Several Red Cross volunteers from Beaufort County remember their volunteer work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Bluffton resident Ruth Destefano was managing an American Red Cross kitchen near the New Jersey shore a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy's landfall when two workers who had been distributing food returned with a hanging plant in a decorative glass bowl.
The workers had been handing out food from an emergency response vehicle in a devastated area of Seaside Heights when a woman gave them the plant. The woman wanted to thank the volunteers.
The plant was the only thing she had left to give them.
Destefano was one of several Red Cross volunteers from Beaufort County who traveled north in Hurricane Sandy's aftermath. Twenty-seven Lowcountry residents were among 95 volunteers from across the state who were dispatched to help out in the months after the disaster, said Lisa Quick, Red Cross regional communications specialist.
The owner of the Mulberry Street restaurant in Bluffton, Destefano arrived in New Jersey on Nov. 10, 2012, and left New York a few days before Mother's Day 2013, missing Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter at home with relatives so she could manage outdoor kitchens for storm victims.
The plant was given to the workers during the five weeks Destefano spent crisscrossing the Jersey Shore. The plant stayed with the kitchen crew through it all, heading to New York when the crew moved there and later going home with another manager after their volunteer service ended in May.
Destefano recalls the time she gave a gallon of milk to a woman and her two young children in Rockaway, N.Y.
"One of her sons was so excited and said, 'Oh Ma, we're going to get milk today.' It was such a normal thing, but these people were so thankful to get it," Destefano said. "It brings tears to your eyes."
She also remembers the family of Artur Kasprzak, a 28-year-old New York Police Department officer who was killed while helping relatives, including his infant nephew, move to the attic of his Staten Island home.
"I met with his parents three months after the hurricane," she said. "They didn't say much. All they could do was cry. They had lost their only son."
In Amityville, N.Y., where she went to high school, Destefano befriended an elderly couple victimized by a contractor who took their money and never finished repairing their home.
"We sat there and cried," she said. "Everything they worked for and everything they had was gone."
Beaufort City Councilwoman Donnie Beer spent two weeks in New York in December with the Red Cross after the storm. Beer is a common presence at local fire scenes helping the displaced, but her work in New York marked her first deployment.
She distributed food in areas of Brooklyn, such as Coney Island.
"There were people you could tell by how they were dressed that they had never been in a food line before," she said. "It was sobering to see the destruction there."
Bluffton resident Gail Boyle spent two weeks in New York in November helping Red Cross efforts, ending her deployment on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Boyle also worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, deciding where to place distribution and feeding centers. She also visited homeowners who were trying to decide whether to rebuild or tear down their homes.
"It was a very trying experience," she said, "but it was great to see people helping other people out."
Help is still needed, Destefano said.
"It's very encouraging to see progress has been made," she said, "but there is 10 times more work to do."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.