A Lifetime of Service: Celia Vollmer
The first home fire that Celia Vollmer--a longtime employee of Brentwood Public Library on Long Island--responded to as a volunteer with the American Red Cross, was in fact at the home of one of her colleagues.
Vollmer recounts standing alongside her fellow library team member as he helped calm his distraught mother. “Celia's here,” he said. “It's OK. It's going to be OK.”
Vollmer, a lifelong resident of Brentwood, N.Y., has dedicated most of her life to serving and helping others. She is a pillar of her community, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to empowering those around her through everything she does: working at the Brentwood Public Library, volunteering with the Red Cross, and so much more.
“My mother always emphasized to me--I’m one of five children--that you might not have the money to donate to an organization, but you always had time,” said Vollmer. “That time was more important, giving back directly to the community.
For the last 25 years, Celia has brought this volunteer spirit to her job at the library, an invaluable resource hub and community center for families across Brentwood, N.Y., a town of more than 62,000 in Suffolk County. In addition to library services, the establishment also provides information, education, and language skills, for kids and adults alike.
And with 89% of students in the Brentwood School District--that the library also serves-- considered economically disadvantaged, Vollmer’s work providing free resources and programming to tens of thousands of Brentwood children and their families is all the more important.
Learn more about Celia's lifetime of service here.
Mary Cueva - American Red Cross Volunteer Screener
“Three Questions” with Red Cross Volunteer Mary Cueva
by Kenna Beban, American Red Cross in Greater NY
Mary Cueva has been an American Red Cross team member since February 2020 when she decided to use her customer service experience to serve as a volunteer screener. In this role, she interviews prospective volunteers to find Red Cross positions for them that match their interests and skills. Up until September of 2021, most of her work was done remotely; but after Hurricane Ida, she accompanied Red Cross teams distributing cleanup supplies in NYC communities affected by the devastating flooding. Originally from Honduras, Cuevas moved to New York City 2002.
When in your life were you first introduced to the Red Cross?
In Honduras, we have a lot of hurricanes. The one that really left its mark, in my experience, was Hurricane Mitch in 1998. And we had the Honduran Red Cross helping there and I was exposed to their help. As a kid I remember watching how they were cleaning up, and how they had the Red Cross flag. They also brought me food. It was just great.
How did it feel doing fieldwork for the first time, after Ida?
It made it feel real. I saw a lot of houses destroyed, they [the residents] always wanted to tell you what happened to them, how the basement was just gone, how everything got destroyed. It also made it feel like every little bit of work we do as volunteers helps. Because even handing out a cleaning kit meant a lot.
A lot [of the people we helped] were relieved, they said, ‘oh my god, thank you for coming!’ The Red Cross is a worldwide organization. Everybody knows that symbol. So, when people see that, they know that someone is coming to help. It was amazing to see people understand that we are trying to assist them. Help is all we want to give.
There were these two girls I met who couldn’t live in their home anymore. As soon as they opened their door to their basement [apartment], the smell inside brought me back to my home in Honduras, when I had to live through Hurricane Mitch. I was like, oh, my heart! Nothing like the sense of smell to bring the memories back to you. But it’s great to now understand that I am part of the help. Even though I struggle myself, there are people that are in a worse position. Might as well help, right?
Can you talk about the diversity of the Red Cross here, specifically as it relates to language skills?
It’s very important to have people who speak different languages in our volunteer roles. When distributing supplies after Ida, one of my favorite things that we did was when we parked the ERV [Emergency Response Vehicle] announced our services [over the loudspeaker] in four languages. The driver made the announcement in English and Mandarin, I said it in Spanish. And there was someone who said it in Hindi..The ability to speak four languages in that van made a lot more people come out, because now you’re relating to people in their own languages.
This is very important. Especially for immigrant families, who may be afraid to ask for help. So, when they hear the announcement in their own language, they feel more comfortable relating. It’s just great to have that connection. Even though you don't know them, it makes them not be afraid to ask for help, to share with you their experience, and to tell you other things that they need.
