. We can’t take care of others if we cannot care for ourselves. 

I hope everyone can experience the opportunity to volunteer over the holiday and the sense of gratitude that this brings. But I also remind every Greyhirt in the TRibe that even as we serve those experiencing the hardest things during the holidays, we must also take care of our own. It is, after all, our own families and friendships that complete our purpose.

Nick Mrzlak spent four years with the Worlds Greatest Navy as a Hospital Corpsman at Balboa and Bethesda hospitals then on the USS Blue Ridge out of Yokosuka, Japan. After the Navy, he worked as a firefighter paramedic in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. He started volunteering with Team Rubicon in 2012 and during his time with Cohort 4 of the Clay Hunt Fellowship Program, he found a niche with the Incident Management Team (IMT). He continues to look for adventures and opportunities wherever they can be found and lives by the motto “Be nice, and try to help.”

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