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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Volunteer celebrates 75 years with the British Red Cross

This news post is about 1 year old

The milestone comes as the NHS also turns 75.

A British Red Cross volunteer has celebrated 75 years with the organisation after joining in the same year the National Health Service was formed.

It was on May 11, 1948, when Isabel Thom’s connection with the British Red Cross began. Little did she know, in 2023 - 75 years later - it would remain as strong as ever.

Isabel’s volunteering career has spanned different continents, with her expertise and compassion benefitting thousands of people over the years.

First joining as a youth member at age 10 in her hometown of Falkirk, Isabel, now 86, remains an active voice for the British Red Cross in Scotland.

Isabel said: “Joining the British Red Cross had come about almost accidentally. We had spent the war years in Glasgow, where my father had worked in the Cowlairs Railway Works.

“I started primary school there but when my grandmother died and my grandfather wasn’t coping, we came back to Falkirk.

“It just so happened that the leader of the British Red Cross Link and Cadet Units in Falkirk was a Miss Elizabeth Fordyce, who was a great character and very well known in the community. It was really de rigeur for the young girls in her Primary 5 class to join her Link and Cadet Units.

“I came to learn quite quickly, however, what the Red Cross was all about. This was still very post-war so we were well aware of hardships, refugees, displaced persons and that side of things.

“In those days, we were taught domestic subjects at school, meaning we were able to knit blankets which were sent to refugees. We also filled linen bags with a toothbrush, soap, a towel, pencils, notepads, every day little things that children in countries which had undergone hardships would appreciate.”

After her beginnings in Link 333 of the British Red Cross, Isabel joined Cadet Unit 88, before moving on to Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), achieving her first aid and nursing certificates.

During her time in VADs, Isabel carried out work at the Falkirk Royal Infirmary, both in the wards and blood donor units, and was involved in tuberculosis screenings in Edinburgh.

After qualifying as a teacher, Isabel was accepted as a British Red Cross Cadet Officer and set up a new Cadet Unit in the organisation’s Falkirk Headquarters.

In 1966, Isabel moved with her husband, John, to Bermuda, where she continued her volunteering work for the Red Cross and set up a Cadet Unit at Mount St. Agnes Academy – although an administration error could have resulted in her officially celebrating 72 years of service rather than 75 this year.

Isabel explained: “They hadn’t recorded all of my membership in Bermuda, so when I came back to the UK I was missing three years of volunteering and had to claim that back.

“It was proved due to the fact I had attended committee meetings and the Field Officer for the West Indies and Bermuda had given a talk to the school on what the Red Cross did.

“Her name was Nancy Gibson and she reported back to London that yes, I had set up a Cadet Unit in 1967 in Bermuda. So if it wasn’t for that, I could have been celebrating the 72nd anniversary this year!”

After eight years in Bermuda, where Isabel set up Cadet Units in numerous schools in her role as Director – Junior Red Cross, she returned to Scotland, first living in Kincardine, Fife, and taking up the role of Assistant Branch Director (Youth).

In 1979, she moved with her family to Oman for four years, before finally settling in Edinburgh in 1984 where she became Assistant Branch Director (Youth) in the city. 

Among her many achievements and volunteering during this time, Isabel led a team of Cadet Officers and Cadets who ran the creche at the Royal Highland Show.

Isabel was appointed to a staff position with BRC in 1993, taking on the roles of Education Officer and then Recruitment and Training Manager (Volunteers), where she carried out training courses in First Aid and Ideals in Action until her retirement in 2002.

In the years since, she has continued to be a committed volunteer and supporter of the British Red Cross, helping with fundraising as well as giving talks to local groups and schools in Scotland about the work the organisation carries out both locally and further afield.

Isabel added: “I think as I got into adulthood, general interest in the British Red Cross led to me continuing to volunteer.

“Background maybe had a bit to do with it, both my parents’ sides in the previous generation, had been very involved in community groups or organisations doing volunteer work.

“I think what the Red Cross stands for is what keeps me going as a volunteer. When you become aware of the international side, and in my time abroad, I was able to see what other nations required to run their own branches.”

Isabel celebrates her years of work with the British Red Cross in the same year as the NHS marks 75 years in operation. She has been awarded Voluntary Medical Service medals during her time with the organisation, as well as a Badge of Honour for Devoted Service.

In her early days with the British Red Cross, Isabel was involved in sessions at Falkirk’s Royal Infirmary and later carried out training in the First Aid Centre within the grounds of Erskine Hospital.

Isabel added: “Every Sunday morning, as a 16-year-old, I would go up to Falkirk Royal Infirmary. You had to do a certain number of hours to validate your nursing certificates with the Red Cross.

“At that point I was doing highers and university applications, but you still weren’t sure which career you were going into – although for women in those days it was a bit limited. You were really expected to go into teaching or the medical profession. “It has always been quite an important relationship between the Red Cross and the NHS.”

Rob Murray, director for Scotland, British Red Cross, said: “Isabel’s story is inspirational and demonstrates the very best of the British Red Cross.

“To have given 75 years to the organisation, both as a volunteer and staff member, is incredible and I congratulate her on the milestone anniversary.

“On behalf of the British Red Cross, I’d like to sincerely thank Isabel for her hard work and dedication.”