When Donnie Beer's husband, Russell, was deployed to France in 1961 as a member of the Air National Guard, she was suddenly left with a young child, newborn baby and a feeling of utter loneliness and a whole lot of stress.
At the peak of her struggle, Beer sought help from a Red Cross program that helped bring him home on leave for a few weeks.
That was the first of many experiences Beer had with the Red Cross, but the only time she was on the receiving end of its services. Since then, she has intermittently volunteered for the agency. Over the past five years, she has responded to various emergencies and helped families displaced from their homes by disasters.
Beer was recently given the S.C. State Firefighters Association Citizenship Award, a statewide accolade presented annually to one person who shows "outstanding support for emergency services in the state," according to Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District spokesman Lee Levesque, Beer's longtime friend.
Levesque and members of the area fire districts nominated Beer for the award because of her eagerness to help those who lost their belongings or homes to fire, flood, fallen trees or other disasters. The award was presented at the city's Sept. 11 ceremony at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
The Red Cross trains volunteers like Beer to help families find temporary shelter with friends, family or at a hotel, replace food and clothing and start the process of recovery. Beer and fellow volunteers come to disaster scenes equipped with creature comforts like toothbrushes, soap, blankets and small toys for children.
"She can regularly be seen two, three, four in the morning anywhere in the county helping out a family who's just lost everything," Levesque said.
Beer has also been a city councilwoman for the last 19 years and also volunteers to help plan the Lt. Dan Weekend and the Sept. 11 memorial service each year.
She was once was contacted at 3 a.m. while on a trip to Washington, D.C., Levesque said, but a distance of nearly 600 miles didn't stop her from making a few quick calls and finding other volunteers to respond.
"She could have just said 'I'm out of town' and that's it," Levesque said. "But that's not how she is."
Perhaps the best indication of Beer's dedication is when she arrives at disasters in the middle of the night wearing a ball cap over her meticulously styled hair.
Mention of this sacrifice causes Beer to roll her eyes and sigh with exasperation -- firefighters and those who know her well have for years affectionately joked about her penchant for having every hair in place.
"They're the only ones who've ever seen me without my hair fixed," she said, referring to the early morning victims she helps and local firefighters.
Beer has also helped bring food and water to firefighters during battles with intense fires or large-scale emergencies.
In her time as a volunteer, Beer has responded to dozens, perhaps hundreds of disasters, but she said Thursday no incident parallels the day the Blue Angels jet crashed during the 2007 Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort Air Show.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said, lowering her eyes and voice as she described how volunteers provided more than 1,000 meals over several days to first responders and law enforcement officers as they processed the scene of the crash. "Doing a little bit of good was extremely rewarding."
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- Fire destroys mobile home on St. Helena Island Wednesday night, Aug. 9, 2012