Riverside resident Nellie Brennan will be honored tonight by the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago for her 55 years of volunteer service during the organization’s Disaster Services volunteer recognition dinner in Chicago.

A registered nurse and a Red Cross volunteer since the early 1950s, Brennan has responded to disasters as far away as Texas, Louisiana and Puerto Rico to help care for victims of floods, hurricanes and terrorist acts – hurricanes Floyd and Katrina in 1999 and 2005, respectively; the deadly flash floods in Wacheka, Minn., in 2007; the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001.

At 79 years old, she’s still responding to the call.

“I believe in Mother Teresa’s prayer,” Brennan said. “If you feel like helping people … no matter what, do it anyway. If each one of us helps just one person in need or in crisis, wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place?”

A native of Rock Island, Brennan became a registered nurse in 1952 and started volunteering with the Red Cross at blood drives. Later she began heading to disaster areas to help the victims of fires or floods as a mental health care giver.

She also worked at state mental heath hospitals and private hospitals, but headed to the Chicago area in 1970 to take a job at Hines V.A. Hospital in Maywood.

“I had heard an ad about the V.A. needing nurses very bad,” Brennan said. “So I came here to Hines to interview and they asked me, ‘Can you start next week?'”

With kids and a home in Rock Island, it took a bit more time to take care of all the loose ends. The V.A. told her they’d wait.

“They said, ‘Whenever you get ready, call us and we’ll send a van to move your furniture,'” she said.

After several years at Hines, Brennan also worked at Northwestern University Medical Center in the psychiatric and orthopedic units and as an instructor in Triton College’s nursing program.

While she doesn’t work in a hospital setting any longer, Brennan still works as a home health care nurse. And through it all, she has volunteered with the Red Cross.

She passed on her commitment to volunteering to her three sons, remembering that the family would work as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making assembly line to feed other volunteers filling sandbags to prevent the Mississippi River from flooding the Quad Cities.

She remembers interviewing a man whose family as trapped by the flash flooding in Minnesota. The family was at home, when flood waters broke the structure free from its foundation and it floated in the current for some time. In the meantime, the man had managed to get his family on the roof of the house.

“I could tell that he remained very disturbed,” Brennan wrote in a narrative of her volunteer experiences. “He said it was the scariest ride on the river ever, as they all held onto each other for hours until dawn when they were rescued.”

She remembers the devastation of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Floyd, where Red Cross volunteers worked in large tents and witnessed a population reduced to sleeping on mattresses sheltered by mountainside lean-tos and crossing rivers by hanging on to ropes.

That year, 1999, Brennan said, she spent just 15 days at home in Riverside.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Brennan became a case worker for dozens of people displaced from their apartments in lower Manhattan as ash and debris covered their neighborhoods.

“Working there as a case worker instead of mental health care giver or relief RN was very educational and gave me a different perspective,” Brennan wrote. “Even though disasters are devastating, it was one of the most satisfying and rewarding American Red Cross episodes in all my career.”

When she’s not volunteering, Brennan has a bit of show biz in her blood. She’s appeared as an extra in six movies, including The Lake House, filmed in Riverside in 2005. She’s also a member of the Riverside Township Radio Players, which reproduces old-time radio programs.

During the 1980s and 1990s she was an usher at the Chicago Theater, where she got to see Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Dean Martin and others.

And she’s still on call for the Red Cross. She would have gone down to Nashville to assist those displaced by the recent flooding, she said, but she was out of the country on a trip to the Holy Land with one of her sons.