Sue Baillargeon from the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT), is a curriculum manager and has spent the last 31 years working for the Department. For the past 17 years, Sue has also been volunteering with the American Red Cross, traveling all over the country in her spare time to help others in disaster-torn areas. We sat down with Sue to learn more about her role at CTDOT and how she became involved with the American Red Cross and to share some of her experiences.
Question #1: What is your position with CTDOT and what are some of your responsibilities?
I am a curriculum manager for CTDOT and I am responsible for administering the funding we receive from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to run our training programs. I also provide the National Highway Institute (NHI) courses and railroad safety courses. In addition, I coordinate the Department’s Supervisory Development Program and the recently established Professional Development Series. I am also privileged to work with some wonderful people from multiple state agencies on many Connecticut Training and Development Network programs such as Train-the-Trainer and Aspiring Leaders.
Question #2: How long have you been working for CTDOT?
I started at DOT in 1987 as a truck driver in the Occum garage. I was a maintainer for 19 years, until 2006, when I took my current position. That’s about 31 years!
Question #3: You volunteer with the American Red Cross, when did that begin?
I started my Red Cross adventures in January 2001. I went to their office to sign up for CPR training and while I was there I saw all this information about disaster services, so I asked a few questions and they had me! Some of the things I do for them are disaster responses, sheltering, bulk distribution, teach shelter management and distracted driving, and drive the Emergency Response Vehicle.
Question #4: What are some of the things you have done and places you have gone to as a representative of the American Red Cross?
My first disaster response was on September 11, 2001. It was a local support response, so we basically collected donations and supplies to send to New York for the recovery efforts. In 2004, I went on my first national deployment to Florida when about four hurricanes blew through in a short period of time. I drove a Red Cross truck to Jacksonville with another volunteer. Our job was to give out clean-up kits, and later we delivered food. I also recall loading and unloading about a million cases of water, which I have since learned is a common task on EVERY disaster I have been to! A year later, I was deployed to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. I drove to Little Rock, AK (where we were staging prior to the storm making landfall) and then down to Baton Rouge, which was as far as we could get after the levees broke. I thought my job would be the same as it was in Florida, but everything changed really fast and I found myself tasked as the manager of all the trucks at the shelter (a civic center in Monroe, LA). We had eight trucks and driving teams, mostly retired people, who were able to locate and provide services to over 10,000 individuals in the community who were living by the roadside, in parking lots, basements, or in people’s backyards. We discovered a campground in Arkansas, just north of our area, where a group of big-hearted local bikers were cooking three meals a day for refugees from the storm. It was awesome to see the community come together that way. At the end of the deployment, I was told that our team of just 16 people served over 90,000 meals, brought doctors and nurses to the remote areas, and supported the surrounding community and the shelter and it’s growing population (three weeks after the storm people were still moving north to escape the devastation). I didn’t sleep for days, ate a lot of granola bars, and cried a lot (so many sad stories of the families in the shelter, and the overwhelming feeling of it all.) So it was a good feeling coming home from that one. There have been several local national responses the last few years also, like Superstorm Sandy, Irene, and Alfred where I managed shelters in Stonington and East Lyme, among others. The last one I went out for was last September to Houston, TX for the Hurricane Harvey response.
I still communicate with some of the people that shared those experiences with me, and I have open invitations to visit all over the country! All of the volunteers I’ve worked with are truly special people.
Question #5: Is there a special story you would like to share?
You’re asking for stories and there are so many, but for some reason the animal stories stick with me the most. I remember an elderly man who drove up to our shelter in Monroe in a pickup truck from the 70’s that had no windshield and most of the front seat missing. He told me he had been driving for nine days through Louisiana, Mississippi, and now was heading to Texas LOOKING FOR HIS FAMILY! He was driving from shelter to shelter across the entire south to find his family who had evacuated the 9th ward days earlier. He had an old dog with him the whole way and the only thing he asked for (when he discovered his family was not in our shelter) was a bowl of food for his dog. He was worried about his dog not eating well. Evidently, he had been giving the dog the same food he was eating (dry cereal and some cans of vegetables). I stood in the rain and listened to him tell me where he had been and how far he traveled (in the rain with no windshield!) looking for loved ones and how he couldn’t let anything happen to his dog because it might be all he had left. I never felt better than I did watching him drive away with a month’s supply of dog food (and a promise for more, if he needed it), a few weeks’ worth of food for himself (which he tried to refuse because other people needed it more), a $200 gas card, and directions to the shelter in Shreveport where we located his family! I still felt bad that I couldn’t do anything about his windshield, and when I told him that I had tried to find one, he got real quiet and I saw big tear drops in his eyes and he said, “Ma’am, I ain’t had a bath in over a week, I’m covered in road bugs and dirt, and I’ll understand if you can’t do this for me, would you mind if I give you a hug?” I said, “Sir, I haven’t had a bath in a week, I smell like a goat, and I’ll understand if you say no, but can I give YOU a hug?” It sounds a little silly now, but it was one of the most satisfying moments of all my years at Red Cross. The Red Cross offers me an opportunity to make people’s lives better when they need it the most, and nothing feels better than that.
Every single day, the American Red Cross helps people in emergencies, whether it’s assisting one displaced family or thousands of disaster victims, or providing care and comfort to an ill or injured service member or veteran, or supporting a military family. If you are inspired by Sue and her experiences, visit the American Red Cross Volunteer Connection.