Remember that fierce, irrational nudge that first sent you toward volunteering?
Sue Glassnor of St. Clair, Michigan does.
Hurricane Katrina had ripped apart entire communities along the Gulf Coast and Sue’s heart was aching for the families left flailing. As the foster mom of 60 children across 20 years and adoptive mom of nine, she knew well what disruption at home can cause.
“When I saw all those children who didn’t have their parents with them in the different shelters, I just wanted to take them all home with me,” she recalls. “I felt the overwhelming need to go down there and help.”
Oh sure, plenty of people feel an emotional tug when they see disaster trauma on television. But who leaves a home that sometimes has 10 kids — many with special needs — to meet yet another need for total strangers?
Well, Sue does.
“It was my first volunteer experience,” she says. “I tried to help with the Red Cross, but they wanted to put you through all kinds of training and wanted you to commit for three weeks at a time. I didn’t have that kind of time. So I guess I typed in ‘Katrina volunteer’ on Craigslist and All Hands popped up. Back then, it was called Hands On USA. I got their number and called and someone actually answered the phone. So I booked my flight and went.”
She didn’t do it without some nervous jitters.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to get into, because I had never heard of them and didn’t know what to expect,” says Sue of volunteering with All Hands. “I went for four or five days and was a little bit nervous. What was I going to find? At least, I figured the airport was close, so I could leave early if something happened.”
Something happened all right: Her future changed.
“As it turned out, I wished I would have stayed longer,” she says. “From the time I first got there, I couldn’t believe all the people that were there. It seemed everyone got along and loved helping the people of the community. Then, as I got into the work, it was just so satisfying. Some of it was really hard, but everyone was so wonderful — from the volunteers to the staff to the homeowners.
“I like that All Hands goes into communities and meets the individual needs of the homeowners,” says Sue. “That’s what I like the most: We go into a community and actually make a difference. It’s truly for the benefit of the people in the community that we’re there. Everything about it was just an overwhelmingly positive experience.”
And so she went back — not just once, but three or four times.
“When I came home, they had extended the project in Biloxi, so I asked my family if I could go back as my Christmas gift,” she recalls, chuckling. “So that was my Christmas. That time, I went for nine days. Then I went again on the one-year anniversary and stayed 11.”
How is that even possible for someone who is clearly busy with so many obligations?
“I have a very supportive husband,” she says. “If he didn’t support me doing this, I could never go. Even though he worked at the time I went, he would just take over everything. I would pay a babysitter when he was working and, when he got home, he would take over the whole household. Also, I had older children who helped out, too, so I had a lot of family support.”
The kids were watching closely — and decided to jump in, too.
“The first time I went to Biloxi, my then-16-year-old daughter wanted to join me and she really, really liked it,” says Sue. “She went back with me at the one-year mark. The others have been great about supporting me from home, too, and that’s how I’m able to go.”
Go, she does.
In the seven years that she has been joining All Hands to help rebuild communities, Sue has trekked around the country — and world — wherever need arises:
Mississippi. Philippines. Peru. Arkansas. Iowa. New York. Rhode Island. Haiti. Missouri. North Dakota. Kentucky. Minnesota.
Seriously. At some projects, she has shown up multiple times and, in some states, for more than one disaster.
Each time, she finds something new to love about being helpful.
“One of the projects that I really, really liked was working on finding artifacts from the Jefferson Davis Museum in Biloxi that had been destroyed. We got to help them find artifacts that had blown away. It just gave me a real sense of accomplishment to restore history to the community. They had lost so much of it.”
International travel brought its own rewards — and concerns.
“Actually, I was really, really nervous when I went to the Philippines,” recalls Sue. “First of all, it was the longest plane ride I’ve ever been on in my entire life. It was intimidating to go to a foreign country by myself because, other than Canada, I’d never left the U.S. A guy who I knew from volunteering in Biloxi had found a place to stay overnight in Manila, so I kind of followed how he did things.
“When I went to Peru, I speak extremely limited Spanish and so that was a little bit more intimidating,” she said. “But actually, it didn’t turn out to be an issue. I found some people who could speak English and got to the place where I needed to go.”
Despite being uneasy when venturing into the unknown, Sue didn’t fear for her safety.
“I was never concerned about security,” she says. “One of the nice things All Hands does when they have a project going is that they won’t send anyone to an area where they can’t assure us of it being as safe as possible. They also tell you to read up on different sites for what the government says and they expect us to make our decisions from the information we find out. I never felt uncomfortable about going or while I was there.”
Every project is different — and yet she likes that they all have a core goal of helping residents.
“I’ve just got back from the project in Duluth, Minnesota,” she says. “I was glad to help with another All Hands’ RCC [Recovery Coordination Center],” she explained. “In that, we’re coordinating everybody to be able to report accurate hours to FEMA for the community we’re in and to utilize volunteers in a more effective way. I do the assessments, so I talk with homeowners and find out their needs for their individual properties and then volunteer skills are matched with homeowner needs. I think it’s extremely important to do that and the management team that goes gets it done extremely well.
“I always tell my husband that I don’t know who it’s more satisfying for — the homeowner or me,” she says, laughing. “Knowing that I’ve helped them get to that next step to get control of the situation and move them forward gives me a lot of satisfaction. I love that I could, in some way, help them regain their lives. I also get a lot out of it.
“I’ve met some wonderful volunteers at every project I’ve gone into,” she says. “I’ve gotten to be really good friends, even outside of All Hands, with a few of them. And I correspond back and forth with some of the homeowners that I’ve met in the Philippines. I think that, just about every place, I have a special person or two that has touched my heart.
“I don’t know where or when my next project will be, but I still look forward to being able to go,” says Sue. “People need help and I just want to do it. My husband and I have done foster care and that’s a need out there to help children have a safe and loving environment, while parents are getting their lives together to get their kids back. We also experienced a house fire and had people help us. So it’s kind of a pay-it-forward thing. I have always wanted to give back. It’s something I’ve always done and feel I need to do.
“There have been a couple of times when I haven’t been able to go to an All Hands project and it’s frustrating,” she admits. “Because I know that they can use my help. There are people out there who don’t do anything and I always wonder, ‘What’s your problem? Why don’t you want to do this?’ As busy as my life is, I know — if you truly want to volunteer, you’re going to find a way.”