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Red Cross CEO Celena Sarillo shines a light during people's darkest hour

Red Cross CEO Celena Sarillo shines a light during people's darkest hour
Red Cross CEO Celena Sarillo shines a light during people's darkest hour 04:01

CHICAGO (CBS) -- As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we want you to meet a woman who helps complete strangers in their darkest hours.

She's Celena Sarillo, the first Latina CEO of the American Red Cross of Illinois.

And those who know her say she brings compassion to everything she does. CBS 2's Marie Saavedra has her story.

"It is a day that I'll never forget. It was a scene of chaos, devastation."

It was the morning of August 26th, 2018. Fire ripped through an apartment building near 22nd and Sacramento in Little Village where 10 children were killed, including six under the age of 12.

"There are no words. To be able to describe what it felt like to stand there that day and try to comfort people, and family members in a community on the worst day of their lives," Sarillo said. 

Being there for people in need is what drives Celena Sarillo.

As CEO of the American Red Cross of Illinois, the first Latina to hold that position, she leads a team of dedicated workers and volunteers.

Their job is to be the light in the darkest of disasters.

"The mission of the Red Cross is to alleviate human suffering. As a social worker that really appealed and just pulled at my heart," Sarillo said. 

Sarillo is known as a hands-on leader who truly loves her team, and they feel the same way about her.

"She leads us and she supports us. It's not uncommon to see Celena installing smoke alarms, to see her out after a house fire, to have Celena deployed," said Joy Squier, communications manager for the Red Cross. Celena defines compassion. And I'm proud to work alongside Celena."

Sarillo's life of service began when she was young, watching her parents in action.

"My father served 13 months in Vietnam and came back and told us he wanted to live his life in honor of those who didn't make it home," Sarillo said. "I grew up seeing my mother help others. My mother is also a social worker. So I really grew up understanding we had a responsibility to serve."

Sarillo did serve with her mom when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September of 2017.

"I had the opportunity to deploy with my mother who is a disaster mental health worker. My family is originally from Puerto Rico. Like many Puerto Ricans in the U.S. we also could not reach family members," Sarillo said. 

Sarillo said she's incredibly proud of the help the Red Cross provides.

"We put satellites on cars and trucks and were driving them around Puerto Rico, allowing people to make those first phone calls back to families in us to let them know that they were safe," Sarillo said. 

Sarillo is also very proud to be the first Latina to serve as CEO of the American Red Cross in Illinois.

"While I think of myself just typically as a CEO, I understand how important representation is."

And how important it is to encourage young Latina women.

"I'm inspired by young people. Particularly young Latina women that I'm seeing across our city and our state who are doing incredible work," Sarillo said.

"I would tell them to continue to believe in themselves. They have a voice and it is a strong voice," Sarillo said. 

To Sarillo, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the culture of the Latinx community and its many contributions.

"For me being Latina is about family. It is about people. It is about living life to its fullest. About talking with people, listening to people, celebrating diversity," she said. "Being very strong and energetic, I think those are some of the things I also bring to this role and to this work."

Sarillo said one of her happiest moments was opening a note written to her by her son, telling her he understood what she does and that he's so proud of her.

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