SURREY — It’s a situation many dread: The phone waking us up in the wee hours of the morning because of an emergency.
But it’s a call Robbin Stephens receives more than most – and one she’s happy to answer.
“You ever sat by TV or the radio and listened and heard, or read a paper, and saw all the disasters going on and think, ‘I wish I could do something?’” Stephens asked the Now.
She started volunteering in disaster aid during the 1998 Salmon Arm fires. Back then, she worked out of a call centre in Burnaby, registering evacuees so they could be reunited with family.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m so glad I can do something. I was watching before and now I get to do something. I get to help,’” Stephens said. “That felt really good so I wanted more.”
For her 18 years of volunteer service, the Canadian Red Cross recently presented Stephens with its highest honour: the Order of Red Cross.
Elysa Dempsey, manager of B.C. and Yukon Disaster Management for the aid organization, described Stephens as a “completely dependable leader” with “unrivalled passion” for her volunteer work.
For almost two decades, Stephens has supervised shelters and resiliency centres in the aftermath of numerous disasters. In 2011, she spent more than six months in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, helping people impacted by floods and fires.
And she has also trained hundreds of other volunteers. This spring, the Surrey resident helped set up and supervise a call centre that helped Fort McMurray fire evacuees after flames forced more than 80,000 people from their homes.
Stephens said the biggest disaster she’s been called out to was Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season and the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. She worked in a distribution centre, filling up vans with supplies and food with volunteers from around the globe.
“The best part of that was when you got to do that search and serve,” said Stephens. “I remember walking up and knocking on the doors yelling, ‘Red Cross! Red Cross!’ We’re here to help, is there something we can do to help?’ You always got a hug.”
But conditions were tough.
“Being there was interesting because you’re feeling a bit of it,” she said.
“I stayed in a shelter in a church, I stayed in the warehouse and hotels, and sometimes multiple people on the hotel floor.
“Some volunteers had no power,” she added. “We needed to make sure we put a minimal impact on the surrounding area so we didn’t make things worse for anyone…. We felt some of it but we didn’t have the emotional connection with the loss because we were there and we knew we got to go home.”
In addition to her work through the Red Cross, Stephens also volunteers with Emergency Social Services (ESS), which provides support during the first 72 hours after an event.
The longtime volunteer said a listening ear is sometimes the best help for someone in crisis, particularly after incidents where there is loss of life.
“People need to tell their story. They need to cry,” said Stephens.
Though she’s helped the Canadian Red Cross deliver aid to thousands of people, she’s honoured by the recognition.
“To receive, this, wow. That was something special,” she said smiling, showing off her framed certificate, as well as medals she received.
One medal, she revealed, has rather specific instructions.
“This one you can only wear if you’re with the Prime Minister or the Queen or something,” said Stephens, pointing to the largest medal. “It’s like really? OK, these really are a big deal.”
While Stephens hopes others consider volunteering like she has, she warns not to take the decision lightly.
“You’re seeing people at their rawest points, their most vulnerable,” she said.
“If you are someone who wants to help others, who wants to do it not because you want credit for volunteer service but because you see someone in need and you want to help, and you can do it impartially, and you can do it fairly, and you can separate yourself from it so you can go home at night, then this is a very rewarding thing to do.”