Just after John Novotny graduated from college, he took a job at Geneva State Bank in Geneva.
But one day as he was heading to lunch, he noticed that many people left the bank at noon and that its doors were locked up. When he asked what exactly was going on, he learned that most employees were out donating blood.
"They said, 'Oh, the Bloodmobile is in town,' everyone's giving blood," Novotny said. "'You're going to join us.' It didn't seem to be an option, they just said, 'You're going to join us.' So, I did."
Thus began the long relationship between Novotny and the American Red Cross. What began with blood draws that eventually allowed Novotny to donate more than 10 gallons of blood to the Red Cross soon morphed into a more permanent role as a volunteer with the organization.
This role allowed him to aid in various natural disasters, like hurricanes in North Carolina and Florida, wildfires in California and floods in his home state of Nebraska.
Now a Columbus resident, Novotny has been called to serve on 12 occasions - nine national and three local deployments. Most recently, he helped people recover from Hurricane Dorian in North Carolina. This was the second year in a row that he headed east to help with hurricane recovery, as he helped after Hurricane Florence last year.
His involvement in these events has become more frequent as he moves closer to the twilight of his life. Due to a full-time job, his ability to take the two weeks required to deploy was limited. However, after retirement, he was able to help out the Red Cross when needed.
"When you usually deploy, they usually ask for about two weeks of your time," Novotny said. "The two weeks becomes an issue because that might be your entire vacation for the year, or it might be a stretch to do that, or you might have family events or whatever the case may be. But, I knew I wanted to do this and so as I neared closer to retirement, which was in 2017, I decided that I could do the two weeks at a time."
Being a part of the Red Cross volunteer group allows him the opportunity to do things where he can go above and beyond the call of duty on numerous occasions. Case in point: In 2017, Novotny was deployed to Florida in order to assist with recovery efforts after Hurricane Irma attacked the state. Upon completion of the mission, he drove a Red Cross bus more than 3,000 miles from Orlando, Florida to Santa Rosa, California, in order to help with recovery efforts after wildfires struck the state's Wine Country.
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"That was a long deployment, almost a month (away)," Novotny said.
The last two years have seen him help out with hurricanes that hit North Carolina, working along the coastlines for Hurricane Florence in 2018 before doing most of his work inland this year during Hurricane Dorian. His mission, in addition to providing supplies and necessary resources to those in need, was transporting people to and from locations along that coastline as a designated ERV (emergency response vehicle) driver.
"Hurricane Dorian had the potential to do exactly what it did in the Bahamas, which was devastate wherever it landed," Novotny said. "The United States was fortunate that it didn't come on land very far, but the places that it did come on land were in North Carolina. If there was any place that got hit hard, it would have been the coastline along North Carolina.
"My function for this particular deployment was logistics. I have been qualified to do mass care and logistics this time (and) I was a transportation driver, getting other Red Cross workers to their location. I might take them from place A to place B or (take) supplies from place A to place B. In other deployments, I might be driving food trucks delivering food to people, but that wasn't the case this time."
Novotny has also served his local community during flooding situations. His first mission as a Red Cross volunteer came in 2005, following flooding in Schuyler. In March of this year, more flooding came about and Novotny was tasked with building a shelter in Columbus at Federated Church. No one came to the shelter, but it was an important lesson in always being prepared in the best of times and in the worst of times.
"If nothing else, it was a good exercise in training," Novotny said. "We all do training. As an example, the hospital recently had an incident command (test) with an active shooter. There wasn't actually an active shooter but you did it anyway, just to practice. As it turned out, the sheltering in Columbus with the flooding turned out to be a practice more than an actual need, but who knew that at the time? All it did was prove that we are ready to go if another situation like that happens. We're trained in doing that and we're trained and ready to go."
One of the many motivations that Novotny has for volunteering is the example set by his Uncle Rollie, who served with the Army Red Cross during World War II. Even if there isn't a parent or relative in the family who can set the example for serving, Novotny and the Red Cross wants more help, no matter the volunteer's race, creed or political alignment.
"They can talk to someone like myself, or I have plenty of contacts in Red Cross management that they can talk to work them through that," Novotny said. "I would certainly like to see more people get involved in the Red Cross."
Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.