At five foot and "a half inch", Valmai Dempsey is by no means a tall woman. But she says that when she first put on her St John Ambulance uniform 50 years ago, she stood tall, albeit "shaking in her boots".
The Canberra grandmother known far and wide as Aunty Val has been honoured as the ACT's 2022 Senior Australia of the Year for her dedicated decades of service with St John.
To say she was surprised is an understatement.
"I was one of four nominees and when I saw the calibre of the others, it just blew me away," she told The Senior. "I thought how does a kid from Narrabundah get rung up and told something so absolutely amazing?
"I guess it's not where you come from but where you choose to go to."
Val said she wanted to be part of St John's from an early age.
"What wouldn't inspire a young girl who's ready to save the world, who dresses her dolly in white, and walks around wanting to bandage everything more than this marvellous uniform?
"I remember going to the St John's parades as a 10-year-old and thinking, my God, they're wonderful."
Too young to join, Val was taken under the wing of a local lady named Beryl Box.
"She was a wonderful woman, a triple-certificated nursing sister who used to go out dressed in her St John's uniform.
"I was gobsmacked. She used to drive a Morris Minor - one where the indicators came out the side. She said, 'Get dressed in your school uniform, you're going to be the first St John cadet and I'm going to look after you'.
"And she did. We used to go up to the Cotter, which was a popular picnic area. And she would sit in the old St John's log cabin hut and treat people. We had a lot of drownings in the rivers in those days. She was so inspiring. And I said why do you do this? And she said, I just like helping people."
Looking back on those days, Val said Narrabundah was a "fabulous place to grow up. We didn't rape or murder or steal, though we did nick the peaches from next door!"
She fondly recalls the times when Wirth's Circus came to Canberra.
"Not many people can say this but Dad ran away from the circus to join the war! He was a trapeze artist and bit of a wag.
"Every time Wirth's came to town, he'd keep us home from school and he'd sneak us in under the back flap of the tent.
"They'd take the elephant down to the river and we'd swim right with it."
In time, Valmai studied for and completed her first-aid certificate.
"Way back then you had to go two nights a week for 16 weeks. I had some great trainers but I couldn't use what I learned until I was about 18, I think."
She said it was her time with St John's that led her into a career in nursing. It took a while, however.
"I was one of five kids and Dad wasn't well when he came back from the war. In those days you didn't have things like long-term sick pay. But Mum was amazing.
"I started hairdressing and I wanted desperately to do nursing but the matron at Canberra Community Hospital, who lived up the road, said 'No, I know your mum, she's got five kids and needs you at home. We'll talk when you're older.' "
It was not until after marrying her husband of 55 years, Lindsay, and having a son and a daughter that Val enrolled at Canberra Institute of Technology to study for her matriculation.
But with the love and support of her spouse she achieved her ambition and entered nursing aged 27.
"I did my training at the wonderful Woden Valley Hospital as a member of 'L' Group, who I'm still friends with 40 years later. I graduated in 1981 and I'm still registered.
"I was very lucky to have a really good bloke beside me, who used to say, 'I'll mind the kids, go on'.
"They told me later that meat and three veg meant chops or sausages with mashed potato, pumpkin and peas or beans. That's all they got back then when mum wasn't there. But they survived!"
She describes them as "the winds that lift me up".
"They were so generous. There were so many times when I felt I had to be somewhere else for somebody else. But they grew so resilient and giving."
Even while nursing, Val devoted her time to her beloved St John's.
"Seriously, my nursing only complemented what I did at St John. With nursing behind me, I could do clinical governance. I was the senior nurse in the ACT for St John and went on the national board.
"Within the framework of St John, my nursing registration has taken me everywhere."
Val said the main highlight of her time with the organisation was being able to "leave a family you love so completely, put on your uniform and step out into another family who are there to support you.
"But another is watching the young kids coming through, doing their training and looking at opportunities - becoming paramedics and nurses and getting degrees and double degrees."
One thing Val is passionate about is for all Australians to gain first aid competency when getting their driver's licence, which she will use her new platform to promote.
"It's important because the first person who turns up at a traffic accident will know what to do... Even if you can't get down and do CPR, you can show someone how to do it."
Val is especially proud of St John's work throughout the 2020 bushfires and COVID-19, saying it is "shining in its moment of need".
During the fires, she did a call-around and sent 40 volunteers to support affected communities. "They went out for 24 hours and stayed eight days. They were just fantastic."
As St John's welfare officer during lockdown, Val remained in direct contact with members to offer comfort and reassurance that the organisation would be back with a bright future.
"We also distributed meal packages and worked with the ACT government and other agencies to support people in need. At the moment I'm working with ACT Heath and other volunteers doing contact tracing.
"I've also been blessed with being able to be on national boards and being a change leader in how we go about bringing information back to the people we work with.
"I haven't regretted a single moment since I've been with St John."
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