Red Cross volunteer goes the extra mile

Leslie Schelat

After 24 disaster relief calls, one might think Crystal Wagner is ready to call it quits. But when asked how much longer she would like to continue as a Red Cross volunteer, her smile and laugh show the opposite.

“(I’ll volunteer) as long as I can!” said Wagner, a disaster relief volunteer since 2001.

In four years, Wagner has helped in every type of natural disaster except a winter storm and an earthquake. She has been called to sites from New York City to San Diego, and many places in between, to do everything from combating wildfires to assisting families after Sept. 11.

Wagner began volunteering with the Red Cross after she retired from the United States Postal Service. At that time she knew little about the organization.

“I knew they had first aid training because I’d been an EMT,” Wagner said. She also knew Red Cross helped people contact family members in the military because she used it to contact her daughter. However, it was at a Red Cross recruiting meeting in Summit County that Wagner first learned about disaster relief.

“From the little they told me, I wanted to do it,” Wagner said. After completing her training courses in mass care, family services and disaster relief, Wagner waited for her call.

That call came Dec. 26, 2001. She was needed in New York City the next day.

“I’d never been in a city bigger than Cleveland,” Wagner said. She stayed for one month, giving food, clothing and shelter to the cleaning staff and chauffeurs from the World Trade Center.

“We did what we do locally, just on a much grander scale,” she said. Her experience in New York City changed her outlook on life.

“I knew that there was absolutely nothing I couldn’t do,” she said.

Since then, Wagner has traveled to wildfires in Colorado and San Diego, spent three months following hurricanes in Florida and cared for victims of tornadoes and floods.

The most emotional trip Wagner made was to San Diego, where wildfires destroyed entire towns. Where she was, fire came down a mountain, burning nearly 30 homes and killing many residents.

“There was such a massive area where so many people died trying to save what little they had,” Wagner said. “It really bothered me that there was nothing they could do.”

It was the first time Wagner dealt with death. Workers normally come in after the disaster and assist in rebuilding and cleaning.

“A child’s swing sat swinging in the breeze behind where a house and garage used to be,” Wagner said. “I wondered, ‘Would there be someone to come home to that swing?’ ”

Wagner also traveled to a small Texas town after a storm dropped hailstones the size of softballs all over the area.

“There was no glass left in that town,” Wagner recollects. “They didn’t need typical relief. They had homes, but they needed repairs.”

In situations such as these, Wagner helps coordinate home repairs, replacement of windshields and whatever other needs the families have.

Wagner inspired her daughter to help the Red Cross when floods hit Hudson two years ago, and her mother answers phones at the Red Cross office in Summit County.

Wagner is currently taking a break from disaster relief, but she eagerly awaits her return to traveling in February. Although she can still be sent on major disaster relief efforts, she currently coordinates training sessions for local volunteers.

“She is a really hard worker,” said Scott McKinney, Portage County Red Cross program director. “She enjoys helping people and is willing to go the extra mile and put in extra hours.”

This enthusiasm and willingness to help others keeps Wagner volunteering.

“What I get out of it is so much more than what I put in,” Wagner said. “It builds my self-esteem, and for that I am eternally grateful.”

Contact social services reporter Leslie Schelat at [email protected].