ORLANDO, Fla. – Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) are set up in neighborhoods across Central Florida. They’re like citizen first responders, trained and educated by the county.
If an emergency or crisis happens volunteers serve as a bridge between government services and the people who need help.
Alan Hirschkorn is a CERT team leader who is a hero to his neighbors and the nation.
“This is all about helping people,” Hirschkorn said from behind the wheel of his golf cart outfitted with a generator, first aid kit, fire extinguisher and an American flag.
Hirschkorn lives in the 55+ community of Gulfstream Harbor in Orlando.
He’s been a CERT volunteer since 2016. The certification came in handy a year later when Hurricane Irma crossed Central Florida and left Gulfstream Harbor flooded and homes damaged.
“It was a disaster. This road over here was all flooded, water up to chest high,” Hirschkorn said pointing down a street lined with manicured lawns, flowering gardens and modular homes.
Hirschkorn remembers going house to house checking on his neighbors who didn’t want to leave their homes and go to shelters.
“People didn’t want to leave when they were told to evacuate. I had to wade through the water to see if they were all right .”
Years later Hirschkorn is still going door to door but now the need is much different.
“There are a lot of people in this community in need,” Hirschkorn said. “Some of them are private and they keep it to themselves.”
Every Thursday Hirschkorn and other CERT volunteers gather in the clubhouse to sort groceries donated by the nonprofit, Servant’s Heart Ministry.
The food is a supplement for residents who are just getting by.
Former Orange County Commissioner, Pete Clark, helped deliver the food. The neighborhood is in his district and he keeps up with Hirschkorn and the community.
“We stayed in contact and then of course COVID came along and I got a call from him saying that the food pantry shut down. Some folks in here were struggling.”
Clark contacted Servant’s Heart Ministry and together they have been able to provide a limited amount of food each week.
“You know there’s not a disaster every day,” Clark said. “But there are things every day that need some attention and that’s what they do here.”
Neighbor Nadine Garcia was also on hand to help with the project.
“Nobody can replace Alan. I’ll tell you all the things he does,” Garcia said. “He knows all the connections. He set up a community watch and traffic control.”
Vera Richardson stood nearby at a folding table filling paper bags with produce, meats and pastries.
“We have residents here, they don’t make a lot of money and they don’t get a lot of money,” Richardson said with a sigh. “They need our services in order to survive.”
Hirschkorn filled his golf cart with grocery bags and took them to the home of Diane Caso.
Caso relies on social security and food assistance. She says it’s barely enough to get her through the month.
“It’s not just me,” Caso said. “Many people out here are in the same situation.”
Hirshkorn handed her a bag filled with eggs, cereal, juice and canned goods. After a quick thank you and goodbye he was off again, passing streets with names like Swordfish and Bonita.
Twenty years ago he was patrolling the streets of Midtown Manhattan as a fire prevention inspector and auxiliary fire captain.
He remembers responding to the terrorist attacks at The World Trade Center.
“They called me on the radio, one of the fire trucks that was responding picked me up and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “I said, ‘what a disaster.’”
Hirschkorn went on to describe how the skies darkened with smoke as he searched businesses south of the towers. Then he spent weeks helping with clean-up.
Hirschkorn says he was hospitalized, lost a lung and continues to suffer the effects of the experience.
In his words, he says helping his neighbors keeps his mind clear.
“You do it from the heart. It’s God’s work. Even with my own health problems, I still do something.”
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