86-year-old Red Cross volunteer shows no sign of slowing down

Story by Karen Scullin, FOX9 News

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Vonnie Thomas, image provided courtesy of Fox9

Vonnie Thomas has spent virtually her entire life helping others through the American Red Cross and the National Sports Center for the Disabled. She’s 86 years old and shows no signs of stopping.

Thomas started volunteering for the Red Cross when she was 18 so she could get a free ticket to the state fair. But, she’s still offering her time and energy to this day and has stockpiled stories that range from highly emotional to simply surprising.

Thomas estimates she’s helped on almost 50 different disasters, from tornadoes and hurricanes to fires and floods. She’s been volunteering with the Red Cross for 65 years, helping with food, clothing and shelter, but also with hugs and understanding – likely the most important assets of all.

“It isn’t what we give, it’s our presence,” Thomas says.

But, Thomas says it’s not the natural disasters that impact her the most, it’s the manmade ones. She was there at the pentagon for 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing where a daycare was hit. She’s been back to Oklahoma City a number of times, but can’t bring herself to go to the memorial.

“I get about a block away and I think nope- not quite ready. It’s just that hard because I was right down in there,” Thomas says.

Thomas doesn’t just stop at disasters. The mountains call her every single year. She heads to Winter Park, Colorado, where she volunteers to teach downhill and cross country adaptive skiing to amputees, the blind, those with cerebral palsy, cancer, brain injuries and more.

“They come around and they’re like ‘wow I’m empowered I can do this’,” Thomas says.

Vonnie Thomas and a home fire survivor. Image provided courtesy of the American Red Cross

Thomas is rewarded by the smiles and the self-esteem that emerge from the people she teaches. She shares the story of a young boy with cancer whom she taught to ski. She was so proud of him.

“He said, ‘How come you’re crying?’ I said, ‘I’m not crying my eyes are watering because I don’t have my goggles on’,” she says. “About two weeks later, I got a package in the mail and a note from his mom and it said Jimmy wanted me to have his goggles so my eyes would never water again. He had passed away in the meantime.”

Thomas also volunteers to work with “at risk” youth. Several years ago, she taught a high school boy who showed up in a trench coat to ski and he told her he wished his mom was more like her.

“I said they know everything that’s going on… he said they have no idea what’s going on in the garage. And I didn’t pick up on it,” Thomas recalls.

Two weeks later, Thomas was called to Columbine, Colorado where 13 people were shot and killed. As she was helping families in crisis, she realized her high school ski student was Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters.

“He learned so much,” she said. “I bet if I’d had him another week we would have been okay.”

Thomas says she may be 86, but she doesn’t feel it. She plans to stay on her mission for to help and to heal for years to come.

For more information on how to volunteer with the Red Cross, visit redcross.org/mn and click on “Ways to Help.”

This feature story originally appeared on FOX9 online. The story is published here with permission. 

Vonnie Thomas, a courageous Red Cross volunteer for 65 years

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Vonnie Thomas on her official day, June 28, 2016. Photo: Lara Leimbach

June 28, 2016 was officially Vonnie Thomas Day in Minnesota after Governor Mark Dayton proclaimed it so in honor of Ms. Thomas’s sixty-five years of courageous Red Cross volunteer service. Read the proclamation below to learn about this remarkable woman and how she has helped and inspired many people in many ways. 

State of Minnesota Proclamation for Vonnie Thomas

Whereas, the American Red Cross depends on the power of volunteers to accomplish its mission of preventing and alleviating suffering; and

Whereas, Nurse Vonnie Thomas has generously volunteered thousands of hours in distinguished leadership service through the American Red Cross over the past 65 years; and

Whereas, she courageously cared for those hurt by more than 40 local, national and international disasters such as the 2012 tornadoes in Minneapolis, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon, Hurricane Katrina and the 35-W Bridge Collapse; and

Whereas, she has served in many roles on a local, division and national level and is currently a member of the Minnesota Region volunteer leadership team and Disaster Health Services lead and a Staff Wellness Consultant for 13 states;  and

Whereas, she is an exceptional leader, innovator, medical professional, skilled instructor, and humanitarian and mentor, and is beloved by staff and volunteers alike; and

Whereas, she is a vibrant, engaged and active volunteer leading a statewide effort to build Integrated Care Teams in Minnesota to help families who’ve lost a loved one, and greatly contributed to the  development and implementation of the training materials; and

Whereas, her tremendous voluntary service has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international honor awarded by the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, which celebrates the contributions of nurses and nursing aides to the work of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement;  and

Whereas, she finds inspiration in the words of the founder of the American Red Cross, Nurse Clara Barton: “You must never so much think as whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.”; and

Whereas, she embodies the principles and spirit of the Red Cross and is a wonderful example of unselfish, humble and dedicated service, and an inspiration for us all;

Now, therefore, I, Mark Dayton, Governor of Minnesota, do hereby proclaim June 28, 2016 Vonnie Thomas Day in the State of Minnesota.

She is an example to us all

October 28, 2015. Washington, DC. Annual Leadership Awards Reception and Dinner 2015. Florence Nightingale Medal winner: Vonnie Thomas Photo by Dennis Drenner/American Red Cross
Florence Nightingale Medal winner Vonnie Thomas (center) received her award on October 28, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Dennis Drenner/American Red Cross.

On October 28, at American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., Vonnie Thomas received a 2015 Florence Nightingale Medal, which is the highest international honor for nursing contributions to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and humanitarian action around the globe. The medal is awarded by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) every other year. It’s given to nurses or nursing aides who have shown exceptional courage or exemplary service during times of peace or war. In other words, this medal is a big deal. And we’re over the moon that Vonnie Thomas, a Red Cross volunteer for more than 65 years, was among this year’s honorees.

The Florence Nightingale Medal is awarded by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Florence Nightingale Medal is awarded by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Vonnie cares for those who have been hurt by disasters as well as the people providing relief. She serves side-by-side with others in the midst of tragedies such as the north Minneapolis tornado, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the 35-W bridge collapse on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Or to a woman whose husband died when their farm house burned down in Wisconsin. Vonnie is a leader, innovator, health professional, and humanitarian. She has cared for thousands of people during her decades of Red Cross volunteer service. Vonnie is a selfless leader who is dedicated to the Red Cross mission to alleviate human suffering during the toughest of times. She is a coach, mentor and champion for other nurses. She is an example for us all.

Congratulations to you, Vonnie, for receiving this well-deserved recognition. Your humility has a place in the work that you do, but today we ask that you put it aside as we tip our hats in great honor to the amazing woman that you are to many, to us.