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Volunteering is in Lower Burrell woman's blood

| Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, 12:06 a.m.
Marje Montonari
American Red Cross
Marje Montonari
(from bottom left) Marjorie Montanari, Barb Janoscrat, local Red Cross volunteer; Matt Auflick, former Red Cross Planning and Preparedness Manager; Michael Felice, local Red Cross Disaster Specialist
American Red Cross
(from bottom left) Marjorie Montanari, Barb Janoscrat, local Red Cross volunteer; Matt Auflick, former Red Cross Planning and Preparedness Manager; Michael Felice, local Red Cross Disaster Specialist

Marjorie Montanari recently received the Lifetime Commitment to the Red Cross Hero Award.

In her case, the name of the award is not an exaggeration. The Lower Burrell resident began volunteering with Red Cross blood drives as a student nurse and now, at 84, she has no plans to stop.

Montanari joined the local Red Cross before her 1949 graduation from Citizens General Hospital School of Nursing in New Kensington, staffing and supporting blood drives.

“We were expected to look for some community service activity,” Montanari said. “The director of nursing was a Red Cross volunteer, so I decided to look into that. At that time, nurses had a lot to do with bloodmobiles; not so much now. From there, I moved on to doing home nursing classes. Then in 1960, community leaders decided there should be a local disaster planning committee. I was appointed to that and later became chairman. That's really the beginning.”

Since then, she has served at 39 disasters across the country starting with her first in 1994, an earthquake in California. Her most recent service was closer to home — she helped during the Armstrong County flooding in August, referring victims to assistance, assessing damage and handing out cleanup kits.

After starting as a service associate, directly assisting people involved in disasters, she now oversees situations as a manager.

“As you move up, you don't get to be in the field as much,” Montanari said. “I'm assigning nurses and doing evaluations. I really like to be out more. I was in the South for (Hurricane) Katrina. Even though I wasn't out that much in the field, it still was memorable.”

She said her most unforgettable experience was spending two weeks at the Flight 93 crash site in Somerset County.

“I was a manager, but I still had the opportunity to go with the families on two occasions on buses to the site,” Montanari said. “As health providers, we'd make sure they were OK, physically and emotionally. We just provided support for them. That was a really terrible experience, but it was wonderful for us to be able to assist.”

During her 60-plus years of volunteering for the Red Cross and other groups, she also worked full-time, pursued higher education, got married and raised a family.

After graduating from Citizens, she received a bachelor's in nursing education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1960; a master's in education with an emphasis on counseling and guidance from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1965; and a doctorate in higher education administration from Pitt in 1978.

After a 35-year nursing career at Citizens General Hospital, holding positions from nurse, head nurse, assistant to the administrator and director of the nursing school, Montanari headed to Westmoreland County Community College where she chaired the nursing and allied health department.

When she started her job at the college, the state board of nursing wouldn't accept her credentials because she didn't have a master's in nursing. So, she got that in 1985 from IUP.

In addition to her Red Cross activities, Montanari is past president of the United Way of Westmoreland County and sits on three committees there; board member of Alle-Kiski Hope Center in Tarentum; board president at People's Library; citizens advisory board member for Family Services of Western Pennsylvania; and a former Girl Scout volunteer.

Donna Pacella, executive director of the Westmoreland-Armstrong Red Cross chapter, described Montanari as “truly amazing.”

“She can run circles around me,” Pacella said. “She has great passion and energy. She loves helping people, and that's why she's here.”

Pacella said no one has come close to Montanari's years of service to the Red Cross.

“We've had a few who've had 50 years, but they are far and few between now,” Pacella said. “Younger volunteers mostly are working and don't have time to commit like those who are retired.”

The chapter has about 800 volunteers, and Pacella said they do the bulk of the work considering there are only about four staff members.

“The volunteers do all the work on the ground,” Pacella said. “They're on fire call 24 hours a day.”

Responding to victims of devastating local house fires is another of Montanari's duties. She also teaches courses to prepare others to assist at disasters and recruits nurses to volunteer with the Red Cross.

She understands many younger people can't volunteer because they seem to have to work two jobs as a result of the economic downturn.

“But I believe we are all responsible for giving back to the community,” Montanari said. “We receive many blessings, and we should pass that on.”

She said many high schools require students to perform community service before they graduate.

“But I don't understand why they don't contribute more after they graduate,” she said. “I think a significant reason people volunteer is how they're brought up. Both of my sons volunteer all the time, and they always have.”

As an example, when her older son graduated from Grove City College and began working at the Norfolk shipyards in Virginia, an employee there assisted new workers with getting acquainted with the community.

“The woman my son met with asked about the kind of activities he likes and said she'd show him where they are,” Montanari said. “He asked her to tell him where the United Way office might be and a fire company and the Red Cross. She said, ‘Well, that's really different. Most young people want to know where the bars are.'

“She asked him how he became interested in that, and he said he was a volunteer fireman and his mother does all these things, so he should do them, too.”

Montanari said her younger son was a volunteer fireman and does a lot with a local baseball organization.

While Montanari possesses exceptional time management skills and a supportive family that allows her to be involved in volunteering, she does not boast a stereotypical sandbag-throwing physique that enables her to assist at disasters.

“Oh, yes, I'm just 5 foot 1 inch tall, and I weigh about 124 pounds,” she said. “Actually with the Red Cross, we do health reviews prior to going out into the field. We have a chart for the various activities one might be involved in based on different criteria. But there are jobs for everyone.”

She said she believes everybody can find at least one volunteer opportunity.

“People will say ‘I don't have skills' or ‘I don't know what to do.' But I say ‘Do you read? You could go to a nursing home and read to someone who has difficulty seeing or holding a book.' 

“I'm also a Faith in Action volunteer right now. All itreally takes is one or two hours a week and there is something we can give you to do,” she said. “There is something for everybody.”

Maria Guzzo is a freelance writer forTrib Total Media.

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