Chester County Leadership: Christina Wagoner, Surrey Services for Seniors
VISTA Today spoke with Christina Wagoner, the Senior Director of Finance and Human Resources at Devon-based Surrey Services for Seniors, about growing up in the shadow of pioneering parents who taught her the value of service and hard work, being the president of her middle school’s Bobby Sherman fan club, and how she settled on a career in accounting.
Wagoner describes being hired by Joe Tankle, then president of the Upper Main Line YMCA, and then by Bob Madonna, CEO of Surrey, when the YMCA position ended 24 years later, and her passion for connecting people, eating lunch with Surrey members, her family, golf, and strutting down Broad Street every New Year’s Day.
Where were you born and where did you grow up, Christina?
I was born the youngest of two children and grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Michael and Katherine Loupos.
What did your parents do for a living?
My dad is somewhat of a renaissance man. He was the son of immigrants, and he did not speak English when he first went to school in the United States. He was the first in his family to graduate college, and he went on to get a master’s degree.
My dad was a school teacher before becoming a principal and then superintendent of the school district. He was also President of City Council, and at one point, was acting Mayor of Bethlehem.
My dad was very motivated coming to this country as an immigrant and worked very hard. My grandfather owned a restaurant, and my dad grew up working in that restaurant.
What about your mother?
My mom started as a secretary at Bethlehem Steel and worked her way up to running the personnel department at Bethlehem Steel & the PBNE Railroad in the 1950s. She did not go to college, but she was a pioneer career woman. She had a good balance between career and family.
What skills did your parents teach you?
My father taught me the word “service.” He was very civic minded, so the traits that I inherited from my father are all service based and focused on helping other people.
My mother, on the other hand, taught me that you need to work hard to get ahead, but always remember that you have a family to take care of as well. It’s all about balance.
I didn’t realize what kind of impact my father had on people until he passed away. I always saw my dad helping people throughout his career, whether it was the children in the schools or the people he served as mayor, but it wasn’t until I saw a thousand people attend his funeral that I knew the impact he had on others. My father lived his whole life helping people. My brother recently told me that he mortgaged our house at one point to build a new church for the community.
What memories do you have of growing up in Bethlehem?
I grew up in a Greek family. It was loud, big, and we ate a lot. We visited our cousins quite a bit. I took art lessons played soccer and tennis. I took ballet lessons from 4 until I was 17 years old. I dreamed of being a ballet dancer. That didn’t work out!
In middle school, I was a majorette, and in high school, I was a member of the cheerleading squad.
Did you have a favorite sport?
I played tennis in high school and I was pretty good. We went to the state finals. I started to play golf when my son was in high school. It was a sport that he and I could play together. I play a great deal of golf with my girl pals at the Phoenixville Country Club.
What was your first job?
I was 15 when I started working at a local playground over the summer. I was a city park counselor who did arts and crafts, sports, & games with the kids. Larry Holmes, the professional boxer, came out to talk to the kids one afternoon. My dad always wanted us to work. Unfortunately, my brother worked on the railroad. A very grueling summer job. I worked in a restaurant and a candy shop and I always say if you can work in a restaurant, you can work anywhere.
What lessons did you take away from those jobs that stay with you today?
When you work with people, you need to be customer-service oriented. You need to deliver the best service you can no matter what field you work in. No matter where I worked, I wanted to provide the best service I could. You must go beyond great.
What kind of music were you listening to?
Elvis Costello, Queen, and Genesis were my favorite. I was the President of the Bobby Sherman fan club in middle school. I had a big poster of Bobby Sherman above my bed.
Did you have a favorite Sherman song?
Julie, Do Ya Love Me was my favorite.
Were you a good student, Christina?
Not really – just an okay student. I balanced school and social life. I graduated from Arcadia University with an Accounting degree, and I worked for my accounting professor for most of my time I was in school to make some extra money. It was a good experience.
Who gave you your big breaks?
The accounting professor really helped me. He saw the drive that I had that I was very detail-oriented. He once told me that I was atypical of most accountants because I have such a big personality.
When I look throughout my career and my different jobs, what gave me the opportunity to excel was having other skills such as networking, development and fundraising, which propelled me throughout my career.
My tennis coach and my ballet instructor also saw that drive. When I had a goal, I achieved it.
My next big break came when I was a Controller for an Exton property management company, I saw a job posting for a CFO at the Upper Main Line YMCA in 1992.
Joe Tankle, at the time, CEO of the Upper Main Line YMCA and several board members interviewed me. Before I got back to my office, I received a call offering me the job. My children were young, and I saw this as a great opportunity. I loved that job!
I continue to run into YMCA Board members who interviewed me, and they tell me I was their best hire. Joe Tankle gave me so many opportunities. I was hired to do the YMCA accounting, but he let me branch out into raising money, business development and hosting golf tournaments. I served as a trainer & Faculty for the YMCA of the USA and assisted in writing fiscal management modules for the national YMCA. He gave me so many opportunities, and never limited me.
