Giving, caring, helping. That’s just the type of person Joyce Cook is.
A Long Point native and a Woodland High School graduate, Cook is a retired U.S. Army sergeant, having served her country for several years in Germany.
She also is a volunteer for the American Red Cross and recently returned from her latest relief assignment, the storm and fire recovery efforts taking place on the island of Maui.
“You didn’t hear about anything like that on TV, but we heard that firsthand from the people that were there. It was just devastating.”— Joyce Cook, retired U.S. Army sergeant and Red Cross volunteer
Cook, in her time as a Red Cross volunteer, has been deployed more than 40 times to disaster-stricken areas around the country, including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and “pretty much everywhere on the East Coast,” plus St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.
However, she has never seen anything like what she experienced on the Hawaiian island.
“The things you hear on TV paint a different picture of what was really happening there,” Cook said. “When I got there, there was so much devastation, it was just unbelievable. … I don’t think people realize how many people actually drowned out there. People got in the water to get away from and be safe from the fire, but because there were such high winds, there were like 15-foot waves. They didn’t know what to do and it was basically they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”
Some people, Cook said, died while trying to escape the fire by either staying in their cars or climbing under them.
“You didn’t hear about anything like that on TV, but we heard that firsthand from the people that were there,” Cook said. “It was just devastating.”
Cook had been working with the Red Cross at the scene of the wildfires in Washington and Oregon since mid-September and had only been home a week when she got the call asking her to go to Maui for three weeks. She left Sept. 4.
She immediately started work for the shelter transition team, helping to find places for the displaced residents to stay, many at the resorts on the island, where they can stay until February.
In the meantime, the residents were forced to endure food and water shortages, power outages and price gouging.
“I’ve seen that kind of devastation before in California, but not as intense as this. Neighborhoods – blocks and blocks are just gone,” she said. “Other places kinda prepared me for Maui, but it was still just shocking. … It used to be such a lush, green place, but not anymore. It’s almost like a desert now.
“I know February is a way off, but I have to wonder what’s going to happen to all those people. I can’t help but worry about them. They still need a lot of help and a lot of prayers.”
Cook’s involvement with the Red Cross came after careers in the military, as a housewife and as a businesswoman.
One of 12 children growing up in Long Point, which is 11 miles southwest of Streator, Cook saw her brothers drafted to serve in Vietnam, so she was familiar with the military life and saw it as a good way to get a college education. She enlisted, participated in basic training at Fort McCollum, Alabama, participated in financial training in Indianapolis and, in 1976, began her stint in the Women’s Army Corps in Stuttgart, Germany.
Cook, who described herself as a “pencil pusher” in that base’s financial department, spent two years there before returning home.
She later join the National Guard, and while serving as a company clerk saw a little more of the country, including some areas closer to home at the training camp near Marseilles where three of her brothers were stationed.
Cook also got married and worked in property management jobs for several years, but in 2013 a tornado swept through the Illinois Valley area and badly damaged Cook’s house. She was impressed by the volunteers’ work and “wanted to give back”
“If you want to work with people and help out,” she said, “the Red Cross is a great organization to volunteer for.”