April 6-12 is National Volunteer Week. This special week is another opportunity to recognize the extraordinary service and dedication of the nearly 400,000 volunteers who support the American Red Cross. This week on our blog, we will feature stories of the amazing work being done by Red Cross volunteers here in West Michigan.
Story by Jon Breems
Sometimes the life-changing work of the American Red Cross can be as simple as a plane ticket. Leonard Garyson, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a 19-year-old U.S. Army service member stationed in Mannheim, Germany, when he found out his uncle had passed away.
It was 1972 and Leonard had been in the military for less than a year, sent to Germany to transport supplies for the Army. His monthly stipend wasn’t enough to cover a ticket home and no one could lend him the money—that’s when the American Red Cross stepped in to help. They paid for Garyson’s ticket home to be with his family.
“It’s not easy to get home when you’re 1,800 miles away from home, and you’re 19 years old,” said Garyson. “Without the Red Cross, I know I wouldn’t have come home.”
Leonard’s uncle held a special place in his life, and he knew he had to attend the funeral.
“My uncle was like a dad to me,” he added. “That would have been a big part of my life missing if I hadn’t come home.”
The plane ticket was Leonard’s only interaction with the Red Cross during his time in the military, but the gesture’s value did not wane over the years. He decided then, in 1972, that when he had spare time, it would be given to the American Red Cross.
More than 30 years later, in 2004, Leonard began volunteering at the Red Cross of Greater Grand Rapids.
“Joining the Red Cross—I was just grateful to give back,” he said.
Today, Leonard is a familiar face at the Greater Grand Rapids chapter and serves as the Disaster Services Program Administrator for Kent, Barry, Montcalm and Ionia Counties. He says one of his favorite parts about volunteering with the Red Cross is that anyone can do it.
“Some organizations require you to be a specialist to volunteer, whereas with the Red Cross you can be an everyday individual.”
Garyson certainly knows how the “everyday” can sometimes be special. It was a seemingly everyday plane ticket paid for by the Red Cross 32 years ago that he’ll always remember.
“I couldn’t pay that back. It was priceless to me… I still carry that with me today.”
To learn about Red Cross volunteer opportunities in your area, visit redcross.org or call 1-800-RED-CROSS.