Meet the New Woman at the Helm of the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois

Celena Roldán

Leadership has an energetic new face at the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois. Celena Roldán is taking the reins as the nonprofit’s new president and CEO following the retirement of Fran Edwardson, who served in the position for more than a decade. Famed for her passion and leadership both in her role as executive director at Erie House and within the larger Latino community, Roldán brings experience, media savvy and heart to the nation’s leading American Red Cross chapter.

We recently spoke with Roldán about her path to the Red Cross, what she hopes to bring to the organization and how you can help.

Make It Better: How have your experiences to date prepared you for this role? 

Celena Roldán: My heart caught in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the recent attacks on Paris; as a mother, tourist and citizen of the world I was horrified. At the same time, I was grateful to see that the Red Cross was there to help. Knowing the American Red Cross would be there to assist if such a thing happened here — so true from 9/11 to the Boston bombing — brought me a measure of comfort.

The American Red Cross is there for what so many call the worst day of their lives — when they are in desperate need of a blood donation or financial support after a disaster has taken their home. In my previous role as executive director of a human service agency called Erie House, I sat with parents who were grieving the death of their children, women who were escaping abuse and through countless other situations that prepared me for this role at the American Red Cross; an organization that helps people in their most vulnerable days.

I’ve also been lucky to work with boards of directors and extremely invested and generous volunteers who are critical in supporting the work of nonprofit organizations.

What are the opportunities for growth of this already highly successful chapter that most excite you?

This is one of the largest Red Cross chapters in the nation. I love Chicago and the surrounding suburbs and am really excited about thinking out of the box to educate people about what we do and finding ways we can increase the good work we are doing by being more efficient and serving even more people.

The American Red Cross enjoys vast support from the “Greatest Generation.” What is needed to grow support from the generations that follow them?

For many families, the American Red Cross is a tradition that’s been passed down. For others, they know our name but perhaps they aren’t aware of the full scope of our services. The Red Cross is working, through things like Red Cross clubs in high schools and colleges, to engage the younger generation by meeting them where they are; be that training them as lifeguards and babysitters or teaching them about fire safety. We also have an auxiliary board comprised of young professionals who are interested in philanthropy. Lastly, social media is an important part about the way we engage at the American Red Cross. We know people rely on their phones so have a number of free apps to make your life easier. For young children we even have a preparedness app called Monsterguard, sponsored by Disney, that teaches children how to be prepared.

Please share some of your favorites, to give us a more personal glimpse of you too. What are your favorite books, foods, things to do in Chicago? Where do you love to travel?

Although I grew up in Oak Park and have lived in or around Chicago my whole life, I am a warm weather person. I take any chance I get to be on a beach and one of my favorite places to be is in Puerto Rico where I spent many warm Christmases as a child. But during the summer I usually stay close to home as there is no greater place to be in the summer than Chicago and I take full advantage of summer dance in Grant Park, the neighborhood festivals, and Cubs games. On most regular weekends, I spend the majority of time with family and friends and on soccer fields all over the suburbs cheering on my middle-school-aged children. Now that I also know the Red Cross holds a golf outing in June, I have a great reason to learn how to golf!

What can our audience do to help the American Red Cross right now?

There are three easy things you can do: make a donation (financial or a blood donation), sign up to volunteer and get your family prepared. The Red Cross makes it easy — you can call 1-800-REDCROSS, visit or download one of the free Red Cross apps that help you accomplish these things easily. You can also download checklists of ideas to get your family prepared for the unexpected. One easy solution is to print out phone numbers for everyone you know, including your child’s school, spouse’s workplace and so on, so that if you don’t have power for your cell phone you can still reach important people when you need to.

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