Photo credit: John Boehm

Celena Roldán is used to heading where the trouble is—to Texas with Hurricane Harvey, Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria, California when wildfires scorched that state—and rolling up her sleeves to help. As CEO of the American Red Cross of Illinois, she has deployed five times in four years to deliver disaster relief wherever it was needed.

What she wasn’t expecting was a crisis coming to find her. 

When the first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection surfaced in Chicago on January 24, 2020, it was only the second known incidence of the disease in the U.S. Within a couple months, though, Chicago was a pandemic hotspot, grappling with thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths. On March 9, Gov. Pritzker declared Illinois to be in a state of emergency.

How does an organization like the Red Cross that’s dedicated to preparing for emergencies prepare for its own emergency? What do you do when your job is helping people—and you have to maintain a socially safe distance from them? 

“What we’ve gone through in Chicago with this pandemic is something a lot of us never thought we’d see in our lifetime,” says Celena. “But if anything, people and communities need us more now than ever. Our work isn’t stopping—which means you figure out a way.”

Figuring out a way to serve vulnerable people is something Celena has been doing her entire adult life, starting with helping women transitioning out of prison to return to civilian life, to working with small children and their care providers, to empowering lower-income Latino communities to flourish. Along the way, she has built a strong network of friends and allies across the city and state.

That network comes in handy when 90 percent of your workforce is volunteers, as it is at the Red Cross. The mission of the American Red Cross is, simply, to alleviate human suffering. On any given day, the number one disaster they respond to is house fires, which kill more than 2,500 Americans annually. In the Chicago area, that translates to 3-to-4 home fires every day that the Red Cross answers with offers of food, water, and help finding shelter for the victims.

“People and communities need us more now than ever. Our work isn’t stopping—which means you figure out a way.”

“Historically,” says Celena, “that’s meant a wonderful Red Cross volunteer getting up and going out in the middle of the night to help a family left standing in the street.” How does that work in the time of pandemic? “We still do all of what we’ve done, and we are also doing it virtually,” says Celena. “We’re getting people into hotels instead of shelters; we’re getting phone numbers and following up with those impacted that way; we’re doing all our disaster mental health work by phone and Facetime versus in person. It is amazing what you can accomplish.”

But the need doesn’t end there. Another crisis spurred by the pandemic is a precipitous drop in the nation’s blood supply. The transfusions that save lives following car accidents or cancer treatments or surgeries have a shelf life; blood can only be stored for 42 days. This means continual resupply is important. Yet as the pandemic grew, so did cancellations of Red Cross blood drives, leading to more than 500,000 fewer blood donations. Given that the American Red Cross collects about 40 percent of the nation’s total blood supply, the implications of that decline were devastating.

So Celena went to work. As the usual blood drive venues disappeared, she began using her connections and her communications networks across the city to find alternatives. Her top job was getting out the message to every audience that donations needed to continue: “Keep your appointments,” she emphasized. Another job was finding replacement sites as churches and schools went off-line. After a call to one of her connections, Navy Pier agreed to become a Red Cross blood drive site, as did the Chicago Cubs, the White Sox, and the Field Museum. The third task was to implement new COVID-19 blood drive processes to guarantee the health of participants and staff and to prevent the spread of infection. With new protocols in place, that’s also been done. 

“I've talked to partners and supporters and donors and companies and businesses that I've known throughout my career,” says Celena. “We’re all asking each other: ‘What are you doing to cope? How can we connect? And how can we compliment what you’re doing?’”

Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt was fond of saying: A woman is like a tea bag; you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.

Click here to learn more about Celena and her story.