Melissa Seibert, military services outreach manager for American Red Cross Stark County Chapter, is About magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’
Melissa Seibert popped out of her chair from the audience in a meeting room at American Legion Post 221 in Massillon. She darted across the floor like a short-track speed skater to the podium.
Her off-white trench coat hung open, blanketing her slight 5-foot-5 frame. She whisked strands of short blond hair away from her forehead. If she’d rehearsed this speech to the group of Legion members, it didn’t show. If she used notes, they weren’t visible. On that Tuesday evening in November she simply shared stories of local service members in faraway places such as Iraq and Afghanistan — and their wives and children left behind to live “normal,” yet sometimes lonely lives.
Seibert, a 61-year-old mother of two and grandmother of two more, spoke of service members as if they were family. “My soldiers,” she calls them — every last one that she’s met, chatted with on the phone or exchanged emails with in her job as military services outreach manager for the American Red Cross Stark County Chapter.
She asked the Legion for a $1,000 donation, to fund a therapeutic horse-riding program for local vets. She had witnessed its impact on an abused girl and on a physically handicapped man. “My soldiers need this,” she said. She may wind up with much more.
Seibert spoke of husbands and wives deployed in tandem, their children here now living with grandparents. She reminded the room of mostly senior vets that families of reservists and guardsmen fighting these modern battles don’t have the luxury of one-stop assistance that’s available on military bases.
She told them of paying utility bills for service families. Of handing out gas cards. Then, she told them about suicide rates. About post-traumatic stress. About answering her phone in the wee hours to help a local mom worried to death that her deployed son was going to kill himself. Seibert wiped away tears; a man in the spellbound audience did the same.
The group stood and applauded when she finished.
“I think we should give her as much as we can,” shouted John Tsocheff, the Legion post historian, who leapt out of his chair. “In 68 years, we’ve never ever heard a speech like that!”
Within the hour, Seibert was on the road. She headed back to the Red Cross’ offices on the Goodwill campus near downtown Canton. Time permitting, she would help moderate the group discussion at a monthly military connection support meeting for service families in need of understanding ears.
Federal Defense funding for some programs she started or planned has dried up — a minor detail and merely an annoyance in her mind. She’ll run them from the trunk of her car if need be, she said.
“Dedication, commitment in everything she does,” said Sia Pope, former executive director of the Stark County Red Cross. “I know that she cared for her parents all the way to the end, too.”
Those who know her say Seibert’s giant heart, compassion and outgoing demeanor are a perfect match for her role at the Red Cross. Her accomplishments have earned her About magazine’s second annual Person of the Year award, an honor won last year by potato chip giant Robert Shearer.
“She’s definitely an eccentric person,” said Seibert’s daughter, Amanda Geibel. “She’s always been like that … a tiny little firecracker. She can walk into a room and get everyone’s life story inside of a minute.”
Mark Weldon, chief of security at Stark State College and a former Massillon police chief, has known Seibert since the late 1960s. She’s still Melissa Kame to him. Weldon played in a band with her future husband.
“She’s a nut … in a good way,” he said with a laugh.
A born-again Christian known to peers as “Mel,” she grew up on a farm in Canton Township. One of four children, Seibert loved helping her dad work on cars. It rubbed off. After a stint as a service adviser at a local auto dealership and schooling, she began a career as a physician’s surgical assistant.
Along the way, in 1985, the Red Cross responded after a fire at her grandmother’s house — a scene as clear to her today as it was then. A lasting impression ultimately led her back to the Red Cross. Today she works with two of the same women who assisted her family during that fire.
By 1999, Seibert’s children, Mark and Amanda, were grown. She wanted to pay a debt as a Red Cross volunteer.
First she handled blood pressure checks. Then, on to a paid job managing First Aid stations. In 2005, she moved to assistant director of emergency services. Three years ago, she hopped into her service to armed forces role — the Red Cross often is the most efficient conduit to relay emergency communication between military members and their families.
“She has completely developed that armed services program,” said Victoria Wood, executive director of the Alliance-Minerva Chapter of the Red Cross and former assistant director at the Stark chapter.
This year, Seibert received accolades from state Rep. Christina Hagan and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and also was awarded the prestigious Ohio Commendation Medal, the state’s top military award.
“She is one of my go-to people,” said Staff Sgt. Bryan Bowman, human resources technician for the 1st Battalion, 145th Armored Regiment, Ohio Army National Guard in Stow, lauding her efforts in what could have become an overseas suicide. “With her help, we were able to save a soldier in Afghanistan.”
Officially, on reports, she’s helped more than 5,000 people.
“There is not a dull day,” Seibert said. “It is life-changing.”
In true military spirit, though, she goes above the call of duty. She serves on a task force looking into a homeless shelter for veterans. She rode a friend’s motorcycle in the recent Ride for the 3,095 to honor Ohio’s Vietnam casualties. She arranged a 21-gun salute for a veteran who had uttered that deathbed request to his daughter.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, she’s right there with us at the airport, welcoming home the troops or sending them off,” said Judy Dorsey, president of the local chapter of Blue Star Mothers.
ABOUT AMERICAN RED CROSS – STARK COUNTY CHAPTER
The American Red Cross Stark County Chapter has been serving the community for 94 years. In 1917, both the Canton Red Cross Chapter and the Western Stark County chapter opened their doors to the community, supporting a standard of excellence to serve and assist victims of disaster. Over the years, the scope of the Stark County Red Cross has evolved. Both chapters consolidated their programs and services in 2005, forming the Stark County Red Cross.
DID YOU KNOW?
In Stark County, 1,400 residents volunteered more than 82,000 hours this past year to help local families respond to emergencies (floods, fires, and power outages); teach neighbors lifesaving skills such as first aid, CPR and water safety; help local military families communicate during emergencies; transport clients to medical treatment facilities, and provide a 24-hour rape crisis service.
HOW TO VOLUNTEER
For anyone interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer, the chapter holds a volunteer orientation program the third Saturday of the month at the chapter from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, please call the chapter at 330-453-0146, Ext. 2703.
The American Red Cross Stark County Chapter has recently moved to the Community Campus at Goodwill, 408 9th Street SW, Canton, housing the staff and volunteers of the chapter. The new facility is equipped with enough space to facilitate the programs and services offered to the community: Emergency Services, Rape Crisis Services, Transportation, Military Communications/Outreach, Health and Safety Services and Administration.“We are looking forward to the collaboration with the other agencies located at the campus facility,” said Curt Werren, Executive Director of the Stark County Red Cross Chapter.
The Connection Group meets to connect others together in the military (active; reserve; national guard and those that have returned home).The group meets the third Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. at the chapter. Notification of attendance is requested by calling 330-453-0146.
MESSAGES TO SOLDIERS
Hundreds of emergency messages are transmitted via the Armed Forces Emergency Services each year.These messages are sent to strengthen the morale of the service members and their families as well as provide service members and the military authorities with information to make important decisions. These messages are sent when the family is unable to contact the service member or the nature of the emergency is such that the Red Cross is the fastest and most secure means of transmitting the message. For more information about Armed Forces Emergency Services or to start a case, contact the Emergency Services office at 330-453-0146.
FIND OUT MORE
To learn about what the American Red Cross Stark County provides to the community the public is invited to attend a “60 minutes with your American Red Cross” presentation. For one hour, attendees will learn about our programs and hear true stories of those whose lives have been touched by the Red Cross. Upcoming sessions in 2012 are on Thursdays, noon to p.m., the dates are: Jan. 12, Feb. 9, March 8 and April 12. A light lunch is served too.