The Essential Persons What they gave was more important than what they lost by Mandy Marksteiner
Even though Dick and Judy Opsahl
club and every Sunday for the past eight years Richard has led a 6-hour hike with the mountaineers club up the Pipeline Road to the Ski Lodge parking lot.
lost their home and all of their possessions in the Cerro Grande fire, they learned that reaching out by volunteering for the Red Cross was the best way to cope with their loss. As newcomers to Los Alamos, their work was an example of what generous community members they are. By June 2nd Red Cross volunteers had raised $1.2 million dollars, sheltered 458 people, provided 57,554 meals and assisted 1,442 families. The retired couple received Red Cross training while living in New York. Dick said, “We were anxious to have an opportunity to volunteer.” Dick served meals at the various shelters, gave information and worked in public relations. He was also one of the people in charge of accepting donations. Because local people provided so much food, water, and supplies, he eventually found himself in the awkward position of turning down donations. “People tried hard to collect the stuff,” he said, “and we didn’t even want it!” Judy provided counseling for people who needed to talk. She said, “It took my mind off of me. And I could say ‘yes I understand’ because they knew I lost my home too.” While explaining what they went through, they had a way of shrugging off the things that they had lost, and instead, focused on the experiences they had volunteering. Like the time Dick agreed to be the night manager at one of the shelters in Santa Fe. There had been a broken pipe, a flood, and a lady got locked in the bathroom and she needed to be rescued. The next day the people in charge told them to go home and get some rest. They were tired, and their clothes were dirty and slept-in. But rather than go back
to their hotel, they decided to go out for dinner. They settled into their table at El Nido and looked around…. Everyone else in the restaurant was dressed in formal gowns and tuxes. It was prom night! More amused than embarrassed, they took the opportunity sit in on the teenagers’ big night while enjoying the free appetizers and dessert that the waiter offered. After the long list of addresses of homes that had been destroyed was posted in the shelters, a reporter wanted to interview someone who had lost his or her house. Judy found a woman who was really depressed. “The next day she showed up for the interview with lipstick and combed hair,” Judy said. “It was therapy by press!” Dick and Judy had only lived in Los Alamos for nine months before the fire. Since then they have continued to enrich the community in many ways.
They are literally “always on the move”. They love to run, hike and travel. They have been married for 43 years and met while skiing in Vermont. Dick has run the New York City Marathon 26 times, and Judy has run it twice. One of the things that they lost in the fire was an eagle shaped trophy that Dick earned in 1998 when he, at age 66, completed the Grand Slam of Ultra Running – four 100-mile trail races completed over the course of four months. Luckily, the organizers were able to give him a replacement trophy. They share their interests with other people. Since moving to Los Alamos, they founded an orienteering
They welcome other people to come with them when they travel the world. During the first two weeks of April, 2010, they will walk a portion of the Santiago Pilgrimage Route in Spain, from Seville to Mérida, and afterwards Dick will run the Madrid Marathon. Like most of their trips abroad, they organized their plans for a large group and publicly invited anyone to join them. This won’t be the first time they’ve walked the Pilgrimage Route. The first time they did it they started at the French border, which is a 500-mile walk to Santiago that took 33 days. They’ve since gone back and done shorter sections.
When they believe in something they act on it. When the Opsahls lost their home they used the opportunity to become more energy efficient. Their original plan was to build a completely passive solar house on their lot, but the county’s building regulations were too strict so instead they bought a house and reconfigured it to be as solar as possible. They installed a solar domestic hot water system, a solar porch for heat, and they reinsulated the roof and added solar hot air heaters. After being strong for others, it finally hit her. All the Red Cross volunteers were allowed to come up individually to find out what happened to their houses. The press was there to take photos and interview people. “I didn’t have a strong attachment to the house and I thought I was handling everything very nicely,” said Judy. “But when I left, the apricot tree was full of apricots and hummingbirds. That’s when I choked up, and that’s what went on national T.V.!” Judy was embarrassed to be seen crying on T.V. But, she didn’t realize that showing her emotions gave someone the chance to reach out and care for her. The next day a man from White Rock approached her at the shelter. He had seen her on the news and presented her with two jars of apricot jam made from his own tree. m
—What better way to get to know your community than by volunteering? The Opsahls were new to the area when the fire came through, but by devoting their time and energy to supporting others during the evacuation and then rebuilding, they were able to create a great circle of support.
Essence April/May 2010