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Red Cross volunteers in the trenches for wildfire in Colorado

Matt Rivera / msnbc.com

Red Cross volunteer Steve Bayer has had some rough, even heartbreaking, assignments over the past 12 years, including 9/11.

Colorado Springs, Colo. — It seems wrong to describe Red Cross volunteer Steve Bayer, 78, as a retiree. Waldo Canyon is his 37th stint as a disaster relief volunteer since 2000, when he stopped working as a manufacturer’s representative for women’s clothing.

"I sold dresses," says the Florida transplant, in the broad New York accent of his hometown.

Bayer, a gregarious man who has what he calls a “real life” as well — going on cruises with his wife, visiting grandchildren in Boston and Long Island --  is a Red Cross “advance public affairs” officer. He is deployed to disasters to help handle the influx of national press who, like a disaster itself, can quickly overwhelm the resources of a local Red Cross chapter. 

 "The organization empowers you," says Bayer. "It’s a wonderful way to give back to the community."

Bayer, and people like him — many of them retirees — make up an army of 650,000 Red Cross volunteers, about 94 percent of the organization’s workforce. Bayer is in Colorado from his home in Boynton Beach, Fla., one of 325 volunteers from all over the country helping victims of the Waldo Canyon wildfire.

"They are the heart and soul," says Anne Marie Borrego, a staff spokesperson who came from American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Volunteers come with a wide array of skills and background. Bayer, for instance, is a former Air Force pilot. He also demonstrated his uniquely aggressive New York driving skills in an effort to deliver two journalists to the scene of relief efforts.

"I’m a New York driver," he said. "I make no bones about it."

When a disaster strikes, the Red Cross breaks out a special tool to help catalog the damage and share information between the local police, fire departments and the national organization.

Each morning, volunteers in Colorado Springs gather at a temporary Red Cross operation set up in a vacant office building.  During the initial relief effort, when evacuations were required for some 32,000 people, they ran shelters. As people have been able to return to homes or find alternative lodging, those shelters have closed down and volunteers have conducted house-to-house damage assessments in the worst-hit subdivisions. Now they are moving into the next phase — setting up to interview affected residents to assess their individual needs — whether it is clothes, tools for clearing damaged property or mental health care.

Volunteers make the Red Cross tick, and the work also seems to make volunteers like Bayer tick.

One reward is being part of the vast nationwide network of volunteers, connecting with colleagues from one deployment to another.

Sometimes there’s a brush with celebrity — as when Bayer met President Obama over the weekend -- which Bayer considers “a perk.”

"We shook hands and I said, ‘Thank you for being here, Mr. President," Bayer said. "He looked at me and said. 'No, no. Thank YOU for being here. He meant all of us, of course."

Colorado relief work: beginning of the long haul

Bayer has had some rough assignments, some heartbreaking.

One of them came in his own backyard at the time — volunteering in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Bayer remembers being on the phone with a widow.

"She was one of four women on her street who lost her husband that day," he says. "What do you say? I just stumbled through." 

In his adopted home state of Florida, Bayer is also active in the local chapter of the Red Cross, which is frequently the first organization to help house fire victims after firefighters finish their work.

As a result Bayer’s car is stocked with the kinds of things people need — items like flip flops for the harried father who ran out of the house in the middle of the night, stuffed animals for frightened children.

"I have put people into hotels in the middle of the night that had never even been in a hotel," he says, putting his hand to his heart. "It just grabs you."

As he was leaving Arkansas two years ago after a Red Cross flood response, Bayer found a note from the housekeeper at his hotel.

"It said, 'You’ll never know the number of people you affected by being here’," he recalled. "These are the things that keep you going."

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