By Xavia Malcolm
Marielos “Mary” Cueva of the Bronx was living with her family in Honduras when she first encountered the Red Cross during the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The hurricane destroyed much of Central America and caused over 11,000 fatalities among widespread devastation throughout the region. Volunteers sent relief items and partnered with other organizations to run shelters.
“They helped my family and others when we needed it the most. We were so grateful,” Mary said.
Two decades later, Mary decided to join the American Red Cross as a volunteer. It was 2020 and there were many uncertainties due to the novelty of COVID-19 pandemic. According to Mary, joining the American Red Cross was the best choice because the organization allowed her to connect with people and help them during a time when social distancing and other pandemic safety measures were in place.
“I was on a quest to find a virtual volunteer experience, and the Red Cross offered the perfect opportunity. Although I was not able to help people in person at that time, I feel proud to have carried out the organization’s mission virtually,” she said.
Mary soon deployed for the first time as a volunteer with the distribution of emergency supplies team to help respond to Hurricane Ida in Queens, New York in September 2021. “The smell of wetness, seeing the flooding, and people cleaning up the damage from their homes brought back a lot of memories,” Mary reflected.
Her childhood experience of Hurricane Mitch remains etched in Mary’s memories but her takeaway from the experience was understanding how impactful the compassion of a volunteer can be. “It felt good to be on the other side, as a volunteer. I now get to do for others what the Red Cross did for me,” she says. “Hurricane Ida happened, and I helped out by distributing supplies in Queens. I had to take a step back because the moment felt full circle for me. It was very emotional.”
Since her first assignment, Mary has helped many people and supported other volunteers with their missions locally and in other Red Cross Regions. In 2022, she deployed to Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Fiona, when she had a chance encounter with residents of a small community.
“We were driving around the Island in an Emergency Response Vehicle and got lost. Our team drove into a community and the residents were so happy to see us because they needed drinking water. We gave them all the water we had. It was a small gesture, but it made a difference. Getting lost gave us an opportunity to meet and help some really nice people,” she said. “These are the unique experiences you get to have as a Red Cross volunteer.”
Overall, being a Red Cross volunteer has been a rewarding experience for Mary. Aside from help during disasters, Mary enjoys educating communities about fire safety. She takes pride in the incredible work that the Red Cross does in teaching lifesaving skills, and helping residents install free smoke alarms.
“There are many bylines of service that the organization encourages you to explore. They support you no matter what you decide to do,” she said. “I always tell people to do as much as they can as a volunteer because no matter how much or how little you do, you will be touching lives in a major way.”