The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

March 30, 2014

Onward Christian soldier

Salvation Army staffer leads life of helping

By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer

SHARON — An icon in social service agency circles, Salvation Army caseworker Marta Nagel looks back on the 25 years she’s spent feeding and clothing the poor and intends to keep pushing forward to help others, even as she acknowledges that her plan and God’s plan for her life went in different directions on multiple occasions.

Born into middle-class comfort in West Middlesex, Nagel, 60, freely admits that she “tossed away her youth and blew off college” when she opted to move to Florida at age 18, living and working on yatchs, striving to get a captain’s license, back at a time “when women didn’t generally do that.”

“I never really struggled growing up. My dad, Bill Nagel, was a machinist and my mom, Lyda Nelson, worked at Garrick’s, which was a woman’s clothing store that sold fine clothes and furs. So I was a very well-dressed kid, and at the time, I could’ve cared less,” she said.

In high school, she planned to purse a degree in journalism, after an English teacher encouraged her to pursue her writing skills. “I had the potential for a full scholarship. My parents would have also been willing to pay for it, but one day I just decided I didn’t want that. Florida called,” she said.

While the programs at the Salvation Army in Sharon are what she dedicates her life to these days, she said she had no idea what the Salvation Army church was all about when it turned out she desperately needed help.

“I married a shrimper, and after six years of his alcoholism and two children later, he decided he didn’t want a family. And we never saw him again,” he said.

“They say most women are one man away from welfare. That’s a quote from Gloria Steinem, but sadly it’s a common story,” she said.

Nagel was forced to move back home with her parents but with no way to support her children. She said she needed a medical assistance card but couldn’t live with her parents and get the card. Meanwhile, her dad had recently lost his job and wasn’t able to help as much as he wanted.

She and her children moved into public housing in Sharpsville, where she said she was an agnostic. “But I started arguing with a friend about a Bible passage and I began reading the Bible, sometimes for 8 to 10 hours a day. I couldn’t put it down. I’d sit there with my coffee and my cigarettes and read and read,” she said.

“People probably thought I’d lost my mind. I had scriptures written on the wall. That’s when I realized I had played away my youth, scuba-diving, I married badly and I had no means of support. That’s when I decided I wanted to go to college. But I had no idea how,” she said.

“I didn’t even understand the words they were using on the application,” she said. “I’d been out of the work force, and my companions had been (Phil) Donahue on television and kids. I didn’t know anything,” she said.

She called her father, who gave her a signed, blank check for the class tuition and told her “Marta, I believe in you. I know that by the time you finish that first class, you’ll know how college works,” she said.

Nagel gets emotional when she thinks about what that faith meant. “And isn’t that what we’re supposed to do to help one another? I know sitting at this desk, I tell women who come in for help that I believe in them. If they want that hand up, I know I can help move them from that side of the desk to this side of the desk,” she said.

“It’s why I could get off welfare. I knew another life. I knew education made the difference,” she said.

She doesn’t like to talk about the help she received from the Salvation Army during those years when her children were small, she said, not because she doesn’t appreciate it, but because she doesn’t want to embarrass her children.

Nagel’s daughter, Alex, who followed in her mother’s footsteps in social service work, said she had no idea the family was struggling. “We never knew. We didn’t realize we lived in the projects. Mom made it good for us,” she said.

Eventually Nagel earned a liberal arts degree from Penn State. Her father died a month before she graduated.

Nagel continued to volunteer at the Salvation Army for four years.

Once a caseworker position opened up, Nagel was already trained. “I moved right in,” she said.

And once in that role, Nagel said she thought the way to go was to serve on all the boards of directors she could. “I was going to change the world. That was my goal. The whole world,” she said.

“Politics. That was what I was going for. I was going to change programs through politics,” Nagel said.

“But that wasn’t meant to be. Some people didn’t want me on those boards. So even though I was sure, God seemed to have a different plan,” she said.

She remarried an outgoing evangelical, a man who adopted her two children and who she said “was wonderful” in every way. “And it was then I realized that being a mover and shaker in the community wasn’t the way to go. It was to be quieter, still sitting at this desk everyday, helping people with a food crisis, housing problems or whatever else they need.”

She works the senior center programs, often cooking the food herself. She helps families who can’t pay their electric bills and people who don’t have a warm coat to wear or toys for their children at Christmas.

She evaluates each person’s situation, bending the rules if necessary to work things out.

Within the last two years, she’s buried her husband, her brother and her mother. “I thought I couldn’t keep going, but I do. I focus on the one good thing and remind myself of a Bible verse to ‘act justly, love mercifully and walk humbly.’ ”

She doesn’t speak of successes in concrete numbers. “I do what I can. For everyone I can. I have to make some hard decisions sometimes.”

But she tells of one encounter that sums up her quarter-century of helping others.

“It was just after my husband died. I was standing in the parking lot at Hermitage Elementary School, waiting to pick up our granddaughter. Everyone was sort of giving me a wide berth because no one knew what to say. This woman came up to me and said she was sorry for my loss.

“ ‘Did you know my husband?’ I asked her, and she said, ‘No. I know you.’ ”

“She told me that she sat across from me many years ago and I showed her the picture of my kids and told her it was possible for her to turn things around. She said I opened doors for her and helped her with opportunities and today, she’s the child psychologist at the school district,” Nagel said.

“That’s the one. My one. We really have no idea when we do our best, doing what might be a routine day for us, we have no idea how that might impact someone. How many lives can we change by just doing our best?”