Full disclosure: I have known Greg Hardesty for over two decades. But there’s a part of him he kept secret. A good part.
Greg and I worked side by side as reporters at the Orange County Register for 17 years.
We covered happy stories and sad stories. The worst was when we had to cover funerals, or go knock on the door of a family that had just lost a loved one. We were writing a story for the newspaper, we would tell whoever opened the door. Could they tell us what happened? Or how much their loved one meant to them?
It’s the assignment every reporter dreads.
Seven years ago Greg covered a story about the Trauma Intervention Program, otherwise known as TIP. It’s an under-the-radar team of volunteers. Their mission is to join the first responder, a firefighter or paramedic, at a home where someone just died. Or accompany a police officer who has to knock on someone’s door and break the news that their loved one is gone. Or respond to a hospital ER at the request of a nurse when someone is likely to die – or already has.
The TIP volunteer’s job is to then comfort that someone. Greg was so moved by what these volunteers do, that after writing the story about them, he signed up for the 50 hours of training to become a volunteer himself.
Since that day four years ago, Greg has responded to some 75 calls at all hours of the night, and on weekends, to give emotional first aid to people who just got, in many cases, the worst news they’ve ever heard.
“At the Register, when I had to cover these horrible stories, I always would ask myself: What if I was in their position?” he says. “Being able to connect with them on a human level as a opposed to reporter/victim (relationship), it’s just natural for me.”
TIP has been around for 34 years nationwide, with 13 chapters across the country, and has been in Orange County for 24 years. Only six times in TIP’s history has founder Wayne Fortin honored a TIP volunteer with the Founders Award for going above and beyond. Greg just found out he is about to be No. 7.
“I was floored,” Greg says of the news. “What? Me? None of us do this for attention.”
And I can attest this is certainly true in his case. Greg lives out loud. If you know him you’ve heard entertaining stories of his ultramarathons (60 to date!) and his experiments with everything from spray tans to blow dry bars to foot waxing for his former OC Register men’s and women’s beauty tips column, Two Blondes.
But he never mentioned getting up at 2 a.m. the night before work and driving to someone’s house in Dana Point to comfort a stranger whose loved one had just passed.
Greg will be honored with the Founders Award on Thursday (March 28) at TIP’s annual Heroes with Heart dinner at the Great Wolf Lodge in Garden Grove. He is receiving the award, a letter from Fortin reads, for “tirelessly promoting” TIP. In addition to writing about TIP volunteers at his current job at Cornerstone Communications, which publishes Behind the Badge, Greg helps TIP with social media. And, like all other TIP volunteers, he takes three 12-hour, on-call shifts a month.
“It’s emotionally grueling, but I love it,” he says.
His most memorable call was something referred to as a NODA. No One Dies Alone. Almost all NODA calls involve homeless or elderly people with no relatives. This call was for a young girl with severe disabilities whose mother had taken her off life support, but couldn’t bear to watch her die.
Greg was among the TIP volunteers who took shifts at the girl’s bedside until she passed — six days later.
They combed her hair, held her hand and read to her. At one shift, Greg thought, “She needs to go into the afterlife looking pretty.”
He put the word out for nail polish and painted her fingernails.
Another call he will never forget sent him to a hospital where doctors were furiously trying to save a baby after formula went down the wrong pipe. Their efforts were futile. Greg held the baby’s head as the mother cut off a lock of her hair.
“Even the doctors and nurses were crying,” he says.
Greg says one thing that has surprised him since joining TIP is how differently cultures grieve. He has comforted people who are Korean, Japanese, Latino, Filipino, Persian. Some wail, others remain calm. It’s important to let them take the lead.
“We call it the TIP dance,” he says. “It’s an intuitive, delicate dance. The fine art of just being present. You have to know when to give them space. I’m good at just shutting up and being the caring presence. But I’ve also been lying on the ground in living rooms. People collapse on the floor and I’m right down there with them.”
The average calls lasts 2 to 4 hours. Volunteers help survivors with practical information, like how to find a mortuary or counseling. They help make phone calls, and provide tips on how to break the news to children of the deceased.
“Their mind is in chaos,” he says.
Greg gives his mom Betty a lot of the credit for this latest chapter in his life.
“My mom’s a saint,” he says. “She was almost a nun. She was raised by nuns. She’s the most selfless, kind person.”
He grew up Catholic, drifted away as an adult, but then rediscovered his faith a few years before becoming a TIP volunteer.
“I thought, ‘Put your faith into action,’” he says. “What better act of mercy than helping families who just lost somebody? I look at this as trying to make the world a better place, just one small way.’”
For more information, visit TIP Orange County.