On Dec. 26, 2019, Sister Mary Sevilla had been an American Red Cross volunteer for only a short time when she was deployed to Los Angeles International Airport to meet a returning plane. Along with two other disaster mental health volunteers, Mary was rushed to meet the plane parked aside the landing tarmac; her mission was to comfort the family of a 10-year girl who passed away mysteriously mid-flight.
Mary became a nun when she turned 18 then worked as a schoolteacher and eventually a principle for many years. Interested in a change of pace, Mary earned her master’s degree and license in mental health therapy and opened a family practice. It wasn’t too long, however, before the Ministry came calling — Mary was called into leadership, closed her practice and joined the governance of sisters’ ministries.
One of Mary’s colleagues was a Red Cross volunteer and would tell Mary on occasion, “I am deploying tomorrow to a disaster.” Intrigued, Mary turned to the Organization’s website and the first information to meet Mary’s eyes were the seven fundamental principles of the Red Cross: Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, volunteerism, unity and universality. These values were all she needed to make her decision to join. The belief that anyone who needed help was eligible, no matter their age, sex or color met and mirrored Mary’s own values.
Given her background in emotional therapy, Mary became a Disaster Mental Health volunteer, pleased to lend her expertise without having to take copious client notes and fuss with insurance companies. Mary also took the training required to support disaster responses as a Spiritual Care volunteer.
“I love helping people stabilize when they’ve been through trauma” Mary shared, “People can suddenly find themselves in a shelter in the middle of the night, it’s a big shock. I like to walk around the shelter and get people to talk, share their stories. This is the best way for me to learn what emotional support people need and understand how I can best help.”
In addition to lending her ear and shoulder, Mary provides people tools and techniques to manage their stress and anxiety, like deep breathing exercises and suggestions for proper eating and sleeping. The most important thing Mary finds is to validate peoples’ experiences and assure them whatever they’re feeling following a traumatic event is normal.
Mary’s most moving experience as a volunteer was the little girl on the plane who struggled to breathe before passing away, and possibly one of the earlier COVID-19 tragedies. When Mary boarded the plane, the child was laying atop floatation jackets on the galley floor with the mother squatting beside her. Mary placed her hand on the mother’s shoulder, introduced herself, offered heartfelt condolences then assured the mother she was there to support her and her family.
While waiting two hours for the coroner to arrive, or the “inspector” as Mary used in the parents’ presence, Mary spent the time asking the family questions about their child using only the present tense – asking about the girl’s age, about her school grade and activities, her hobbies and all there was to learn. Mary also lent comfort to the flight attendants who tried to save the child and were equally in a state of shock.
When the coroner arrived, Mary had to guide the parents to separate from their daughter, encouraging them to give her hugs and say their parting words.
“As a Sister, I have spent my life in service, helping people cope in difficult and tragic times. I enjoy learning about other people and know they are grateful when they get the emotional support they need.”