Derry Area native responds when disaster strikes across the country
Kelly Menzie DeGraff has seen the unwavering kindness of American spirit in the face of some of the nation's most devastating disasters.
The Derry Township native has responded to more than 25 federal disasters, including the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado.
She has seen people — their homes razed to the ground — bring coffee to emergency crews and volunteers.
“The one thing that comes out shining is the compassion; not the compassion of the volunteers, but the compassion of those affected by the disaster,” she said.
In her role as senior adviser and director for disaster services, DeGraff helps the Corporation for National and Community Service — the federal agency that heads AmeriCorps and Senior Corps — connect communities to volunteers and nonprofit organizations when wracked by an emergency.
“This is definitely a team effort. No one can do this alone, for sure,” she said.
DeGraff has masterful leadership and collaboration skills, said Bruce Bailey, director of AmeriCorps-St. Louis, who has known her for about seven years.
“There has to be a culture that exists in your agency where people are out there on the front line,” Bailey said. “In Kelly's case, we've been through the thick and thin of it.”
A 1988 graduate of Derry Area High School, DeGraff is the daughter of Ronald and Geraldine Menzie.
She calls herself an “average” high school student who went on to earn a degree in environmental science from Edinboro University in December 1992. DeGraff was a member of AmeriCorps' inaugural class in 1994, completing service projects as a team leader in the Northeast.
She has risen through the ranks of the organization, even helping to launch FEMA Corps, a 1,600-member service corps solely devoted to disaster preparedness, response and recovery through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Anybody can help; it can be just in little ways,” said Geraldine Menzie, who recalled her daughter's passion for the community beginning during college breaks, when she would volunteer at holiday dinners for the homeless or as a bell-ringer for The Salvation Army.
“To look back and to be able to say, ‘I helped someone,' that's such an amazing thing,” Menzie said.
Recognized for all that help, DeGraff has earned national service awards and nominations, as well as most recently a recommendation to Harvard University's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson and Boston police Chief Dan Linskey are among DeGraff's peers in the eight-month program that began in December.
Menzie said she and her husband are extremely proud of their daughter for her accomplishments, including the chance to join this prestigious group.
She said she still worries when her daughter is dispatched to somewhere reeling from a disaster.
“All you can do is pray and make sure everything turns out all right,” Menzie said.
DeGraff lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., with her husband, Jeff, and two sons.
She said she appreciates growing up in western Pennsylvania and the lessons her parents taught her that have allowed her to build a foundation based on generosity.
“My dad would say, ‘Work hard, with a passion and most importantly, be useful,' ” DeGraff said.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.