Ramiro Ramirez returned home to Garden City last week, after spending two weeks in Jamaica Bay, Long Island, N.Y., helping feed and shelter victims of Superstorm Sandy.
"I've (helped after) tornadoes before, and it's like a tornado happened over there. All the houses were down and things like that. I didn't see flooding. I saw many houses gone," Ramirez said.
Ramirez became a volunteer for the Garden City Red Cross in 1997 and said that it was largely because the Red Cross had once come to his aid. In 1993, he almost lost his hand in an automobile accident. The Red Cross in El Paso, Texas, where he lived at the time, donated money for him to have an operation that saved three fingers and tendons in his arm. Shortly after his operation, Ramirez moved to Garden City for treatment and decided he should give back to the organization that helped him.
"The first thing I think about is payback. You have to be grateful for what you get in life. So this is the first thing that I think to do, join the Red Cross and have the training and then feel good helping. I like it," he said. "God gave me opportunity to go any time they call me."
Ramirez also aided victims of Hurricane Katrina and delivered food to rescue workers in New York after 9/11, driving an Emergency Relief Vehicle (ERV), loaded with food. He worked 12 to 14 hours a day to ensure that the rescuers rested and received meals.
"I drove the ERV right to ground zero, where the disaster happened, and we had thousands of workers ... because the people don't want to leave the place. They were working 24 hours. They don't want to leave. So this is why Salvation Army, Red Cross, any other organizations, we were there to tell them they have to rest. So I was driving and delivered the meals over there and talked to the people down there," he said. "I'm not in the military, but I feel in some way, I'm helping my country."
Ramirez said that he worked the same kinds of hours while helping victims of Superstorm Sandy, where he helped keep everything in order, but said the long hours weren't as exhausting as the emotional component.
"When we go back to the shelters, we met the people who lost everything and talked to them, and they opened their hearts and they talked to us. It was so good, I feel so honored to be able to do that. It's kind of hard working with feelings, see the people suffer, see them stand up the next day and say, 'I've got to keep going.' So, sometimes I had tears in my eyes," he said.
On every trip he takes, Ramirez tells people the same funny story.
"All the times I go out, I tell them I meet these people and before we would eat, this guy introduced himself. He told me, 'bon appetit,' and I say, 'Ramiro Ramirez.' The next day, one more time, he told me his name, 'bon appetit,' and I said, 'Ramiro Ramirez.' By day five or six, I was so tired of this guy and I ask, 'Hey, what's wrong with this guy? He's always telling me his name. I know I'm slow, but not that kind of slow. He told me, 'bon appetit.' And they told me, 'No, bon appetit means, 'enjoy your meal.' And the next day, before he said something, I said, 'bon appetit,' and he told me, 'Ramiro Ramirez,'" he said, laughing. "I didn't speak French, so I thought bon appetit was his name, and he didn't speak Spanish, so he thought Ramiro Ramirez meant enjoy your meal."
Carolyn Henry, executive director of the Garden City Red Cross, said Ramirez is the kind of guy who will go back and help in Long Island, or anywhere else he's needed, again and again.
"He's a volunteer who will do anything he's asked, and he works very hard," she said.
Ramirez said it's all worth it.
"It was hard, but you feel rewarded," he said. "I believe everybody would help in different ways. Some people give blood or money. I have time."