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Volunteers prep meals as part of disaster institute training

What goes into preparing and distributing hundreds of hot lunches on very little notice? Local Red Cross volunteers learned the answer Wednesday with a little mock disaster training. Fifteen trainees cooked, packed and served lunch for 225 emerge...

Cheryl Miller, Laura Weins
Laura Wehde/Republic Red Cross volunteers Cheryl Miller, left, of Worthington, Minn., and Laura Weins, of Mitchell, make mashed potatoes Wednesday as part of the Dakota Plains chapter of the American Red Cross Disaster Institute. Fifteen trainees cooked, packed and served lunch for 225 emergency workers, students and staff outside Mitchell Technical Institute. Another 60 meals were delivered to National Guardsmen.

What goes into preparing and distributing hundreds of hot lunches on very little notice?

Local Red Cross volunteers learned the answer Wednesday with a little mock disaster training.

Fifteen trainees cooked, packed and served lunch for 225 emergency workers, students and staff outside Mitchell Technical Institute. Another 60 meals were delivered to National Guardsmen.

The exercise was an annual event for the Dakota Plains chapter of the American Red Cross. The Mitchell-based branch has hosted four disaster institutes, or training opportunities, for Red Cross volunteers and staff since 2006. The conference started Tuesday and runs through Saturday in Mitchell.

Wednesday's mass-scale lunch was the culmination of a kitchen training course, one of 20 classes offered by the Mitchell Red Cross chapter this week. Trainees are learning everything from evaluating the scale of a disaster scene, including how much manpower and supplies a situation requires, to fundraising, to operating emergency response vehicles. There's even a class called "WMD Terrorism" -- just in case.

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Dakota Plains volunteer Ken Hammer could probably teach the psychological first aid class. Hammer, 80, a retired school psychologist, has been counseling victims of hurricanes, floods, blizzards and tornadoes for four years.

"You go out there and see how destitute some of these people are and how grateful they are for the Red Cross coming in their time of need," Hammer said. "You meet a lot of people. And you make a lot of friends."

Hammer signed up for the opportunity upon seeing a local newspaper ad for Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005.

Dakota Plains Executive Director Jackie Horton, 33, placed the ad. She also founded the Mitchell Red Cross chapter, which serves South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Hurricane Katrina was how it all started, Horton said. "And we've just continued it ever since because there's such a need for it."

Around 90 Red Cross volunteers and staff are in Mitchell this week for various certifications. About one-third of those are from the Dakota Plains chapter.

Billy and Laura Weins got their first taste of Red Cross volunteerism in the kitchen training class this week. The Platte couple are taking four courses altogether.

"At this time in our life, we have some extra time and we've seen lots of things from different people in need, and we have time to do it, so we would love to somehow be able to help others," Billy Weins said.

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Laura Weins said preparing lunch for nearly 300 took a lot of teamwork in the kitchen at the Davison County Fairgrounds. The trainees spent Tuesday in the classroom learning food safety and regulations and the steps needed to make the meal happen.

Wednesday's lunch consisted of baked ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, a dinner roll, cookie, fruit cocktail and water or coffee. Meals were distributed to local police, fire and emergency workers; MTI students and staff; National Guardsmen; and the trainees themselves. Dakota Plains also served the Mitchell Area United Way board of directors as a "thank you" for a $2,000 grant recently gifted for training.

"It's a great opportunity for our volunteers to receive training and to do it locally, because if I had to send 30 volunteers to Des Moines or Omaha, we wouldn't be able to afford it," Horton said.

She said groceries and supplies for Wednesday's lunch cost about $3,000.

In addition to food, the American Red Cross provides shelter, clothing, financial assistance and counseling to needy individuals and families. The organization responds to everything from house fires to big-scale disasters such as wildfires, wind storms, tsunamis, plane crashes and hostage situations.

Horton got the idea to start the Dakota Plains chapter after volunteering at the Hurricane Katrina headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., in 2005.

Most disaster institutes are in major cities, but lack of manpower and dollars can make it hard for them to stay afloat, Horton said.

"But the Mitchell volunteers and board of directors said, 'This is something that is vital to our tri-state area,'" Horton recalled. "And so even though it costs us money to do it, it's such a wonderful resource for our people that we've continued to do it. I mean, do we break even? Absolutely not. We lose money on it every year, but that's OK, because we're training people."

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