Sherry Pedonesi said husband Tony woke her with a question: "How brave are you?" he asked. Then he handed her a newspaper article about flooding in the Midwest.
A few hours and phone calls later, the Brooksville couple were packing their Lincoln Towncar for an uncharted road trip to America's heartland, where they would spend the next week doing what they could to help strangers whose homes and businesses were just a levee break from ruin.
Sherry Pedonesi grew up in the St. Louis area, and she has relatives in the region. On the way out and on the way back, she and Tony visited some of her blood kin, but the folks with whom she established a real kinship were the ones they spent four days in the heat and rain filling sandbags to help hold back the floodwaters of the Mississippi River.
"Sherry said she was "amazed at how people reacted" when they learned that she and Tony had traveled so far on their own just to lend a hand.
"As we told so many who asked us why we had made the journey to Illinois to work, we have been humbled by the number of people who have come to Florida to help after a hurricane. It seemed only right to repay the favor," Sherry wrote in a narrative she compiled about her experience. "We know that not many people are in a position to be able to leave work for a week and volunteer their time, but we could and we felt it was our duty."
Excerpts from her detailed observations tell a story of frustration, benevolence, determination and accomplishment.
Finding where their help was needed most proved a challenge. They trekked from Paducah, Ky., Winfield, Mo., and Grafton, Ill. Sometimes they had to backtrack because the roads were flooded. Every place they stopped they asked police and other volunteers where they could go to help. "We were starting to get frustrated and feeling a bit foolish for our impulsive decision ," Sherry wrote.
So, they began to rely on radio and newspaper reports. They finally settled in at Hull, Ill., where "we were given two kindergarten-size chairs to sit on. I held the bag under a cone while someone shoveled sand into it," she wrote. "After two or three shovelfuls, I'd hand the bag to Tony and he would tie it shut and toss it over his shoulder into a pile," she said. Then "20 or 30 work release prisoners who were younger and obviously much stronger than we … tossed those bags 30 feet to a pile."
Sherry said prisoners were joined by "Mennonites and many others." "Mothers brought their children and grandparents brought their grandchildren. Four-year-olds were shoveling sand into sandbags with their beach sand shovels. … We were impressed with parents having their children become a part of the experience, hoping that somehow what they were doing would follow them through life," she said.
Many of the people they were working alongside were farmers. "Most of them were actually unaffected by the flooding," Pedonesi said, they were just "caring people who wanted to help their neighbors."
Sherry is 59; husband Tony is 65. They have lived in Brooksville 22 years, but this is the first time they have ever done anything like this, Sherry said Wednesday while on a break from volunteering at the Hernando County Fairgrounds.
And they are really glad they did.
On the day the Pedonesis left Hull, a man they had worked with offered to take them to the river to see first-hand how the bags they had toted for four days were being used. "Truly, this was a wonderful education," Sherry said.
And truly, it is a wonderful example of how compassion and commitment can be contagious.
Jeff Webb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6123.