Story and photos by MaryJane Mudd, Red Cross contributor
Have you ever heard of Three Card Monte? Triumph? Twisting the Aces? They’re all magic tricks created to entertain and delight, and odds are high that American Red Cross volunteer Willie Yee, M.D., knows them.
The retired psychiatrist from New York made a career out of helping people with personal challenges, but only after spending time with the Red Cross did he realize the therapeutic value of magic tricks. “Magic isn’t just a way to engage people, but a way to distract them from tiring or painful situations,” he recently explained at the Red Cross Tropical Storm Imelda Disaster Headquarters. “Magic in itself is therapy.”
Willie’s first interaction with the Red Cross came when he was hired by a contracting firm to help people through post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from Hurricane Katrina. He and other medical professionals were sent to New Orleans, where they offered assistance to devastated flood survivors at Red Cross and partner shelters. “It was amazing to see the work that was being done to comfort and shelter people in need,” he recalled. “I knew then that I wanted to be a Red Cross volunteer.”
He soon joined his local Red Cross and became a member of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT), which provides critical casework and emotional assistance to those impacted by home fires. Before long, he was deployed to offer mental health and other services in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.
The magic began in 2016 when Willie was deployed to South Carolina to help Hurricane Matthew flood victims. “When it comes to offering emotional assistance, we engage in different ways,” he said. “Our Red Cross shelter workers sometimes let us know who is hurting, and other times we walk around and see if people will speak with us. One day I performed a card trick and found it opened the doors to communication.”
The response to his magic was so encouraging that he performed tricks for disaster workers and flood survivors while deployed to Houston in 2017 for Hurricane Harvey. This led to Willie’s enrollment in Las Vegas’s McBride Magic and Mystery School – one of the most well-known magic schools in the country – in 2018. Now he doesn’t go anywhere without his deck of cards, pieces of rope and other tools of the trade.
Willie has been volunteering as part of Imelda disaster response since it pushed its way through the Gulf Coast, reminding citizens all too much of Harvey as it flooded roadways and towns. He has offered his unique combination of mental health awareness and magical talents to motivate disaster responders and give flood survivors a moment of respite when everything seems lost.
When asked about a special memory from all of his years of volunteering, he recalled a woman who received food from the Red Cross in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. “We were driving along dirt roads, going door to door to be sure people had something to eat,” he remembered as his eyes teared up. “She said, ‘You did this for me? You came all the way from New York and drove out here to help me?’ She was so surprised that someone cared about her.”
Smiling and blinking the memory from his mind, Willie hopped up from his chair and walked to a group of Red Cross volunteers. He pulled out three small pieces of rope, performed tricks and with the rope finally intertwined, explained how staff, donors and volunteers all come together during disasters to make a difference.
“Anyone can make an impact during a time like this by donating time, talent and treasure,” he said. “And that in itself is magical.”