By Adrian Marsh
For Elissa Maish, there is always more to do when it comes to humanitarian work.
The 69-year-old Tucson woman took home the International Humanitarian Service Award at the recent American Red Cross Heroes ceremony in Chandler.
“I was totally surprised, because I never really considered earning an award for any of the work that I do,” Maish says. “It means so much because I was familiar with the work of the Red Cross growing up, so I’ve carried it in my heart all these years.”
The American Red Cross Greater Phoenix Chapter serves more than 4 million people across Maricopa, Pinal and Gila counties, according to the organization.
Volunteers work with victims of disasters, organize blood drives, train people in fire and water safety, among other services.
Cassidy Penney, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross Arizona, New Mexico and El Paso region, said Maish does a lot of work in Phoenix, although she is a part of the Tucson chapter.
In 2017, Maish worked on nearly 30 cases in 350 volunteer hours, and spent 140 hours of travel time between Tucson and Phoenix, Penney says.
Maish became a volunteer in 2007 in the American Red Cross’ international services division, which she was interested in because she was born and raised overseas.
She said she has worked on cases involving natural disasters, such as hurricanes Katrina and Maria, and has also worked with local refugees in Tucson from the Middle East and Africa.
Maish works with Restoring Family Links, part of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to try and locate missing family members from around the world.
Perhaps her most memorable experience, she says, involved a young man from Congo whose town was attacked, and he was separated from his wife and small children. Maish says that after securing a visa to immigrate to the United States, the young man came to her office with a flash drive, which included pictures of his family and former life.
Through the flash drive and the Red Cross’ extensive searching, staff discovered the man’s family was living with another teacher, who had escaped, in Uganda.
“We’re there with these people supporting them,” Maish says. “To me, the clients are unbelievable and what strikes me is how resilient many of them are. It becomes much more than you think it’s going to be.”
She added when refugees come into her office, they tell her they don’t see an office, they see hope.
“It is such a gift to meet the refugees in our community,” she says. “They come from all walks of life, and it’s amazing how a disaster or some kind of tragedy or war can level-set it so everybody is in the same boat.”
Danielle Rudolph, volunteer services specialist with the American Red Cross Greater Phoenix Chapter, says nominating Maish was a no-brainer.
“Not only did she take care of everything in Tucson, but she also did everything for Phoenix for about a year and a half,” Rudolph says. “I would say she has an incredible amount of compassion and a lot of worldly knowledge.”
When asked if she would continue her volunteer work with Red Cross, Maish said, “Oh, absolutely.”
She said people can even go online to volunteer at redcross.org, and that “there is always some position that’s available.”