Red Cross volunteer makes sure no stomach is empty

Published: August 22, 2006 | 4603rd good news item since 2003

Bandit the rat terrier jumps out of the car, tail wagging and full of excitement.

“That’s my helper,” says Mike Hellberg, Red Cross Meals on Wheels volunteer.

Bandit and Hellberg are preparing to deliver 19 hot and cold meals to elderly La Salle residents. This particular Tuesday, Aug. 1 there happens to be a heat advisory, but that doesn’t scorch the spirits of Hellberg and his small, but energetic dog. They’re happy to help.

“You’ve got to give back,” Hellberg says. “I might be in their shoes one of these days and hope there are people who want to do that for me.”

Hellberg, a 54-year-old retired UPS worker, has been giving back to the community and around the country for the past two years since helping after the 2004 Utica tornado and really, all his life. He remembers growing up with parents who were constantly involved in the community.

“There’s always something to do when people find out you’re retired,” he said.

Hellberg and Bandit pull up to one of their first stops that afternoon, Minnie Carter’s house.

“Let’s go see Minnie” he says to Bandit as the two step into her kitchen.

“How’ve you been today?” Hellberg asks Carter as they chat. She points to a bag of dog treats and angel food cake, specifically meant for Bandit.

“Hey, you’re tail is wiggling,” she says to the dog while smiling.

Hellberg opts to take the cake.

“I prefer the angel food cake because I’m helping him,” he says.

Spending just enough time to catch up, but not too much because people are waiting for food, the meal delivery duo says goodbye.

“I really enjoy doing this,” Hellberg says as he drives with Bandit in the passenger seat. “A lot of these people are your friends after you do this for a while.”

Hellberg says volunteering is in his blood. He recalled times when his mother would get frustrated with his father because if anyone was in need, whether it be a flat tire or directions, he would stop to help. And Hellberg is following that family philosophy.

Aug. 1 was his first day back delivering meals after spending three weeks doing flood relief in Pennsylvania.

“There were some pretty hard hit areas out there,” he said, noting he worked in a warehouse unloading supplies in the southeast region of upstate New York and the upper east corner of Pennsylvania.

But it was nothing compared to his time spent picking up the pieces from Hurricane Katrina at the Civic Center in Mobile, Ala. He said he saw 900-1,400 people a day working on clients’ cases and at times there was nothing he could do if people didn’t qualify for help.

“There’ve people you can’t do things for and you can’t help,” he said. “You just have to try. It was hard, especially when they say, ‘Hey, I give to the Red Cross.’”

His favorite thing about volunteering both out of state and in La Salle, is the gratitude. When he would wear his Red Cross T-shirt down south people would pat him on the back and thank him.

And the gratitude is seen locally too.

Hellberg and Bandit pull up to the next stop and park. An elderly man sits in a shaded lawn chair on the side of his house.

“There’s Leo waiting for his meals” Hellberg says to Bandit as they jump out of the car.

“I’ll bring them back to you — enjoy your shade,” Hellberg calls to Leo Wieczorek who started to walk toward the Red Cross volunteer. He moves back the chair to sit down.

“You’ve got your friend with you today,” Wieczorek says as Bandit comes running up for a pet. The two chat about gardening for a while and Wieczorek offers his appreciation for a hot meal at his doorstep.

“You know years ago you never had this,” he says.

But thanks to volunteers like Hellberg, people in need are getting help.

“It just helps out the community a lot. There is a need there,” said Sarah Stasik, executive director of the Illinois Valley chapter of the American Red Cross.

Stasik is seeking more dedicated helpers like Hellberg. Most drivers pair up for the deliveries, Hellberg rides alone with Bandit.

The Red Cross needs about 12 drivers to start a route in Oglesby. So far, Stasik said, there are three people on the wait list in that town for meals. Drivers devote about 90 minutes of their time every other week delivering the meals.

Stasik noted some drivers are actually older than the recipients.

“It just gives you a good feeling,” she added.

Published in Charity, Community, Volunteer
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