Within minutes of arriving at Team Rubicon’s operating base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, I heard rumblings of something called “Dogwood.” Each anecdote revealed a bit more about this mysterious Dogwood, and I began to envision a Hulk-like character or protagonist from an old Wild West film. Surely, nothing short of a caped superhero or masked avenger would elicit such profound respect and admiration from a group of battle-tested veterans, first responders, and “kick-ass” civilians, I thought.
Finally, I mustered up the courage to ask a fellow Team Rubicon volunteer to point me in the direction of this Dogwood character; he smiled and guided me over to Jim and Martha Grossman, grandparents to six grandchildren and heroes to anyone who has had the honor of meeting them. This is the story of Dogwood.
“How do you say to your wife, ‘Honey, I’m packing up my tools and I’m going to drive 300 miles across the state to help complete strangers. I’m not sure how I’m going to help, but I’ve got to try,” Jim recalls of the moment he first felt a call to service.
It’s 1994 and an earthquake has struck the San Fernando Valley of California. Jim, a 41-year-old father of three grown children, decides he cannot stand idly by, watching events unfold on the nightly news, and not take action. Jim spent his adult life raising three kids and now was the time to help those who could not help themselves. Martha expressed concern at Jim’s sudden interest in disaster relief, but remembers telling him, “If you feel like God is telling you to go, who am I to tell God no?”
And with the permission and support of his high-school sweetheart Martha, Jim began his journey to Los Angeles. He arrived with tools and a background in construction, but no clear mission, other than the resounding question, “Where can I do the most good for the most people? At each turn, his offers of help were denied, until he stumbled upon a public park filled with earthquake survivors who could not return home due to continued tremors. So, they resorted to creating makeshift shelters. Jim realized he could utilize his tools and knowledge to build single-family dwellings for survivors. Noah found his Ark.
Jim examined every open space within the city to identify a location for his single-family shelters. He finally struck a compromise with local government officials: the county will build a large congregate structure in the middle of a high school football field, and he will build smaller single-family shelters along the perimeter, using supplies purchased on the Grossman family credit card (with Martha’s permission). Jim worked diligently into the early hours of the morning mass-producing the shelters. Camera crews, law enforcement, and insomniacs all paid visits to Jim, but his focus and attention remained firmly on the needs of those affected by the earthquake. Once he completed his final handmade shelter, he packed his truck and returned home to Sonora, California, a changed man.
Once back in Sonora, Jim organizes a school-based program to encourage children to foster a sense of community service and civic responsibility through local cleanup efforts (the program is now in its 22nd year). His attention and time remain focused on supporting local efforts until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Once again, he was needed and responded. This time though, Jim told Martha, “I can’t do this alone. I need you.”
Jim and Martha drive three days straight from California to New York. They happen upon a deserted feeding center once operated by a non-governmental organization and collaborate with other spontaneous volunteers to feed first responders supporting operations at Ground Zero. Barbeque masters in the Lone Star State get wind of these Good Samaritans’ efforts and send five semi-trucks filled with barbeque meat to Manhattan. “Volunteering takes you out of your comfort zone,” says Martha, “You jump off the bridge and hope you land.” And land they most certainly did.
Jim and Martha’s ability to channel selflessness and compassion into action did not end in September 2001. In fact, it was only just beginning. After Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Grossmans mobilized a coalition of volunteers – beginning with 22 family members – to help residents of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, rebuild. While volunteering in Mississippi, Jim witnessed a volunteer destroy a woman’s entire lawn in the process of removing the stump of a dead tree. This was the final straw for an already devastated homeowner, who responded with a sign in her now-destroyed yard that read, “Why?”
At that moment Jim realized, “We have to do better. These people have already lost everything. We cannot make it any worse for them. We must always be a positive force.”
He began to research every type of trailer and machinery in existence, and when nothing met his standards, he decided to design and build his own trailer system: a dump trailer with a hinge point attached to an all-terrain vehicle.
The Grossmans also created Dogwood Charitable Foundation to help mobilize the goodwill, volunteer time, and financial support of those who felt drawn to their cause to ensure they could continue to support disasters around the country. “You find the time, money, and energy to do what you are passionate about. We work hard to find the resources to maintain our operations because we feel it’s our mission,” says Jim.
The Grossmans – “Dogwood” – first encountered the veteran-led non-profit disaster response organization Team Rubicon in 2014 during post-tornado recovery efforts in Arkansas. They arrived in town with the determination to help – but no clue where to begin. A local resident told them, “There’s a group called Team Rubicon camped at the Home Depot up the street. That’s where you need to be.”
To the Arkansan who led Jim and Martha to the “group up the street,” we are forever thankful. When the Grossmans arrived at Operation Rising Eagle, they immediately knew they had found where they belonged. “We’ll have to brush up on our cussing,” Martha remembers telling Jim, “but otherwise, we’ll definitely fit in here.”
“We identified the part of the mission that is right for us (Dogwood trailers) just like Team Rubicon has done within the broader disaster response community. Since you can’t be everywhere, focus on one spot and do the very best you can,” says Jim. “There’s no better force multiplier than a couple of wonderful human beings who are willing to drive across the country with motorized equipment specifically engineered to operate in the disaster space to make debris removal easier and more manageable,” said Operation Seymour Action Incident Commander KC Baney.
Jim proposed to Martha at 18, offering her a sewing machine instead of an engagement ring. “If she says yes, that means she knows this partnership comes with work,” Jim remembers thinking. Over 40 years later, I witnessed Jim get down on one knee again, this time to apply duct tape around Martha’s Tyvek suit so she could safely enter the crawlspace of a flood-soaked home. As Martha beamed from ear-to-ear, I realized their partnership had not only produced three children and six grandchildren, but also a legacy of service and selflessness that has stood the test of time.
While “Dogwood” may not be the Hulk-like character or Wild West protagonist I had imagined, it is something far superior: real-life heroes Jim “Save Your Back” and Martha “Suck it Up, Buttercup” Grossman.