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Leading the charge

From childhood cadet to a life-long volunteer, Valmai Dempsey’s life has been shaped by her volunteer work. Now, the 2022 Senior Australian of the Year has big plans for what she wants to achieve.

By Kylie Triggell

  • Winter 2022
  • Member story
  • Read Time: 5 mins

For more than half her life, Valmai ‘Val’ Dempsey has dedicated countless hours to St John Ambulance, making her the longest-serving volunteer in the Australian Capital Territory. 

It’s an incredible accomplishment, and one that has seen Val—or Aunty Val as she is affectionately known—named 2022 Senior Australian of the Year.

As we start our interview, Val mentions she is sitting in a St John Ambulance car outside the Lismore Recovery Centre, on her second deployment to the northern New South Wales region as a volunteer following the devastating floods earlier this year. It would be a confronting situation for anyone, and yet Val says at the end of the day what she mainly feels is gratitude to be able to help out and do the work.

“I’ve got the clothes I’m standing up in, and many of these people don’t even have that. They have to wear someone else’s clothes,” she says.

It’s a refreshing perspective, and one that Val seems to bring to all aspects of her work.

She says she first started volunteering for St John almost by accident while still in primary school. Her neighbour, a triple certificated sister who also gave her time as a St John nurse, offered Val the opportunity to accompany her when she travelled out to the local swimming hole on the river. Val, already determined to become a nurse, jumped at the chance.

Val preparing for First Aid duty 1974 copy

“I so badly wanted to be a nurse. I would bandage teddy bears, dolls, and dogs—anything that stopped long enough for me to help them out,” Val says.

“My neighbour encouraged me to put on my school uniform and to go out with her. We would drive out there in her little Morris Minor and we would go to the log cabin called the St John Ambulance Brigade.

“I’d jump out of the car and try and find victims. Anybody who looked like they might need a bandaid or anything, I would find them. But I also realised, watching her, what I wanted to do with my life. It developed in me a passion for kindness and the desire to step outside of my own comfort zone and just be a part of someone else’s opportunity to get better. And this passion has never stopped in that time at all.”

Now 71, Val has become adept at balancing her volunteer work with her nursing career and family. In fact, she recalls being at the National Gallery with her daughter, with the St John Ambulance mobile phone in tow, as the Black Summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020 began to rage. 

The phone, which usually never rings, began to chime and didn’t stop for 28 days. Val jumped into action, manning the St John headquarters while deftly organising and coordinating the 40-strong team that was sent out to aid fire-affected communities.

Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in Australia in 2020, Val once again stepped up, this time taking it upon herself to personally call and check in on each of the St John volunteers. A further 600 hours of volunteer service was recorded in 2021.

However, despite this obvious love and dedication for her volunteer work, Val says she was simply astounded when she was named as the 2022 Senior Australian of the Year.

“I was nominated, unknown to me, by the St John team. I suppose they thought what I do at the organisation is special, but I just know there are so many people there doing something special. So, really, I was astounded at being nominated let alone winning the award,” Val says.

“The actual idea of being nominated is really quite incredible, but when they called my name, I really was completely amazed and astounded.”

Val with her 2022 Senior Australian of the Year award

The months since the award ceremony have proven to be a steep learning curve for Val, but she says she has big plans for what she wants to use the platform for, starting with helping more people to learn first aid, as well as getting it into schools and making it a prerequisite for obtaining a driver’s licence.

She’s also thrown her support behind National Seniors' Let Pensioners Work campaign, which is pushing for reforms to the Age Pension income test to allow pensioners who want to work be able to do so without their pension payments being cut or reduced.

“I’m finding it a great big learning curve to be able to talk about myself. It’s not something I normally do,” Val says.

“It’s been a busy time since I was named in this fabulous position and by golly, I’m going to use it. I want everyone to learn that first aid is for everybody and they should all put their hand up, stand up, step forward and learn how to do it. That’s my theme song! It’ll save lives.”

Val at Mullumbimby Recovery Centre

Part of Val's drive about first aid education is due to a tragic accident her daughter Michelle was in when she was just 17.

The car Michelle was driving was struck at a traffic light, rolled over and crashed into a telegraph pole. Michelle survived but was trapped and couldn’t help her friend in the passenger seat.

“Lots of other people who came to the accident wanted to help, but they didn’t know what to do,” Val says.

“Tragically a gorgeous soul was lost that day. He died in Michelle’s arms.”

When asked what she loves so much about volunteering, Val says the reasons are endless.

“Look where it’s taken me. It’s taken me around the world and around Australia. It’s given me the most fabulous friendships,” Val says.

“Volunteering also drove me incessantly to learn more, and it drove me to actually do the nursing that I’ve done. I’m now a registered nurse in my 44th year.

“But mostly, it’s given me the opportunity to provide something I think is an invaluable thing for the community and that is myself. You give yourself. Don’t ever ask what volunteering can do for you, ask what you can do for it. It will open so many doors.”

Love stories like this?

This article is an excerpt from National Seniors Australia’s quarterly member magazine, Our Generation.

Become a member today and receive four hard copy issues of Our Generation (valued at $39.80) a year for free as part of your membership, along with exclusive discounts, competitions, branch membership and more!

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