Finding His Calling - Mauricio Serrato
Mauricio Serrato says that the lessons he learned as an active Marine from 1996 – 2000 have helped him perform as a Disaster Program Manager at the American Red Cross in Greater New York.
“The military taught me to adapt to any situation,” Mauricio says. “With coronavirus, we needed to stop and rethink our operations.”
Without missing a beat, Mauricio and his team found ways to reduce contact with people while still delivering the support they needed. From virtual volunteer assignments to gloved hand-offs of supplies and vouchers for people who lost their homes to fire, Mauricio kept the response wheels turning.
“It was definitely like the military, where you had to stop, analyze the situation and create different ways of responding,” he says.
For Mauricio, learning, adapting and responding are part of what makes his work for the Red Cross so rewarding. After his military service, he worked in a number of different jobs, from retail to youth development. He then landed a job at the Red Cross in their facilities department. Then, during the 2003 blackout in New York City, he saw Red Cross workers hustling to respond to the crisis. He decided to volunteer on the Disaster Action Team and the rest, as they say, is history.
On his first shift, he helped four families caught in a three-alarm fire in Corona, Queens.
“I still remember them,” says Mauricio, who became a full-time Disaster Action Team responder three months later and has been on site at disasters, from hurricanes in Louisiana to wildfires in California. “I found my calling.”
Dr. Joseph Prewitt Diaz - Hurricanes to COVID-19, A Lifetime of Red Cross Service Around the World
Dr. Joseph Prewitt Diaz is a pioneer in the field of disaster mental health with decades of international and domestic field experience following disasters. In his time with the American Red Cross he has supported 52 domestic deployments across the US. Internationally, he has worked in 29 different countries with the organization.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Dr. Prewitt Diaz is a highly-accredited educational psychologist with degrees from the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Connecticut, and the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.
Listen to his story on season 2 of our podcast.
Vanessa Diez - Stepping Up to Volunteer in the Middle of COVID-19
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an outpouring of interest from residents seeking out new ways to give back to their communities. Vanessa Diez, from Yonkers, N.Y., is a full time student pursuing her master’s in public administration/emergency management and a full time social worker, helping immigrant youth in NYC.
She is a remarkable young woman who, despite a busy schedule, made it a priority to serve through the American Red Cross as a volunteer. She recently joined the Red Cross and just graduated from our Disaster Action Team Academy, a specialized training program for our volunteer leaders. In this conversation, she talked about her passion for helping others and her work with the Red Cross providing assistance to individuals affected by local emergencies during the pandemic.
Listen to her story on season 2 of our podcast.
Neale Sanchez - Uses his experience in healthcare to provide support and assistance to individuals affected by disasters
"Three Questions" with Neale Sanchez
by Xavia Malcolm, American Red Cross in Greater NY
American Red Cross Health Services volunteer Neale Sanchez takes great pride in helping others. This is one of the reasons he decided to become a nurse. Today, although he is semi-retired, Neale continues to utilize his experience in healthcare to provide support and assistance to individuals affected by disasters. Neale is known by many for his ability to adapt in stressful situations, roll up his sleeves and serve in multiple roles.
Why did you pursue a career in nursing?
I survived a life-changing car accident. Having been hospitalized for almost seven months and undergoing eight surgeries, I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of the kindness of nurses. This was an inspiration. I actually wish I became a nurse sooner in life.
When did you join the Red Cross, and how has becoming a volunteer impacted your life?
I joined the Red Cross the summer of 2019 . So far, I have done many DHS [Disaster Health Services] local responses for fire, several virtual responses for DAT [Disaster Action Team] and Disability Integration. Before the peak of the COVID pandemic I deployed to Tennessee in response to the tornadoes that wreaked havoc in the lives of many people. I was there for three weeks, and it was the most amazing experience I have ever had. I was a little nervous at first but when I met my supervisor who trained me in multiple positions, I became more confident. What has been the most impactful is being able to work with families and providing resources to help them during disasters. There are always moments that stick with you. I remember during a response bringing a CAC card [Red Cross financial assistance on a debit card] to a woman who was really in need; she was so appreciative that she started crying the moment we arrived. Her gratitude just really solidified my commitment to the Red Cross.
