Kew Gardens man honored by Red Cross

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"Normally I'm here with jeans," says Mario Velez, taking a seat in the office of the American Red Cross Queens chapter in Briarwood. The Kew Gardens resident is dressed in a red polo shirt tucked into his khakis.

It's Monday morning, and Velez, a Disaster Action Team captain, has just returned to the office after his late work Saturday night, helping out at a fire in Hollis. Once called by the Fire Department, the Red Cross' job is to assess the damage of the fire and find temporary homes for the victims.

"There was a couple with two children, and they lost everything," says Velez. "Unfortunately, all the rooms in the hotels we usually take people to were taken because of the Fourth. But we stayed with them; we weren't going to allow them to go alone. They ended up staying at a place [belonging to] friends."

Velez's volunteerism, which often finds him coming home at sunrise, has not gone unrecognized. At a June 8 Red Cross ceremony, the Kew Gardens resident was given the Clara Barton Volunteer of the Year Award.

Last year, 6,366 people volunteered for the Red Cross in the New York City area, helping a total of nearly 900,000 people. The Red Cross describes this as "ordinary people doing extraordinary work."

Born on the Lower East Side, Velez had worked as a truck driver for 18 years. After retiring, he decided to take CPR courses at the Queens chapter of the Red Cross in 1997. He took more classes and soon joined a Disaster Action Team. Eventually, Velez became captain of the team and facilities manager for the Queens chapter.

Velez is on call every evening. He responds primarily to fires and sometimes floods. Since the Red Cross receives no government funding, the organization relies mainly on corporate sponsorship, individual donations and, of course, volunteers.

"Somebody's got to do it," Velez says of his work. "I'm just glad to be a part of it. I feel you always have to give back to your community."

The award comes as no surprise to one of Velez's colleagues.

"Everyone knows Mario!" says Kevin Medina as he pats Velez on the back. The two, who have spent countless hours working with each other, complement each other perfectly. While Velez has become an active volunteer after a long career, Medina, who is 17 and going into his senior year of high school, hopes to become a neurologist. A Briarwood resident, Medina shared the stage with Velez when he received the Youth Services Award on June 8.

In eighth grade, Medina came to the Red Cross doing research for a biology project. He soon signed up for a CPR class and "got hooked." Appointed youth chair of the Queens chapter in 1998, he volunteers two to three times a week during the school year, more during the summer. His work ranges from paperwork, running health fairs, and helping with "Mass Care," a Red Cross program to prevent heatstroke and keep people hydrated.

In his time as youth chair, Medina has increased youth membership from 30 to a current high of 198.

"I love it so much," says Medina. "There's so much that they gave me, offered me."

Medina also teaches a fire and burns course to children, designed to instruct them how to prevent such accidents. The course often takes the form of a puppet show in which Medina plays Cookie Monster.

Medina recounts a story in which some children in Ozone Park, months after he taught a course there, recognized him as Cookie Monster and recited to him everything he had taught.

"Sometimes you wonder how much the kids really remember," he says. "But you can make a difference."

Medina has also helped in disaster relief. He manned the Red Cross phone lines after a scaffolding collapse in Times Square in 1998, relaying information about injuries.

"There was one guy, frantic, crying, he thought his wife was hurt," he recalls. "It was the first phone call I got. I found out she was all right and told him. He was so happy. He just said 'thank you' over and over."

Kyu-Hong Choi is the third Queens resident to win a Red Cross award this year. Born in South Korea in 1927, he worked as a high school biology teacher for 15 years and then as a civil servant.

In 1994, he decided to join his daughter in America and emigrate to Queens, where he lives in Flushing.

Two years later, despite his minimal English, Choi began to work for the Red Cross, placed there by Korean Community Services of New York. Four years later, Choi finds himself the recipient of the Red Cross's Support Service Award.

Although his English has improved in his six years in the United States, Choi relies on a friend, Patricia Hong, to translate.

"I like to live a healthy life in my later years," he says. "I want to volunteer for my country. Koreans have a strong volunteer spirit."

Choi makes the journey from College Point to the Queens chapter in Briarwood five days a week. He uses what English he knows to help organize, do paperwork, and contribute to unique tasks such as cleaning mannequins used for practicing CPR.

Although he says that serving others is the most important part of his job, Choi's work takes on a whole other meaning: an immigrant making his mark in a new land.

"I want to mingle with other races," he says. "I want to be a model citizen in the community. And I want to show other Korean immigrants that they can continue to work hard."

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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