Wednesday, October 27, 2021

“Three Questions” with Mary Cueva

By Kenna Beban, American Red Cross in Greater NY

"Three Questions” is an American Red Cross in Greater New York blog series featuring staff, volunteers, and partners who help carry out our humanitarian mission. Through these short interviews, we hope to shine a light on our different programs and get to know those who make this work possible.

Photo Credit: John Eng
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.

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