By Barbara Gaynes, American Red Cross in Greater NY
What would make a 54-year-old mother with no military background want to trade her Queens, N.Y., home for several months on a U.S. base overseas?
For Red Crosser Lallita Maharaj, it’s “an opportunity to focus on what I love, which is to serve,” she said.
Since March, Maharaj has been supporting U.S. service members stationed in Eastern Europe. In addition to serving as a morale ambassador, she facilitates emergency communication between U.S. service members and their families as part of the Red Cross Hero Care Network. She recently helped a young soldier who received a message about her ailing father.
“This soldier didn't know that her father had taken a turn for the worse and the life expectancy was not good,” Maharaj said. “We were able to deliver that message and ensure she got on the next flight home to say goodbye to her father before he passed away. She was grateful to the Red Cross for making the process easy for her.”
The work at the base is similar to what Maharaj, a trained social worker and crisis counselor, does back home in her role as a Senior Regional Program Specialist in the Service to Armed Forces division of the Red Cross. She supports soldiers from the New York area who are stationed at bases across the U.S. and around the world.
“A lot of what I do is casework,” she said, “assisting the veterans and active duty soldiers and their families with whatever their needs are.”
On the base where she is stationed, Maharaj helps make the Red Cross office a “haven for the soldiers,” she said. They can come in to grab a snack or some comfort items or maybe join one of her "Tea and Talk with Lallita" sessions to share how they’re feeling.
After one recent Tea Talk, a 20-year-old soldier thanked Maharaj for the chance to “get some stuff off his chest,” knowing that someone was there to listen and give him a hug.
“My interactions with soldiers are meaningful moments,” she said. “I feel blessed to support troops in this capacity.”
Though the deployment isn’t easy — Maharaj works 12-hour days and lives in Spartan quarters — it does have its perks. Last month she met First Lady Jill Biden, who visited the base during a trip to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
Mainly, Maharaj is happy to be making a difference in the lives of those who serve our country. She also knows that her deployment will mean a bit of personal growth.
“I look forward to my journey as an individual and being this stronger, more confident person, and a better leader when I come back,” she said.
This is Maharaj’s first international deployment, but she deployed numerous times domestically in support of natural disasters, including to Baton Rouge, La., after Hurricane Barry.
“Once I started deploying, it took my self-discovery to a whole different level,” she said. “It took me out of my little box to see how much need there was outside my own little scope.”
Before traveling to Europe, Maharaj went through two weeks of highly-specialized training that helped prepare her for her role. She’s also been able to tap into the multitasking skills she developed while raising triplets – two girls and a boy – who are now 23.
Maharaj’s kids have always been very supportive of her Red Cross work. Her son, Brandon Andrews, said he was excited when he first heard about his mother’s deployment to the base.
“There’s a little bit of worry there just because she will be apart from us for so long,” he said. “But she is going to help out other people. She has mentioned to me that this is a very life-changing experience for her.”
Maharaj views the deployment as taking her to “another level” in her service career. She was first inspired to join the Red Cross after seeing images of volunteers aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but waited to sign on until her children were grown.
“The more I did, the more I wanted to do for the Red Cross,” she said. “I loved the mission. I supported the mission. It just sort of aligned with who I am as a person, as a humanitarian.”
Now she’s grateful for the chance to focus exclusively on serving others at the military base. She looks forward to learning from the experience and doing even better work than she’s done before.
“I’m excited about the me that I will see after this journey,” she said.