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Marilyn Johnson's Red Cross work is a 'perfect fit'

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Once I get involved and engaged — really caught up in it — I will give something my all.

By Anusikha Halder

There are at least two things you need to know about Marilyn Johnson. For starters, she was recently awarded the prestigious Clara Barton Award in recognition of her commitment and impact as a volunteer for the American Red Cross. "She also goes the extra mile," adds Leslie Toy, longtime volunteer resource coordinator for the Red Cross's San Mateo County Office in Burlingame.

When pressed, Johnson admits that the commitment and dedication that Toy cites can be strong suits of hers. "Once I get involved and engaged — really caught up in it — I will give something my all."

Johnson has been "caught up" in volunteer work with the American Red Cross for 15 years. She joined the organization in the November 2001 in the horrific aftermath of 9/11. She had recently retired from 30 years in a corporate environment, filled with accounting and financing.

When Johnson first joined, the Red Cross naturally asked her if — given her background — she was interested in finance or statistical work. She says she quickly told them no, adding that "I definitely wanted my retirement to be more about making a difference in people's lives than my previous work."

Johnson wanted to see the impact of her work directly — so working with Red Cross clients, doing casework, was a perfect fit. "I am constantly amazed by the resiliency of the clients I meet who have been affected by disasters — and I am so heartened that our efforts mean so much to them."

While listening to Johnson talk about her Red Cross life, one gets the feeling that the fit is indeed perfect. "I just get a chance to meet and help people who I would not otherwise ever know. It's a way of giving back, and that's really important to me."

When asked about the first moment she knew she was making an impact, Johnson reminisces about her first Disaster Action Team (DAT) call.

"It was in East Palo Alto in the middle of the night; when I and my fellow responders arrived, we found 17 people living in a single family home," she recalls. "They had no place to go, no money."

"That was when I got it. That was January of 2002, and I said 'Boy, this is what I really want to be doing. I can see the effect of the work we do at the Red Cross. That just made it for me."

Since then, Toy has seen Johnson have that kind of positive effect on a large number of clients. "Marilyn does a lot of things that are beyond the basics of the job," Toy says. "She doesn't overlook anything, and I think Marilyn's background in finance has something to do with her attention to detail."

To illustrate the point, Toy recalls a particular disaster in which Marilyn went the "extra mile" to help a female client. "Marilyn could sense that the woman, who was elderly, had some financial resources and was vulnerable to having someone take advantage of her," Toy says. "At first, Marilyn was having a hard time getting an agency to help protect the client. But she didn't stop working the case until she found help for the woman that made her situation more secure. That is beyond what Red Cross would normally do. But that's who Marilyn is."

When she herself is asked about the Clara Barton award, Johnson says she was both surprised and honored. "I know that's a very valued award, but I'm not one to seek recognition."

That's another important thing you need to know about Johnson. She does great work, but she doesn't care if you know about it. In fact, when the subject of helping with this story came up, she confessed to being "embarrassed by it all."

It's not that she isn't extremely grateful for the recognition, Johnson repeats. But what is really important to her, she says, is that she keep doing the things that are really important to her. And she makes it clear that helping others through her Red Cross service sits right near the top of that list.

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About the author: Anusikha Halder wrote this article while interning during the summer of 2016 for the American Red Cross of the Silicon Valley.