By Gurpreet Somal
“There we stood, a team of maybe six or seven, facing more than 600 people – a few in their bathing suits, and many with no belongings – but all brought together by the same disaster.”
Those who may think that life after retirement is quiet or boring, have not met Helen James.
Living in the Kootenay region of southern British Columbia, Helen worked as an occupational therapist till her retirement in 2014. As a long-time donor and supporter of the Canadian Red Cross, it felt natural for her to join them as an Emergency Management volunteer.
Today, eight years later, Helen recalls, “For a lot of us, that very first response is an unknown experience; terrifying and humbling. I remember being called out for a house-fire in our community. A colleague had to remind me that it was the house with the big red fire truck parked outside. I was so nervous, that I had been driving straight past it!” Supported by the Red Cross team, Helen soon found herself in the role of a Team Lead.
That’s when the wildfires struck the Rock Creek region in 2015.
Over the next six months, the sheer number of people who needed assistance in the devastating aftermath of the wildfires, was something the team could have never imagined.
Helen recalls, “It was surreal, those were some unforgettable days. Within 36 hours, more than 600 people were evacuated from Rock Creek and other surrounding regions. Our teams arrived from all corners of the province to support evacuees. From assisting one or two households, to suddenly supporting hundreds of people, meant that we had to hit the ground running.”
Similarly, during the Fort McMurray wildfires, Helen assisted the Red Cross with helping impacted residents, many of them first-generation immigrants who had lost everything in the fires. “The Red Cross plays a significant part in supporting people from different communities and all walks of life.”
With each response, Helen learns something new about herself, and the world around her.
“As human beings, we are a remarkable species – resilient and hopeful. We emotionally prepare for and respond to emergencies in different ways. Not all wounds, traumas or impacts are visible or equal. That’s why, as Red Cross volunteers we are first trained in Psychological First Aid.”
Helen observes, “Successful volunteers are those who are deeply invested in their community, and in the well-being of the people around them. As we respond to disasters across B.C., it’s important for us to listen and be aware of emerging local trends across the region.”
Just then, Helen’s son walks past her. What do her loved ones think of her decision to volunteer?
Her face lights up, “They love it! My partner supports me, and my three sons encourage me to give back. They’re also amused by my fast-paced life post-retirement! (Laughs) My sons are used to me saying things like “I’m leaving for deployment in two days.” Their usual response is, stay safe mom, and keep enough food in the freezer for us!”
Helen and her team are now getting ready for this year’s emergency responses across B.C.
“Those impacted by the wildfires in Lytton Creek or the floods in Princeton last year, could have never predicted that kind of devastation. With the Kootenays being a heavily forested region, potential forest fires can cause much destruction, like the one last summer at Castlegar.”
She emphasizes on the need to be ready for emergencies. “I have a trunk with everything I could possibly need in an emergency, and light enough that I can haul it to my car.”
“I know that I cannot possibly fix everything going on in the world, and that sometimes things get a lot worse before they get better. But being able to help people is what inspires me to continue volunteering.”
One thing is certain. As a Red Cross volunteer, Helen is forging a path not just for her team in the City of Trail, but for future responders across the entire Kootenays as well.
Are you inspired by Helen’s story? Would you like to become a local Red Cross volunteer in your community? Discover more opportunities here.