Canadian Red Cross volunteer receives prestigious IFRC award

By: Jon Adam Chen, communications advisor

With 16 years under her belt in the Canadian Red Cross, Ottawa volunteer Debbie James is accustomed to focusing on others. Debbie’s can-do attitude has led her down a path through more than 100 responses across the country and an array of roles supporting others.

“If I have the bandwidth and my help is needed, I’ll try to do it,” she says.

For a day in December, attention turned to Debbie as she received a unique honour – a selection as Canada’s Outstanding Volunteer for 2021 at an awards ceremony among her peers from across the Americas.

The International Federation of Red Cross’ Americas Award recognizes one standout volunteer and one group project from each of the countries within the Americas region.
A woman in a Red Cross vest standing outside in front of renovated housingBeing nominated for the award took her by surprise. “I was gobsmacked!” Debbie says. “The Red Cross has so many wonderful volunteers that it's hard to fathom why I was singled out for this recognition.”

Debbie got involved with the Red Cross through her local personal disaster assistance team. She recalls her first response, a house fire where she helped provide comfort to a family with three young children who were injured while jumping out of a window to escape.

Debbie remembers feeling worried about how she would respond to a situation where people were suffering, but the experience gave her new confidence.  By focusing on the immediate needs of the family and, with the encouragement of a fellow responder, she became aware of the skills she already possessed, like setting priorities and staying calm under pressure.

“I think I was helpful to them,” she recalls. “We were working in pairs and my partner took the lead, but I went through that and said, ‘Okay, I can do this!’” 

Debbie has since played a crucial role responding to disasters across Canada, including tornadoes in her hometown of Ottawa in 2018 and floods in Eastern Ontario in 2017 and 2019.

Jay DeBernardi, emergency management coordinator for the City of Ottawa, Lanark and Renfrew County, was among those that nominated Debbie for the award. He believes Debbie’s commitment is what makes her special.

“When COVID restrictions limited some of the things she does for the team, she merely redirected her energies into other areas that needed support and found new ways of delivering the volunteer support required,” Jay explains.

Receiving the award has reaffirmed Debbie’s commitment to voluntary service, particularly during a time when her support is largely virtual and behind the scenes.

Attending the ceremony with other committed volunteers reminded Debbie of the universal humanitarian values and similarities shared within the Red Cross movement. Despite differences in language and geography, it was the commonalities among those present that shined through on the day for Debbie.

“When you look at it, people are all motivated by the same thing - they're all trying to help others, especially those that are more vulnerable. With COVID, there are a lot of similar activities and programs going on. It was nice to see that we really are a worldwide organization, and even though what we do in our countries is different, it’s still the same.”

Learn more about volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross.

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