The pandemic has changed the lives of many, and presented many challenges, what has it been like for you?
It has been very challenging for multiple reasons. It’s been difficult not being able to deploy. However, I‘ve had the opportunity to work with the national Red Cross and help manage agency nurses. I also got to meet Red Crossers virtually from almost every state, and I have met many DHS leaders. Virtual responses sometimes can be heartbreaking because you can’t physically comfort clients but I am able to assist them immediately with RC Care [Red Cross tracking and assistance software]. This has proven to be very efficient. I know how difficult this has all been, especially when faced with a disaster. But if there was something that I could tell clients is that they are in the arms of the Red Cross. We are here to help them with all their disaster-related needs, and we will do all that we can to get them back on the road to recovery.
Ignacio Mantilla - Supporting Wildfire Relief
A few months after joining the American Red Cross, Manhattan resident Ignacio Mantilla has already traveled to Oregon twice to support wildfire relief. Speaking about his work there, far from home, he said:
“I think every day I get reminded of the difference that we make. But there was this particular moment the very first few days that I got here. [At a relief center] my manager and I were talking about our work, and this lady walked up to our desk, and I introduced myself. And I asked her, “What can I do? How can we help you?” She was distressed. She was tired. And it seemed like she was holding on to the last real hope that she had. So we spoke with her, we took our time to calm her down. We gave her some water. And at that moment when she started telling us what she's been going through, there was that connection. By the time we got her into a hotel room, she was a completely different person and she was so thankful. I’m never going to forget that. She was going through a really hard time and that support was very meaningful to her. It definitely meant a lot to me that we managed to put a smile on her face. And I'm never gonna forget that experience.”
Maria Anguiano - Disaster Action Team Responder
“Three Questions” with Red Cross Volunteer Maria Anguiano
by Yixuan (Shirley) Luo, American Red Cross in Greater New York
Maria Anguiano is a Red Cross volunteer from Queens, N.Y. who has been a very active member of our disaster response team. She originally joined us as a member of MIRA USA, a non-profit organization that promotes the social integration of immigrants in the United States. Since the pandemic, she began supporting our different COVID-19 missions including the NYC Healthcare Heroes initiative. When she is not volunteering with the Red Cross, Maria works as a DJ and an event planner. Maria was born in Puebla, Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was eight.
How do you approach your volunteer work as a DAT (disaster action team) responder, helping families recover from fires?
It is an unfortunate situation to see someone who has just lost everything to a fire or learn of a loss of life. Seeing these families in such a situation is difficult. It is even harder to see little kids around. Especially in the wintertime, it is heartbreaking to see that they have nothing, and they are shivering and shaking. Most of them do not know that we, the Red Cross, respond to home fires. When seeing the little kids’ innocent faces…and happiness receiving our Oreos, stuffed animals or other assistance, I feel I am making a difference. More importantly, I realized how beautiful the Red Cross mission is and what the Red Cross is doing — to step up to help those in need.
On top of that, it was also very impactful for me to understand that language is often the biggest barrier in the disaster response. Coming from the Hispanic community, I am able to make Spanish-speaking people feel more comfortable at the scene. I realized that I am able to help the Red Cross to better connect with the Latino community.
How has your Red Cross volunteer work changed since the COVID-19 crisis started?
I am blessed to be part of the whole COVID mission. I have been to the hospitals as much as I can, to hand out supplies to healthcare workers. I am out at the field almost every day, and sometimes, I even do two shifts per day. Sometimes I do JASA [food distribution to elderly NYers] as well, delivering frozen meals to 1200 apartments of the senior housing complex in Far Rockaway. I also helped with The Salvation Army, picking up and delivering pizzas for vulnerable families. Two weeks ago, I was able to help the community of Hempstead where I go to church. We picked up meals and boxes and delivered them to different homes.
How does it feel to be giving back during coronavirus?
