Story and photos by Bonnie Robert Will, Red Cross contributor

In his words, Tom Cardwell’s first attempt at a career was insurance sales and he was terrible at it — but he learned a lot that has been helpful in life. The next career move was working for the City of Lincoln, NE. He did well but was compelled to go back to school and get his Doctor of Psychology. He said his kids told him “Dad you have a perfectly good job, why are you going back to school?” But in the end, it all worked out well and he retired two years ago as the Dean of Students at a community college. 

When asked what made him decide to volunteer with the Red Cross, Cardwell replied that several years ago a couple at his church volunteered with the Red Cross and he thought someday he would like to do it, too. Once retired, he turned to a friend who works in the Red Cross and asked her if he could contribute in some way. That’s where his Red Cross story begins. 

His first disaster deployment was to the Campfire response earlier this year, where he worked in the shelter in Chico, CA. “There was a mix of younger and older people suffering. I was inspired by how they dealt with it all,” said Cardwell. “As a member of the disaster mental health team I like to be a good listener and help people get back to their lives.” 

Now on his third disaster response here in Texas, he’s been in Houston about a week. “It’s been interesting,” Cardwell said. “And enjoyable, because I have met so many nice people seeking help and information.” 

Many of those dealing with the floods of Imelda, Cardwell continues, are the sandwich generation — dealing with raising kids and taking care of parents. And now dealing with the flood’s devastation. One lady he spoke to had had her home destroyed by Hurricane Harvey floods and then moved to a new home, which has now been flooded during Imelda. She was really sad, and they talked a lot. He went on to talk about the people who want to recover on their own and don’t ask for help, thinking they can push through it all on their own. He asks them what they would do if someone asked them for help and they all replied, “I would help in a heartbeat.” The discussion then turns to who is important to them, family, friends, church, people at work? They can then determine who to ask for help. He helps them decide what is most important for them to do now, how can you use the resources available to you, what people can help them clean up, replenish, and start to recover. 

When asked how he handles the stress of talking to people all day about their stress he says “That’s a very good question. I don’t think I have been sleeping as well lately so I’ll be taking a day off soon. Our team really looks out for each other — we get together at the end of the day and debrief so we can move forward in helping others.” 

In the future, Cardwell and his wife, Jenny, hope to volunteer and deploy together and will take advantage of Red Cross training, which he says is excellent and led by professionals. “Volunteers receive a lot of good training to know how to do their jobs.” Noting that he’s also impressed by how the Red Cross is cost conscious yet at the same time able to anticipate disaster needs quickly and make course corrections in a timely manner, Cardwell adds “You have to be flexible as a Red Cross volunteer.”