Ohio Couple Ready When Disaster Strikes

Pearlia and Lawrence Kynard have walked through flooded streets in Cincinnati, endured hazardous wildfires in California, and observed tornado-struck communities in Mississippi and Oklahoma.

Whenever a disaster strikes, the Kynards, who have been married 47 years, are ready to hit the ground. The Toledo couple, two seasoned American Red Cross volunteers, have crisscrossed the nation to assist in 14 relief operations since 2005.

“We’ve been through all the elements,” said Mr. Kynard, 66. “And every time is different.”

The Kynards’ history of volunteerism began in the fall of 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf of Mexico, wreaking devastation in Mississippi and Louisiana and leaving thousands of people dead.

At the time, Mr. and Mrs. Kynard had both retired from their careers in, respectively, glass making and real estate. After she watched the horrific images of Hurricane Katrina on television, Mrs. Kynard, now 63, decided to respond to the Red Cross’ call for volunteers.

“I didn’t even think twice about it,” Mrs. Kynard said.

“I went to the library in Toledo and applied to be a volunteer, along with hundreds of other people.”

A few weeks later, Mrs. Kynard was deployed to Falls Church, Va., where the Red Cross had established an assistance center for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Some 500 miles away from her home in Toledo, Mrs. Kynard participated in the largest relief operation for any national disaster.

Every day for two weeks, she would answer hundreds of phone calls from displaced families and individuals looking for a shelter, food, or clothing – an experience that Mrs. Kynard described as “life-changing” as she recalled some of the stories of people whose lives were disrupted by the hurricane.

“Some people were living in their car; others had to go to the gas station to take a shower,” she said.

“I didn’t get to see the damages from Virginia, but they would tell me about them on the phone.”

Upon her return to Toledo, Mrs. Kynard shared her experience with her husband, and the two decided to join the Red Cross as “disaster-relief specialists” to provide one-on-one assistance to disaster victims, both locally and nationally.

Like any Red Cross volunteer, the Kynards received 18 hours of intensive training before being deployed for their first mission, said Diane Dixon, regional director of volunteers at the American Red Cross of Northwest Ohio. The operational training, Ms. Dixon said, includes classes on cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques, damage assessment, logistics planning, and career development.

As disaster-relief specialists, the Kynards turned to on-the-ground volunteer work and embarked on their first mission together in August, 2007. When persistent thunderstorms across the Midwest flooded entire towns in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, the Kynards were deployed to Findlay, where the Blanchard River had crested at 18.46 feet.

Mr. and Mrs. Kynard joined the Red Cross’ emergency response efforts, providing hot meals and encouraging words to residents of flood-ravaged neighborhoods.

For the Kynards, that was the first of a long list of disaster-relief missions: Their volunteer resumes include the October 2007, wildfires in Southern California; the April 2011, tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; the March 2012 flood in Cincinnati, and tropical storm Isaac, which hit Florida in August 2012.

In total, the Toledo couple have committed nearly 200 days of their lives to volunteer work at the “service of the American public,” according to Gary Loboschefski, manager of Red Cross disaster services.

“This is what the Red Cross is about,” Mr. Loboschefski said. “This is who we rely on: people like the Kynards that give their gift of time to help those who have suffered tremendous losses.”

The Kynards put their lives on hold once again last month, after a massive tornado roared through the Oklahoma City area on May 20, leaving buildings flattened and killing dozens. After flying to Shawnee, Okla., on May 25, the two experienced volunteers were startled by the widespread devastation and loss of life caused by the deadliest U.S. tornado since 2011.

“We’ve been to many places, but I can’t remember such vast destruction: Entire neighborhoods were destroyed,” Mr. Kynard said.

For two weeks, the Kynards performed on-the-ground outreach work as part of the Red Cross critical response team. Paired up with mental health workers, the Kynards walked through razed neighborhoods to provide emotional comfort to tornado victims and direct them toward one of many recovery stations set up by the Red Cross around Oklahoma City, where they could find food, clothes, and other basic necessities.

“t’s always the people that affect you the most. Some of them didn’t even want to leave their homes,” Mr. Kynard said.

“When you have someone tell you, ‘I have nothing,’ it’s hard.”

Today, the Kynards are back to their home in Toledo, but as recovery efforts in Oklahoma are still under way, they said they are ready to leave again, should the need arise for additional volunteers.

“I believe that everybody is your brother or a sister – when you volunteer, you’re doing a service for mankind and for the Lord,” Mrs. Kynard said.

She and her husband also urged more people to dedicate their time to the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations. For them, Mrs. Kynard said, volunteerism has become an essential aspect of their life together, a choice that has encountered great support among their three sons and 15 grandchildren.

“My grandparents are the most humble people I’ve ever met,” said their grandson, Erik Kynard, Jr., a high-jump silver medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I was in Oklahoma the night of the tornado, and I knew my grandparents would want to come and help. Days later, they did.”

The Olympic athlete applauded his grandparents’ efforts, noting that their commitment to the Red Cross is a “huge lesson for everybody.”

Marion Winnick, Mrs. Kynard’s aunt, echoed the praise. “I’ve been proud of everything they’ve done and are still doing, from the bottom of my heart,” she said.