Unfortunately, at the same time, my parents were in the hospital because of COVID, and my dad was in a coma, I had to take care of them prior, during, and after the hospital. That period was tough for me, but I am relieved that they are okay now. It was emotional when I saw the hospital workers who helped my parents and I thought I had to give back to them. I was tearing and I genuinely appreciated their efforts. Between their shifts, you can feel that they are tired, drained and they have no energy but are saying “thank you” to us. “No, thank you! Don’t worry, we got a lot of goodies for you,” I said. I am truly grateful for being able to give back to the healthcare workers and being part of the Red Cross mission.
Ashley Barrueco - Disaster Response
“The first day [of disaster response] I had two vacates and I automatically fell in love. I knew I wanted to do this. Especially since you see a smile on people’s faces, it warms your heart just to be able to do some kind of good where families are breaking down because they just lost everything.”
Edras Hidalgo - Mass Care & Disaster Action Team
“When I was about 10 years old, back in El Salvador, we got hit by the civil war, and we got a bunch of refugees from our own people. My dad was a leader of the church, so he went to the place that took in all the refugees. Since that experience, my heart and my hands were always open for the people who’d really need it. And the Red Cross values of compassion connects strongly with my core values and what my family taught me to do too. My kids are learning there is this other way to live, to be open to help other people without expecting anything in return because you do it with your heart. Sometimes they say, ‘Dad, you’re tired, you came from work, and now you’re going to that fire in the middle of the night?’ And I say, yes. Life is not about us and not about profit. When you help and you serve, something inside you is satisfied and rewarded. That is the most important thing because happiness is before all else.”
Carlos Menendez - Disaster Assessment lead for Metro-NY North in Westchester County
"One of the hardest days when I was at the Harlem Service Center for mostly survivors of Hurricane Maria from Puerto Rico, I think was when I spoke to this one gentleman. And I’m saying hard, because it was hard for me to accept. This gentleman was sleeping in his car for three weeks in the cold, and somebody finally told him go to the Red Cross. In Puerto Rico, he had applied for FEMA and they gave him a number, but he was not aware that FEMA was giving them Temporary Shelter Assistance. So he came to New York with nothing, sleeping in a friend’s car because he had no belongings. And it was hard knowing that he could’ve gotten shelter and meanwhile, he was sleeping in a car for three weeks. He had family, but they didn’t have room for him. I was able to get him a hotel...I think that was one of the hardest things. But to me that gave me even more incentive to get people housed and get people the services they needed. And while I was at the service center, I was able to house close to 40-50 families."
Miguel Moreno - It feels good to volunteer
"Volunteering with the Red Cross has changed me in a lot of ways. I think more of my community, my neighbors and my friends now than I ever did before. It has changed me and I feel good when I help others. I once said to someone 'it comes from the heart and the heart is what I give'.”
Hector Pereira - You can make a difference
“The only way you can make a difference is by getting involved. Once you get involved, you create some amount of change. Also, you are kind of a role model to others. They see the things you’re doing.”
Nancy Soto - The most rewarding feeling
“I became a Red Cross volunteer because I wanted to do something constructive for my community and have the feeling that I was making a difference to someone. Doing disaster response in the field is incredibly satisfying—not only to assist those affected with housing or meals but to show them someone is there to support them, even if only with a hug or to listen to them. This is the most rewarding feeling.”
Betsy Tirado - A twenty year volunteer
Betsy Tirado, a nurse, has been volunteering with the American Red Cross for about twenty years. She has been at the service center providing medical support for evacuees with the assistance of her organization, the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN).
"I’ve been volunteering for about 20 years. I was heavily involved in 9/11, then I stopped for family and my personal job. Then again, I went back. Whenever I have the free time and am able to help out, I’m out there!" Betsy said.
"I also belong to NAHN. I recruited the NAHN members to come [here]… I recruited them to help and be here. Many of our clients speak English, but many do not and they are very stressed, they just went through an incredible event. They don’t have a place to stay, everything is up in the air. What they knew as normal yesterday is not necessarily normal today. They’re in a place that is outside of their comfort zone. Their language and needs are different and they have great needs. We need to be out there and help them out."