When Northwest ISD’s Phil Beckman agreed to sacrifice his week-long Thanksgiving break to deploy with the American Red Cross to New York and aid in the recovery efforts following Superstorm Sandy, he wasn’t sure what his assignment would be.But the district’s Partners in Education specialist certainly didn’t think that simply giving hugs and listening would be such an integral part of his role.
As a public affairs volunteer, the Fort Worth resident primarily shot video footage, snapped photos, visited with volunteers and locals and wrote stories conveying how Red Cross volunteers assist the afflicted in the New York and New Jersey area.
But the eight-year Red Cross volunteer’s attempts to photograph a pile of sand “almost as tall as one of the buildings” blown together by the wind ended in embraces.
“I was on Long Island, walking up and down the boardwalk trying to get photos of this huge pile of sand,” Beckman said. “A woman, Alicia from Peru, sees me, and I’m in my Red Cross gear. She approaches me and is just frustrated. She’s going on and on and on.”
Beckman learned the woman lost everything in the storm and although she was receiving some help, she didn’t know exactly what to do. She was on a visa, preparing to apply for U.S. citizenship and had three girls – one school age, another finishing college and the oldest already married.
“I asked her, ‘Can I give you a hug?’” Beckman recalled. “So I put my arms around her, and the tears just started flowing. And it takes everything I have not to let go and cry with her. Basically, she just needed somoene who would listen to her. And I was the person that day ….
“It was a very emotional trip. This was just one of those moments.”LONGTIME VOLUNTEER
Beckman has been involved in the Red Cross since December 2004. While a student at UT Arlington, he began networking with officials of the nonprofit organization and secured them as speakers for his classes.
“Listening to their presentations and getting to learn about the things they did got me really excited about the organization,” Beckman said. “I got involved in the Red Cross and had the opportunity to work with them, to hone my PR skills – writing, taking pictures.”
Since graduating and landing school PR jobs, Beckman has remained involved in the organization, even working as the region’s interim chief of marketing during his transition between the Burleson and Northwest school districts.
As a volunteer, he responded to the wildfire at Possum Kingdom in April 2011. He was in Dallas when Hurricane Katrina victims evacuated to North Texas and to local house fires. But Beckman had never deployed as far as New York – his first out-of-state deployment.
Although the Red Cross requires a minimum two-week commitment for such large-scale deployments, the widespread damage, like that of Sandy, warrants any and all help.
The Red Cross had called Beckman several weeks before his deployment but because of his job, he was not able to leave right then. He considered going during his Thanksgiving break, but wasn’t sure until he ran it by his family – including wife Kerrie and children Andrew, 10, and Katie, 7.
“They were like, ‘Yeah, Dad! Go!’ With their approval, I gave (the Red Cross) my availability and went from there,” Beckman recalled. “You want the family’s blessing. That’s important.”ROUTINE CHAOS
Beckman flew into LaGuardia Airport Saturday, Nov. 17, and began his service the next day, doing internal communications at the Red Cross’s Manhattan office.
“The New York City commissioner of emergency management gave us an upate on the city’s initiatives as far as cleanup,” Beckman said. “So I wrote something about that for a newsletter that goes out every day.”
Beckman followed suit in Long Island the next two days, taking numerous photos and visiting with countless people – volunteers and victims alike.
“Everyone has a story, whether they’re on the receiving end or on the helping end,” Beckman said.
On Monday he worked from another chapter office in Mineola before stopping by a mass care mobile feeding site in Deer Park, where community partners from the Southern Baptist Convention cooked and prepared meals – chicken and corn that day.
On Tuesday, he visited Nassau County College in Garden City, where the Red Cross has established the largest shelter. More than 300 people had lodged there the night before.
“You can imagine the emotions running through that building,” Beckman said. “You know how hot our summers are here in Texas. You know how when you open a car door or the door to a room and the heat just about overtakes you?
“It’s a similar situation when you walk into a shelter,” he continued. “All this emotion just greets you at the door. It is unbelievable.”
After leaving the shelter, Beckman drove to Long Island and took photos along the board walk.
“There’s a lot of flooding, a lot of wind damage, and that wasn’t the worst of it,” he said. “The worst of it is on the Jersey shoreline, but I didn’t go there. I stayed in New York.”
On Wednesday, Beckman worked from the Manhattan office, filing stories and pictures and compiling a video of volunteers thanking their families for their support and wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving.
Although Beckman had to spend the holiday away from his family, he had the day off and was able to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and catch a movie.
He resumed duty Friday in Far Rockaway – about an hour’s drive from Manhattan – visiting with locals like a mother and son who weathered the storm with a propane tank to stay warm and to cook with, and a woman who commended the resilience of their neighbors, who came together to help each other out and even prepared to decorate for Christmas.
“It was a great example of what it means to live in community,” Beckman said. “In addition to the people in the community helping out their neighbors, there are so many organizations, so many individuals wanting to help out. Everybody comes together doing their part. I think it’s incredible.”
Beckman wrapped up his work Saturday before flying home Sunday.
“I’m thankful I was able to go and serve,” he said. “It was an amazing trip. I cherish being able to see firsthand what is going on. Reading the paper and seeing on television these stories does not compare. When you see it firsthand, you’re overwhelmed with emotions on so many levels. It is unbelievable.”