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The vets' volunteer

March 25, 2004|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

Over more than a decade, Sylvia Hager has driven hundreds of Hagerstown veterans to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

"I enjoy helping people, it makes me feel good inside," said Hager, who started her medical career as an emergency medical technician with the Maugansville Goodwill Volunteer Fire Co.

In 1993, she left the fire company and began doing volunteer work for the Washington County chapter of the American Red Cross.

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After thousands of hours of service and thousands of miles on the road, Hager was named the American Red Cross' Veterans Affairs Volunteer Services national volunteer of the year.

"I appreciate the honor, but I don't do it to get attention," Hager said.

"She was selected out of more than 100 Red Cross volunteers nationwide," said Cindy Blackstock Kline, Washington County's Red Cross director of emergency services. Blackstock Kline, who submitted a letter endorsing Hager's nomination, said Hager was innovative, creative and tireless in her work.

"A national team of judges selected Sylvia because of her outstanding record in leadership activities," Blackstock Kline said.

Hager is one of three Red Cross volunteers who drive local veterans to medical appointments at the VA center.

"You get so many rewards that are not monetary. When I give them (veterans) a bearhug to help make them feel better, it's the greatest thing in the world," she said. "And all the thanks I need."

Loving, talented and dedicated are words used by veterans, other volunteers and hospital staff to describe Hager. As she walks the halls, she's greeted with open arms and kisses from veterans whose faces light up with smiles as she reaches out to them.

Red Cross officials said Hager has played a significant role in making Washington County's Red Cross chapter the only chapter in the region that offers transportation to veterans.

Hager has made the trip for as long as World War II veteran David Adams can remember.

"Veterans can talk about things with her, it's a good relationship. If she doesn't have an answer she'll find out," said Adams.

For veterans like Adams and others, Hager is more than a volunteer, she's a friend, Blackstock Kline said.

On the first Wednesday of each month, Hager coordinates monthly birthday parties for veterans in the medical center's long-term care unit. She dresses up in costumes representing holiday themes for different months. She also buys cards and makes gifts reflecting each month's theme.

"I've already made my Easter bunny costume," said Hager, who has a straw hat with giant, pink, furry bunny ears on each side hanging on the wall of her craft office.

For many sick veterans, a happy birthday wish is priceless, said nurse Shirley Brown, who said Hager is more than deserving of her recent honor.

"Some of these patients don't get many visitors, and some live so long that people forget their birthday," said Brown. "Sylvia makes up for all that. She's like a member of the family who always remembers."

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