SPOKANE, Wash. — Chuck and Janet Boehme were watching a movie on Oct. 9 when they got a call asking if they could leave the next day for a cross-country trek.
The retired Spokane Valley residents are regular American Red Cross volunteers, so they agreed to drive one of its specially equipped feeding vehicles to a flooded region of the East Coast after Hurricane Matthew.
“The hurricane hit from Florida all the way up to Virginia,” said Janet Boehme, 72. “There were people all along the coast affected, so it takes a lot of vehicles to feed all of them.” At their Greenville, North Carolina, destination, the couple set up the modified small truck to distribute lunch and dinner — about 400 meals a day.
During the Oct. 10-23 stint, they often slept on an air mattress in the back of the rig, also known as an emergency response vehicle. “We started feeding people the first nights in a couple of hotels where people were evacuated and staying, then we went to a little town called Grifton, North Carolina, where people were very much in need of a feeding vehicle,” Boehme said. “Their only grocery store had been flooded.”
The Boehmes picked up food each day that was prepared in temporary industrial kitchens by Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers. After serving hot meals for lunches and again for dinners from the Red Cross vehicle, the couple cleaned and sterilized it twice daily.
“People in this little town were really grateful,” added Chuck Boehme, 71.
Rather than easing back in retirement, the Boehmes are among hundreds of Spokane-area volunteers who regularly spend time supporting nonprofit organizations such as the Red Cross. Some tap into Volunteers of America or Salvation Army among other causes.
Jim Loudermilk, a 72-year-old retired mental health therapist, also often gives his time to the Red Cross, usually helping people after home fires or at shelters during wildfires, including recent ones in Washington State.
He describes it as rewarding work, and said the organization’s mission to help others aligns with his own beliefs. “Red Cross provides that opportunity to give to another, to be helpful, to kind of have a purpose,” he said. “I guess I bought into what John F. Kennedy said a long time ago and that is to give to your community and make it a better community.”
Along with the chance to be helpful, the service work fills a post-retirement void, he said. “What I learned being retired is there is a lot of intimacy generated in work, and I couldn’t replace that in retirement very easily without going out and finding something else that I liked to do,” said Loudermilk, who also taught at Eastern Washington University, in Cheney, Washington. “I think a lot of people find when they retire, they feel kind of empty and lonely and can’t quite fill the void,” he said. “You think you’re just going to find fun things to do like golfing and sailing, which I did, and it was great, but it wasn’t enough.”
Chuck Boehme said he first heard about Red Cross work from a friend and started helping in 2011. His wife joined him the next year as it was work they could do together. They’ve helped people affected by home fires in Spokane and traveled to aid East Coast residents after superstorm Sandy.
“There are volunteers who spend way more hours than we do,” he said. “We do this maybe once a week each month on call.”
Both of the Boehmes enjoy staying active and exercise regularly, including kayaking, camping and hiking. He previously worked as assistant principal at Medical Lake High School. She was a family nurse practitioner who runs both for exercise and in competitions.
The Red Cross work is challenging, but in a good way, she said. “I’d tried other volunteer things, and I wasn’t challenged enough.”
Other retiree volunteers also describe a desire to help others blended with a way to be productive.
Gary and Deb Veltry of north Spokane were inspired a few years ago to train as Red Cross volunteers after seeing the region’s response in aiding wildfire victims.
“The Red Cross was collecting items in downtown Spokane and sending truckloads of stuff up to that area, so we took a pallet of water down there,” said Deb Veltry, 66. “It was very inspiring to see all the people who wanted to help and the great need out there.”
She’s since witnessed how people affected by fires or floods respond with gratitude to American Red Cross volunteers. “The people I’ve met are so grateful that someone cares about them. It gives you more energy. It motivates me to do more.”
A former railroad conductor, Gary Veltry, 72, also said he enjoys both the work and collaboration.
“With the Red Cross, considering it’s all volunteers that they use to manage and reach out with programs, they seem to get everything lined up pretty good,” he said. “We meet a lot of other people volunteering from all over the country.”
The organization is flexible about volunteers’ schedules, Deb Veltry said, and she and her husband don’t always help at the same events. She traveled to Louisiana twice in August to help flood victims, as her husband staffed a shelter opened during a wildfire north of Davenport, Washington. Retirement doesn’t have to be about easing back, she added. “Sometimes you can only take so much easy. It was something I needed to do. I like to help people.”
Loudermilk said, “When you go out to fires or disasters and are there to help people, it’s a pretty rich time in terms of people are kind of overwhelmed, and you’re then able to be helpful, and how appreciative they can be of that.” He added, “You really need those kinds of connections. It gives me a chance to make those connections with other people in kind of a heartfelt way.”