Denis Simard: The art of combining humanity and humility to support people in need

By Raymonde Thériault, Communications Volunteer

This July not only marks the 25th anniversary of the devastating Saguenay flood, but also 16 years of volunteer service for Denis Simard, a volunteer at the Fjord-du-Saguenay branch.
 
In July 1996, over 245 mm of rain pelted down on the Lake Kénogami watershed, over 1.5 times its maximum capacity. Due to a series of domino effects and the mountainous terrain, a torrential forced 16,000 people to evacuate and destroyed over 500 homes in the Saguenay area.
 
Just like the Little White House [JAP1] that managed to withstand the torrential surge, the cottage on the shores of Lake Kénogami that Denis Simard had expanded and converted into his primary residence also held up despite significant damage.
 
At the time of the flood, Denis Simard was a local volunteer firefighter. Over the course of his career and the 25 years he had spent in the area, he had served as the assistant director of the fire department and a municipal councillor, all while working at the Cégep de Jonquière.
 
“During the flood, I was a volunteer firefighter, and everyone was mobilizing. I remember that we helped evacuate people, including French tourists, by helicopter with the Canadian Armed Forces. The Red Cross was helping people, first by reassuring them and assisting with temporary relocation, and then by giving out vouchers for food, for example. My home had sustained over $75,000 worth of damage, and the Red Cross was able to help me out. The organization did so much for me,” he told us when we met.
 
It was during this flood that he met Ghislain Lalancette (affectionately nicknamed “Dad” by local volunteers), who was a Red Cross response manager. Denis Simard promised him that when he retired, he would become a Red Cross volunteer. “To give back what I had been given,” he told us.
 
In 2004, retirement came knocking, and as promised, he immediately put his name forward to start his journey as a member of the Red Cross’s response team.
 
“It spoke to the same values as when I was a firefighter. The Red Cross is the best organization that I know of. It’s active in over 192 countries, it has human values and its members are truly there to help, to make a difference.”

Denis Simard also embodies the fundamental principles of the Red Cross. He brings out the best in the people he meets, whether it’s a new response team volunteer or an old one, and he’s been known to bend over backwards to bring the team together.
 
Many response team members have mentioned that Denis’ generosity, involvement, and around-the-clock availability. Reliable and responsible, he holds down the fort at home when his fellow volunteers donate their time during large-scale emergency operations elsewhere in Quebec or across Canada.

“When kids are involved in a disaster, we often give them a teddy bear to reassure and connect with them. After a home fire, we gave a teddy bear to an 82-year-old woman because we thought she needed it. And we weren’t wrong; during a transfer, she refused to let go of her teddy bear and the blanket we had given her. We must adjust our approach to every response, and sometimes it’s our connection with victims of disasters that enables to them to get up their courage and slowly recover from a difficult ordeal. They cling to the help we give them. Sometimes, they’ve lost their glasses, or they’re barefoot because they’ve had to leave their homes in a hurry, and other times rings, photos, or family heirlooms have gone up in smoke. Whichever the case, we help them pull themselves together and we guide them as best we can.”
 
What makes Denis Simard exceptional is how, at age 72, he’s adapted to all the ways responses have changed — including technology — since he first got involved.
 
In 2017, Denis Simard received the Canadian Red Cross Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his outstanding volunteer service.
 
When asked whether he missed being a firefighter when he arrives at the scene of a fire to help those affected. “Often, when I arrive at a fire, I recognize firefighters I trained with. But our job is to directly look after the people who have been affected. The firefighters have already seen to their basic needs, but victims of home fires are going through a lot, and we’re there to offer comfort, help them through those moments, and guide them in the hours that follow.”
 
One thing is for sure: Denis Simard, 72, wants to continue giving his time to the Red Cross. He says that his reward is the thanks he gets from people affected by disasters.
 
Denis Simard is a humble man who believes in the Red Cross mission and gives his all to achieve it without regards for accolades. The Canadian Red Cross has thousands of volunteers like Denis Simard, who get involved without keeping track of their time, at any hour of the day or night.
 
If you see a little of yourself in Denis and donate your time to the Red Cross, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. #ThankYouVolunteers!
 

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