XENIA — A blanket. A sandwich. A hot cup of coffee. That’s all it took for Judith Schnatz to become a life-long Red Cross volunteer.
To say, “that’s all it took” undermines the overwhelming circumstance during which that blanket, sandwich and coffee were offered.
It was the night of April 3, 1974. Schnatz was a volunteer EMT responder with Chester Township Lifesquad, providing mutual aid to Xenia. Earlier that afternoon, the city of Xenia was at the epicenter of a super outbreak of tornadoes that swept across several states, leaving behind in many places little more than kindling where there were once neighborhoods. Thirty-three people were killed in Xenia with more than 1,300 others injured.
Schnatz’s job that night was to transport patients to hospitals in Dayton and at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
“It was a harrowing night,” Schnatz remembered. “I was cold, wet from rain, a bit shell shocked from what I had seen. My teeth were chattering.”
Both physically and mentally exhausted, Schnatz remembers that around 4 a.m. she was told to take a break. The American Red Cross was providing canteen services in the area to meet basic needs and provide comfort to beleaguered residents and first-responders.
“A Red Cross volunteer put a blanket around my shoulders, gave me a cup of hot coffee and a sandwich,” recalled Schnatz more than 40 years later. “I will never forget that simple act of kindness.”
The massive tornado struck Xenia at 4:40 p.m. and in less than an hour, at 5:30 p.m. the first of the Red Cross shelters was set up, followed by five additional shelters throughout Greene County. A total of 2,400 people stayed in shelters that first night.
In the hours, days and weeks after the Xenia tornado, more than 2,000 volunteers from the Dayton Area Chapter worked well over 250,000 hours providing Red Cross service and support to those residents impacted by the historic and deadly twister. Well-trained caseworkers assessed damage offering financial assistance, food, clothing, shelter, and medical supplies to those in need.
During the Xenia tornado relief operation, the Red Cross served more than 429,000 meals; 5,000 people received some type of medical care from Red Cross volunteer nurses in the field; and more than 4,500 inquiries from worried relatives regarding the health and well-being of family members were handled. And in at least one case, a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a sandwich was caringly given to a soaked and exhausted volunteer EMT.
That act of kindness by a Red Cross volunteer during that apocalyptic night in Xenia prompted Schnatz to become a Red Cross volunteer. She starting teaching CPR and First Aid for the Red Cross.
“I used an 8mm film projector to teach the class,” Schnatz laughed, exemplifying how far technology has come, as well as how long she’s been volunteering.
Schnatz took a hiatus from volunteering in 1978 when she started nursing school to focus on building her professional life, but 30 years later, in 2008, she returned to the Red Cross.
“When I retired from full-time hospital nursing, I realized I was not doing anything to give back to the community,” Schnatz admitted. “I remembered that volunteer and how much his kindness meant to me. I joined the Red Cross as a Disaster Heath Services RN! The rest is history.”
Schnatz, whose husband is also a Red Cross volunteer, has 19 Red Cross deployments under her belt and counting. She’s responded to Hurricanes Ike, Irene, Leo, Sandy, Matthew, and Harvey, among assorted flooding disasters and multi-family fires. She recalls the devastation she felt when three members of a single family — a 2-year-old, a 10-year-old and their pregnant mother — died in a flood in Ripley, Ohio. She remembers with delight providing water and first aid for the masses on hand for the 2015 Papal visit in Philadelphia.
She recalls sleeping on army cots, consoling individuals whose lives had just been devastated, and being deeply and emotionally impacted by each deployment and person she met along the way. She said she’s grateful she was empowered by the Red Cross to make a positive difference in the lives of people during their most desperate times.
“There are many volunteers in our region and across the county who have many more deployments and many more years of active service than I do,” noted Schnatz. “I’m only one of nearly 300,00 Red Cross volunteers and each of us has stories of how and why we joined the Red Cross.”
Schnatz’s story began 44 years ago on that dismal night in Xenia.
Marita Salkowski is the regional communications and marketing director at the American Red Cross of the Greater Cincinnati-Dayton Region.