CHICO, Calif. — As you walk outside the neighborhood church turned evacuation center, the pain of the Camp Fire is very much alive.
A bulletin board stands next to the entrance, overloaded with the names of hundreds reported missing. Masked workers check in evacuees, still processing the fact that their homes are now ash.
Just as the death and destruction of California’s most devastating wildfire begin to fully overwhelm your senses, a voice breaks the sad silence.
“Hello! This is your friendly neighbor Joe with the American Red Cross. Here to deliver your complimentary lunch.”
The massive American Red Cross truck pulls up and a red-vested man hops out. He beams with pride as he opens the back doors of his truck and begins to hand pan after pan of hot food to volunteers waiting to deliver them to evacuees.
Helping others is what Joe Apicelli lives for, and after 43 deployments to disaster areas with the American Red Cross, he’s fantastic at it.
“You can’t find a better way of feeling the warmth of the sun than by helping someone,” said Joe.
Joe made a career working in Connecticut’s restaurant industry. But like millions of others, on August 23, 2005, his life changed. When he turned on the news to see the horror of Hurricane Katrina, he couldn’t sit idly by. He immediately volunteered and was sent to the Houston Astrodome.
He hasn’t looked back since.
Over the last 13 years, Joe has served as an American Red Cross volunteer in events like Hurricane Sandy, Harvey, Florence and Ike. He has delivered food after tornadoes, blizzards, floods and shootings. If you think of any national disaster in the last 13 years, there’s a good chance Joe was there – guiding and helping others.
Perhaps most impressive of all, Joe spends his time and energy volunteering for no compensation. He sleeps feet from his fellow volunteers in cots and is sometimes too busy to remember to eat. He is so committed to volunteering, Joe always has a bag packed and is ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“Not being in the military as a younger man, this is my way of serving our country,” said Joe.
Joe was sent to the Chico area as the Camp Fire struck, leaving towns like Paradise barren.
“What I see is just strength with major anxiety,” said Joe. “These folks aren’t going to be left alone. They feel alone because their homes are gone… but they’re never without help.”
Joe’s time in disaster areas lasts between 21 and 28 days. But after the first week, he can greet each volunteer by name. His fellow red-vested comrades have become his family, like-minded people who understand the importance of helping others.
“I’ve learned in my life that you make a living by what you make, but you certainly make a life by what you give,” said Joe. “What I get is far more than what I give.”