Bakersfield resident Carolyn Pandol is in the calm between storms. But the homemaker and mother of two, whose family has dubbed her "storm chaser," knows she is just a phone call away from another mission of goodwill.
It may sound like the plot of a great action adventure, but it is the real life drama of helping disaster victims near and far through the American Red Cross' Kern Chapter that has given the Kern native and empty-nester renewed purpose.
"It is all about helping people," said Pandol, 52. "You get out of it as much as you give."
Earlier this month, her team deployed to Taft in the wake of a school shooting. Last year, she and her fellow volunteers were hot on the heels of natural disasters that left plenty of collateral damage.
The granddaughter of cotton pioneer Wofford B. Camp, this former Kern County "Maid of Cotton" said she never imagined herself sleeping on a cot among strangers, thousands of miles from the comforts of home. Now she can't fathom doing anything else.
With her children off to college, Pandol said she was looking for a way to get involved in the community again. She and her husband, third-generation grape grower Jack Pandol, Jr., had been deeply involved in the capital campaign and establishment of Bakersfield Christian High School, among other philanthropic projects. In the fall of 2011, she said she spotted a meeting notice in the newspaper for prospective volunteers.
"It was immediate. I knew that was what I wanted to do," Pandol said. "It was nothing that I had ever been involved in, nor was I aware how the Red Cross is right here in our community 24/7, everyday of the year."
In addition to classroom training and online courses, she received a lot of on-the-job instruction. She began as a trainee on the disaster action team. A year ago, she was dispatched to Lindsay where an apartment fire had destroyed a special-needs complex. Her group provided hope in the form of food, clothing, shelter and a plan.
Last summer, Pandol and other volunteers were sent to Tampa, Fla., ahead of an erratic Hurricane Isaac.
"When the storm veered west, our team flew to Houston. Then we drove to Louisiana to open a shelter for two weeks," she said of what she called the "great adventure" of deployment, and the chance to see other parts of the country.
But it would be another storm, Sandy, that strengthened her resolve and commitment to the Red Cross. She was one of nine local volunteers deployed in early November, first to man a shelter on Long Island before moving to a two-story community college gymnasium in Garden City, N.J.
At the height of her relief work, there were 900 "clients," Pandol said. Volunteers stayed in another shelter nearby, taking 12 hours shifts. Eventually, exhaustion set in as everyone's good intentions collided. Most people were gracious and appreciative. But some were understandably bitter, and at the end of their ropes.
"It is difficult for people to have to share their space," she said. "We are trained to know people are stressed and to not take it personally, but it is hard not to. That is where my Red Cross team came in. We look out for each other and step in if someone is showing signs of frustration."
Shelters must be staffed with nurses and mental health experts as well.
"There are real mental health issues that come into play when your whole world is turned upside down," she said, recalling a particularly trying day in New Jersey when an elderly man who had reached his breaking point clashed with her over the choice of sandwiches. "Like the John Wooden quote, 'You haven't truly lived until you have helped someone who can never repay you.' These are people I will never see again."
The price paid for the dedication to serving others is long stretches of time away from home. Volunteers must be able to leave for as long as two to three weeks and on a moment's notice.
"You get a phone call and must let them know within five minutes. You then have 24 hours (to prepare to leave)," she said, adding that her family fully supports her. "We are paying it forward because if we are going to have a big quake here, we all may be in need of the Red Cross' help."
Locally, most calls involve single-family dwelling fires. While disaster team volunteers like Pandol are on call 24-7, the Red Cross is still in desperate need of more help in many areas.
"I would encourage people to get involved locally," she said. "There are so many ways besides deploying, such as fundraising."
The local Red Cross is nearly 98 percent volunteer-run and operates on a shoestring budget, said Kern Chapter's CEO Holly Arnold. About 150 people are in their database, with a third of them considered active.
"Everything we have has been donated," Arnold said. "People think we are a government agency, but we are a volunteer-led group trying to meet the immediate needs."
This year, as the organization marks its 95th year, Kern will become the first Central Valley chapter to have a "Tiffany Circle," the American Red Cross' national women's leadership giving society established in 2006.
"The Tiffany Circle is all about women, and we are about philanthropy and helping in their community," Arnold said. "It restores your faith in humanity and America that so many people are willing to do this for strangers."