What I thank Joe for more than anything, is giving me the opportunity to network with professionals in Chester County. I pride myself on being a people connector. I love connecting people in a way that I know will greatly benefit both parties. I am a big fan of blending my friend groups.
One of my talents, which goes back to working in the restaurant years ago, is that I’m not afraid to do the heavy lifting. I’ll help stuff envelopes for a large mailing or work in the kitchen at work. I’ve gone door to door with candidates during election time. A few years ago, the G Lodge diner was short staffed, so I would go in at 5 AM and help serve breakfast before going to work. If someone needs help, I’m going to help get it done.
After 24 years at the YMCA, I started over in a new job at Surrey Services for Seniors. Bob Madonna, from the time I met him in Panera until today, I knew he would be an incredible boss and that the Surrey job was a perfect fit for me. I would be able to use my same skills – accounting, fundraising and helping people. Having both Joe Tankle and now Bob Madonna as my boss has been incredible.
The thing I love most about Surrey is interacting with the seniors, on a daily basis. My favorite part of the day is going downstairs for lunch and hearing their life lessons and stories. I hear the most unbelievable stories every day. What better way to spend the few years before my retirement learning from these people every day.
Looking forward, Christina, what are the opportunities and challenges before you heading into the end of the year?
Surrey Services is a non-profit, which relies on donations, and grants. Like any other non-profit, we have to continue each day to look for those in the community who want to support our mission. We just lost funding from United Way, which will affect the work we do here and will need to find that additional funds elsewhere.
As we look to the future and our strategic plan, we are focused on future sustainability and financial resources to provide care & services to our members. We have to stay focused on fundraising and operating a successful home care business. We have 6,600 seniors who rely on us every day.
What does Surrey Services do?
Surrey helps seniors live independently by providing various services to them. For just a few dollars a day, they can come have a healthy meal, socialize with friends, take classes, and be a part of a caring community.
Surrey started in Jeanne LaRouche’s attic primarily to escort senior citizens to medical appointments, grocery store or the hairdresser. We still provide transportation to doctor’s appointments, stores, and hair appointments, but our footprint has expanded to four centers in Chester & Delaware counties and countless senior programs.
In addition to our daily lunches, Surrey provides educational opportunities such as current events class, classical music, and fitness classes.
Doesn’t Surrey also provides home care services?
We offer a full range of in home care services including; cleaning, personal companions, and RN care management services to seniors who want to remain in their home. Our home care services allows seniors to stay independent and gives them and their family, peace of mind. Surrey caregivers, give seniors the opportunity to have a good quality of life.
What challenges and opportunities are you working on personally?
I am focused on making healthy choices. I walked into Orange Theory Fitness studio a little less than two years ago, met Coach Ovi, who took me under his wing, and I began to improve both my mind and body. I attend five classes a week, and I just recently completed my 400th class. I’ve met some really wonderful friends there, and it’s something I can do with my daughter. I’m going on a trip to Italy with some friends from OT in November.
I recently became a grandmother. My grandson, Joseph James Wagoner, turned one on October 3rd. My parents taught me that family was the most important thing and I love spending time with mine.
I have two incredibly successful children. My daughter Laura is only 28, and she’s accomplished so much educationally and professionally. We have taken trips to Greece together to visit our roots, which has been so fun. It’s nice to travel with her because we never really have a plan, we just kind of go and see what happens. It works.
My son served time in the Navy, after graduating from US Merchant Marine Academy and now he has a very successful career working for the Government in New Bern, North Carolina. He’s gone from working on aircraft carriers to helicopters. He’s married to a beautiful woman. They are great parents, and I hope he carries on my dad’s values.
I do a lot of volunteer work for various Chester County organizations. Recently, I started volunteering with Freedom’s Foundation/Medal of Honor Grove in Valley Forge. They are a great group of people. I serve as the Membership Chair at Phoenixville Country Club, volunteer for Chester County March of Dimes, and participate on advisory Board of M&T Bank.
I’m a huge Eagles fan. I’ve been going to the games for more than two decades. I refer to myself as a professional tailgater. A few years ago, I joined my friend’s Mummer’s brigade – B Love Strutters part of Murray Comics. Bud Emig, our captain, year after year creates amazing themes.
Finally, Christina, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My father used to say, “Christina, your greatness isn’t what you have, it’s what you give to others.”
I also live by “apply and achieve – if you put your mind to it, you can do it.” Coach Keith Green at Orange Theory says that, and it’s really helped me with my fitness journey over the last two years.
I recently attended the 100th birthday party of one of our Surrey members, and Clara told me that the key to living is to eat three meals a day and be kind to others. I think she has it right. All good!
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