First in a series

NEW ORLEANS — June 1 is the date lying heaviest on the mind of American Red Cross volunteer Terry Cooney.

"School's out in Houston that day," he says. "The children displaced by Hurricane Katrina and living in Houston will be returning to New Orleans. Will I be around to help them?"

Cooney spent the last seven months in New Orleans as an American Red Cross disaster relief volunteer. He started as the driver of one of hundreds of emergency response vehicles (ERVs) found throughout the city. He helped deliver hot meals, blankets, and other supplies to help people survive one of the worst disasters in American history.

A New Jersey native, Cooney landed in New Orleans when martial law still ruled.

"Families were too terrified to leave their homes," he says. "They would drill holes in their doors in order to see out. When our trucks would enter a neighborhood to deliver supplies, families would dart out, hearing our horns.

"I can't tell you how many times we heard shouts of happiness," Cooney adds. "It had been days since neighbors had seen each other. They would meet at our response vehicles and just hug and cry."Feeding the people

Cooney and fellow volunteers would begin at dawn, shredding their hands and minds with the responsibility of getting food to the families of New Orleans. They would return to camp to rest only a few hours before beginning again.

With his ability to connect to the souls of others, whether that other be a client, a fellow volunteer, or another caught in the post-Katrina craze of New Orleans, Cooney rose through the Red Cross ranks. His final position was site manager for C-44, the last Red Cross mobile feeding unit in the city.C-44 is also one of the final post-Katrina/Rita/Wilma outreaches run by the national Red Cross headquarters. Under a multi-year transition plan, local Red Cross chapters have assumed remaining relief duties.

In its last days of operation, C-44 spiraled into suspicion and rumor as senior officials gutted the operation and federal investigators began looking into allegations of fraud and deceit throughout New Orleans in the seven-month aftermath of Katrina.

Cooney had to step aside as the operation he had honed and loved was dismantled, piece by piece, but most sadly, person by person.

New lease on life

One month prior to Hurricane Katrina, Cooney's life took a turn when he left his family's 135-year-old New Jersey real estate and insurance business. The worldwide humanitarian efforts of the Red Cross called to him, and before he knew it he was in the city he'd visited annually for the last 15 years as a professional musician. This Irish son is a bag piper, who always came to NOLA to perform at Mardi Gras.

"I'd thought I'd been alive before 2005," says Cooney of his Red Cross volunteer work. "I'd thought I'd been living a good life. But I only really came alive at age 49, when I began volunteering in disaster relief in New Orleans."

A fellow volunteer from California tells of working for Cooney: "You know, I have been on many relief operations over the years, including 9/11, and I have seen people work under extreme pressure and in extreme circumstances. Terry is by far the best supervisor I have worked for. His heart and his soul were in that operation. He loves the people of New Orleans, loves the mission of the Red Cross, and loved his job.

"As a volunteer, Terry made you feel appreciated and cared about. He made sure that you knew you were making a difference in the lives of those you touched and would go out of his way to tell you daily, without fail, that your work mattered.

"Many times, when you volunteer, the affirmation you receive comes directly from the clients in the form of a smile or a thank you. Having a supervisor who appreciates your work, and tells you so, is icing on the cake! Terry is incredibly generous with his heart and his spirit.

"He handled all of the pressure of his job with grace and made sure he not only took care of the citizens of New Orleans but also took care of us volunteers along the way. He made my experience as a volunteer all that more meaningful."

Alternative staff writer Melissa McReynolds recently returned from her second Red Cross deployment to New Orleans. She can be reached at .