By Bristel Minsker, Staff Contributor, American Red Cross
When Susie Mahlsted lost her husband to cancer on October 9th, 2015, she couldn’t imagine what the next several weeks would look like. She wondered how she would begin to heal.
But when the rains fell on October 30th and caused devastating flooding in her community in Southeast Austin, she decided that the best step forward would be to give of herself—to take action and help others. It’s a process, she says, that has helped her grieve and honor her husband.
A Red Cross shelter for the flood victims opened just around the corner from Susie’s house, so she quickly took the short walk to the shelter, in search of her purpose. When she walked in the door, she was greeted by Edna Quesnel, a Red Cross volunteer shelter worker from Ticonderoga, New York.
“She showed up to volunteer, and she’s been a godsend ever since,” Edna says about Susie. Edna explains that Susie comes to the shelter three times a day, beginning at 6:00 each morning, to help serve three meals a day to the 90+ shelter residents.
While many wonder how Susie can overcome the sadness of losing her husband in order to help perfect strangers, she says it has actually become a form of therapy for her. She can honor her husband, Brent, by giving back to her community.
“He was a giving person, a caring person, a compassionate person. To me this is just living in his honor,” Susie says.
She has many great memories with Brent at the Dittmar Recreation Center, the site of the shelter where she has been working. The couple used to come to the rec center every week to play basketball together. And now she is making new memories there.
“After coming here and being around people like Edna, and the rest of the people who work here, and the people that are staying here, it’s just a connection. It fills in some of the emptiness that I had. It has been truly a healing process.”
Edna says she is not only inspired by Susie’s generosity of spirit, but is also touched by her story on a personal level.
“I myself have gone through the grieving process. I lost a son twelve years ago,” Edna says. “I understand, and I know where she is coming from. It is easy to relate with what she is going through.”
While Susie has clearly built strong bonds with her fellow volunteers, she has also drawn strength from the shelter residents she is helping. She says working with them has helped her gain perspective and peace.
“We’re all going through things, but they are going through much more than I am. This is a welcome way to help folks out there that are suffering. This is the best thing you can give people.”
Edna, who has worked in Red Cross shelters across the country for more than two decades, says Susie has taught her something very important, too.
“I’ve learned that there are people out there that no matter what they’re going through, they’re still wanting to step up and help,” Edna says.
Edna now counts Susie as a member of her Red Cross family, and Susie says she plans to continue volunteering for a long time to come.