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Volunteers aid Katrina victims

| Monday, Dec. 5, 2005

Most Americans saw the effects of Hurricane Katrina on television.

Bill Senopole of North Apollo and Judith Schaffer of Lower Burrell are Red Cross volunteers who witnessed the hurricane's damage firsthand.

Senopole, the chairman of disaster for Armstrong County, headed south before Katrina hit. He waited in Montgomery, Ala., while the storm was pounding the Gulf Coast and was dispatched as soon as roads were reopened.

"You saw enough on TV to know it was bad," said Senopole, who is a retired physical education and science teacher from Kiski Area School District. "But I went down before the storm hit. A couple days of waiting puts you on edge. You wonder why you're there."

Senopole was reminded when he was dispatched to Gulfport, Miss. He's been a volunteer for four years and he said the disaster that capped off the end of the summer was the worst he's seen.

"It was bad," he said. "In between Biloxi and Gulfport, there's a road called I-90. We saw a casino boat that was on one side of I-90 that should have been on the Gulf side."

Senopole has been part of disaster relief efforts for floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes in Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and locally.

He does it because he's wants to give back to the community he's taken from for years.

"You figure in life for the years things were good, you took," he said. "And now, it's time to give back. And it's exciting. Once you do the assignment, you can't believe how good you feel. There's a sense of accomplishment in helping people."

Unlike Senopole, Schaffer watched the scenes on television before she was dispatched south.

A Red Cross volunteer with 26 years of experience, Schaffer was told she was being sent to the Gulf Coast on hardship deployment. She said that means you pack a sleeping bag, hiking boots, your own water and toilet paper, nonperishable food, throw-away clothes, and be prepared to sleep on the ground.

"Physically, you have to have a doctor sign off for you," Schaffer said. "Hardship means you have to be able to carry around or lift 50 pounds. You are bringing a sleeping bag because you might actually be sleeping on the floor."

When she retired in 2001, Schaffer said she decided she wanted to do more hands-on work with the organization. She went through disaster training, earned first aid and CPR certifications, and got all the shots recommended for disaster work.

The hardship scenario she was planning for wasn't what she ended up doing, though, she said.

On Oct. 2, she was sent to Dallas to do management supervision for caseworkers.

She was helping people who had been evacuated twice -- once for Katrina and then again for Hurricane Rita.

"We tried to get them out of the shelters and get them some financial assistance or relocation," Schaffer said.

Schaffer said there were a lot of people who were working temporary jobs during the day and couldn't be reached during regular business hours, so she and other volunteers spent evenings talking with people as well.

She became close with a lot of the victims.

"I cried with some of them and laughed with some of them," she said.

Community service is a priority for both Senopole and Schaffer.

Schaffer received the Volunteer of the Year award this year from the Alle-Kiski chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees, an association Senopole is also a member of.

Between July 2004 and July 2005, Schaffer racked up 957 hours of community service.

Schaffer said volunteering in general and more specifically for disaster relief efforts is good for retired teachers.

"A lot of the people that can go out on this for three weeks are the school retirees," she said. "They have the training and the background."

Senopole has been to two disaster zones a year for the last three years. Following the trend, he thinks he'll be deployed twice in 2006 as well.

Schaffer also said she intends to go back if she's needed.

"After Christmas," she said "I will reactivate myself so I can be sent back down if they need me."

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