John Laffey, American Red Cross DOVE, at Southern Baptist Convention Food Kitchen describing food distribution for areas hardest hit by Houston floods

Story by MaryJane Mudd, American Red Cross • Photography by Eric Cain, American Red Cross

Sitting at his ailing wife’s bedside 20 years ago in San Jose, California, John Laffey had no idea he would someday embark on a journey that would bring him to help people who were hard hit by the Houston floods.

“After 36 years of marriage she held my hand and did a very sweet thing. She told me to feel free to marry after her passing as long as I waited the ‘prerequisite first year’ before I did,” Laffey, currently serving as Food Supervisor for flood victims, said with a gentle smile.

He recounted how a couple years later he met and married his high school sweetheart, Anita. Not long thereafter, the newlyweds found themselves at a crossroads. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina that ignited a passion to help people in distress suddenly intersected with newfound freedom when John was laid off from a 30-year San Jose teaching job. This prompted them to purchase a recreational vehicle (RV), become Red Cross DOVEs (Disaster Operations Volunteer Escapees) and travel the country aiding people during disasters. Their home is their RV and the road is where they live.

“Anita’s a licensed therapist,” John explained. “Over the years she’s provided mental health first aid at 22 national disasters.” He added humbly, “I’ve done whatever task they’ve given me,” although with some prodding he shared he’s performed a variety of services at 19 disasters and trained hundreds of volunteers in disaster response. It was serendipity, however, that placed the Laffeys close to Houston before the storms hit on April 18.

“We were visiting my daughter in Dickinson, Texas, when the rain started. We were far from the devastation but I saw those horrible news stories,” said Laffey. He made a donation but in his heart felt he could do more. He immediately called the Houston area chapter of the American Red Cross and that very night he was loading emergency response vehicles with supplies. The next day he was at the Humble Area’s First Baptist Church supervising the mobile kitchen and feeding collaboration between the Red Cross and Southern Baptist Convention. John’s close proximity to the flooding allowed him to help quickly and efficiently.

“It’s just an honor to serve,” said Laffey. When asked if Anita minded being left in Dickinson, he just smiled and said, “She understands. We’ve been doing this for many years and we’ll be doing it for a long time to come.”