Ocoee resident Bernie Durgin, a volunteer with the American Red Cross Mid-Florida Region since 2006, is a member of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team.
If anyone needs him, Bernie Durgin is there. A volunteer with the American Red Cross Mid-Florida Region since 2006, the Ocoee resident is often a first responder to local disasters. Whether a tornado rips through an apartment building or a house fire sends a family running into the street, Bernie offers the help and support that is most needed during hard times.
For his day job, Bernie has served as operations manager at St. Pauls Presbyterian Church in Gotha for the past decade, and before that, he worked at Walt Disney World Resort as a project manager who developed live shows and specialized in fireworks. Bernie also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando Area from 1996 until 2006.Bernie was first attracted to the Red Cross in 1998 while volunteering with a West Orange County nonprofit that assisted tornado victims who did not have insurance. He worked alongside the Red Cross and admired how efficiently and effectively the organization worked to help its recipients.“The Red Cross is absolutely an organization that truly is there to help people in need,” he said. “There is no agenda. They are truly there to help people.”In 2006, Bernie saw an ad in a newspaper about an open American Red Cross Mid-Florida Region volunteer awareness event, and he decided to go.
“It was to introduce the mission of the Red Cross to the attendees,” he said. “The rest is history.”Recently, Bernie assisted in what may have been the largest fire response Central Floridians have seen in years. In June, the Vacation Lodge in Kissimmee caught fire and burned to the ground, leaving hundreds of adults, children and pets homeless.“Unfortunately, many lost practically everything they own,” said Laureen Martinez, chief public relations officer and spokesperson for the American Red Cross Mid-Florida Region.In total, 29 Red Cross volunteers and staff responded and served 327 displaced hotel residents — 232 adults and 95 children. Families were provided with assistance cards pre-loaded with funds for food, clothes and other necessities.“We knew going in that it was going to be a big response,” Bernie said. “I was driving down [State Road] 429, and I could see the large glow in the sky all the way back on the 429. Whenever you see that, you know it is not going to be good. We came in and provided water and guidance to the residents of the hotel, and as we needed more people, we brought more online. There were four of us in the initial response.”Bernie worked into the next morning, providing victims with food, water and compassion and directing everyone to a temporary shelter established at Celebration High School.“We assess their immediate needs, and we offer them the most important basics — a place to stay, a roof over their head, clothes to wear and something to eat,” Bernie said. “In the case of the hotel fire, for many of the residents it was the first step up from being homeless or one step before becoming homeless. To know you are that close to becoming homeless is not a good feeling. My satisfaction was helping them start the recovery process. To let them know it wasn’t hopeless — this was not hopelessness. That there is some silver lining that comes from this.”Bernie added that the emotional support the Red Cross provides is as important as meeting the victims’ physical needs.“Our goal is to respond to a client within two hours of a phone call,” he said. “Typically we can do it within one hour or less. You have people dressed in whatever they ran out of the house in, and they may not have much of anything else. If it were me, I’d like someone there quickly to help me. In a lot of cases, people have many expectations. We help them understand it is a long process. Recovering from a fire is difficult. We have them tell their story. Look around your house. If all those things disappear, you are going to be upset. You will need to talk about it. Many things have sentimental value and cannot be replaced. We are there to listen and help.”Raised in south New Hampshire as the youngest of three, Bernie learned the importance of community involvement early on.“I grew up in a small town, a university town, in New England,” he said. “My father served as a town councilman for the town I grew up in. I grew up involved with the community. I grew up in a small town immersed with neighbors helping neighbors.”And according to Laureen, this sense of community makes Bernie an exceptional volunteer.
“Volunteers like Bernie, who are committed to helping clients, are the backbone of the American Red Cross,” she said. “We could not provide the services we do without them. Bernie is knowledgeable, kind and always willing to respond to disasters no matter the time. His focus is always on helping others.”Fellow Red Cross volunteer Dan Faenza of Hunter’s Creek could not agree more.
The Vacation Lodge in Kissimmee burns down, leaving hundreds of residents homeless and without any belongings.
“He’s outstanding,” Dan said. “He’s my go-to guy. If I have any questions, whether it’s 2 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon, I always pull up Bernie’s number. I will always get him, and he’ll be groggy, but he will answer the question. He is an excellent mentor to have. He has a really good attention to detail, and he’s very alert. He always reminds me to make sure I see the whole picture. He is a great leader, no doubt about that. People listen to him because he’s so conscientious. He is very efficient. He makes his thought process known and will never leave you hanging.”
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