For two Aroostook County men, being there to help others is just what they do.
But for the American Red Cross, knowing Bill Thomas of Woodland and Bob Bouchard of Frenchville are ready to serve means local people facing disaster will have someone in their corner.
Both men earned recognition last week from the Red Cross’ Northern and Eastern Maine Chapter. Thomas is the 2023 Clara Barton Award runner-up, while Bouchard received the President’s Gold Volunteer Service Award. The two have contributed thousands of hours to the organization’s work.
Thomas didn’t quantify the hours he’s spent serving, but Bouchard has amassed more than 1,100 hours this year alone. The Aroostook men were among 23 recognized from around the state by the Maine branch.
“You see somebody that’s basically lost everything, and you can hear the sound of relief in their voice and see it in their smile,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a community-wide disaster or individual. People are very appreciative of the help.”
Thomas has served the Red Cross for 15 years, filling several roles as a disaster volunteer, blood donor ambassador, fleet manager and community volunteer leader, according to Jennifer Costa, regional communications director of the Red Cross in northern New England.
Thomas also visited other places in the country to provide disaster relief, including helping Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas in 2017. He’s also been to Florida, Michigan, New York and South Carolina, he said.
Years ago in The County — as in many places — families didn’t have much money, but when someone faced a disaster like a home fire or flooding, local people would scrape up what they could to help, Thomas said. That’s why he serves the Red Cross: to help others.
“That’s the big thing about this. People need help and not everybody can help them,” he said. “I love people and I enjoy helping people.”
Thomas and Bouchard work as a team on a number of disaster relief efforts.
Whenever there is a disaster, the Red Cross calls them, Bouchard said. Typically, one performs intake and gathers information virtually, while the other goes to the scene to scope out the level of destruction and locate the clients to determine what they need.
They organize efforts based on the event’s location. If something happens in Caribou, Presque Isle or the Washburn area, Thomas is closest so would head to the scene while Bouchard manned the computer. If the location is in the St. John Valley, they switch roles.
“We’re a great team,” Bouchard said. “The [people] are of course are in shock, most of them. Just a little bit of financial help gives them a place to stay for the night. They really appreciate what we’re doing.”
The Red Cross focus on short-term efforts, he said, as they try to connect people with the help they need, including shelter. They can contact Red Cross personnel all over the state to put someone in touch with mental health services, for example, or with pharmacies to replace medications that were destroyed.
Both Thomas and Bouchard say the state recognition is nice, but that’s not why they joined the Red Cross. Both are retired and figured they have skills and time that can serve others.
Brian Bouley, Aroostook County’s regional Red Cross director, couldn’t agree more, adding he is proud to work with both men and happy to call them friends.
Thomas is one of the local organization’s longest-term and most consistent volunteers, Bouley said. He is outgoing and loves to interact with staff, fellow volunteers and people in general, and Bouley noted his professionalism when dealing with many large- and small-scale disasters over the years.
Bouchard, also a vital part of the disaster team for many years, is always ready to be part of any disaster recovery effort and is a shining example of what the Red Cross represents, Bouley said. Bouchard and his wife, Colette, often educate people about the Red Cross and recruit volunteers.
Serving is rewarding, Bouchard said, and the Red Cross will train anyone interested in joining. Besides being able to help neighbors, the work keeps him motivated.
“The biggest reward is it keeps me young,” he said. “Bill and I are up there in age and it keeps us going.”