12 November 2021
ACT Senior Australian of the Year Val Dempsey was just 10 years old when she began volunteering for St John Ambulance.
“One of my neighbours would often leave the house in a white St John’s uniform, and when I asked her where she was going, she responded, ‘to help people,’” Val said.
“I had always admired her and that’s when I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Over 50 years later, Val (or “Aunty Val” as she is affectionately known) is the longest serving volunteer at St John Ambulance, helping to provide a first aid response and pre-hospital care to the public. To her, the team at St John is like a “second family”.
“I’ve always said that I’ll work myself into redundancy,” Val laughs.
“St John has provided me with all the opportunities I need to grow and develop. Even as young girl, the opportunities have been enormous, particularly the friendships I’ve carried all my life and being able to serve the community.”
In 2020 and 2021, Val faced her biggest challenge yet as a St John Ambulance volunteer – first with the ‘Black Summer’ bushfires, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the bushfires Val and her team gave up their Christmas breaks to work 12-hour days, helping to provide food and first aid, set up rescue houses and assist at the evacuation centres.
When Canberra entered lockdown in August, Val tirelessly assisted ACT Health with contract tracing.
With the St John Ambulance volunteers separated due to COVID-19 restrictions, Val made it her duty to personally call each team member every day to check in on them.
“When you work so closely with your team members, particularly in dire situations, you develop a very strong bond,” Val said.
“When that’s taken away, it’s like a death in the family and there’s a huge process of grieving. As soon as lockdown ended I organised an afternoon session for the team, brought some pea soup and I stood back and watched just how our team who had been separated for some time got to be around each other again. There was so much warmth there.”
With a background in nursing, Val has also worked as a nurse in cancer wards around Canberra. She became a nurse at just 16, dividing her time between nursing and volunteering for St John Ambulance.
And though she is “chuffed” to have received her award, she remains as humble as ever.
“I did feel overwhelmed but also grateful because I couldn’t be more pleased to shine a light on volunteering,” Val said.
“We want new members all the time as we are an evolving organisation. Our branches are spreading but they’re getting busier and busier with our community needs.
“So if this shines a light on that and encourages Australians to bring first aid into their lives, then I’m just delighted.”