Norma Smith vividly remembers the last time she saw her brother. She was nine; he was a 20-year-old heading overseas to serve as a bombardier and navigator in the Air Corps during World War II. The memory that lingers the strongest after all this time is the feel of his khaki uniform and the smell of wool wet from the snow as she leaped into his arms and hugged him goodbye. “It’s 80 years later and I still remember it to this day,” says Norma.
He wrote to his family about the Red Cross ladies that gave service members cookies, coffee, and doughnuts. Sadly, 2nd Lt. Norris Kenneth Calkins was killed in combat on May 17, 1943, shortly after his letter home. But that small detail of those volunteers stuck with Norma and led to an incredible 72 years of service to her community through the Red Cross.
“[Volunteering] gives back a lot more than you give it. The reward I have gotten for it in terms of satisfaction from a job well done and people who are unbelievably grateful and kind about what you’ve done for them. It makes you feel good and you’re doing something you know is helping,” says Norma.
It all started when she was an 18-year-old student nurse and got enrolled as a volunteer responder with the Red Cross in Detroit where she grew up. She graduated from Wayne State University College of Nursing in 1954 with a bachelor’s in nursing, her R.N. license, and her Public Health Nursing certificate. During her nursing career, she would often end up working with the Red Cross to set up blood banks in the hospitals where she worked as a hospital supervisor or director of nursing. She has also taught professional CPR for years.
She recalls one of her most memorable moments was “my feeling when I did CPR in the field for the first time, and it worked!” She was with her husband and three kids driving one Christmas Eve when they witnessed a car accident right in front of them, so they pulled over to help. The woman driving the car had gotten stuck behind the steering wheel. Norma assessed that she wasn’t breathing and quickly asked a service member who was also there to help her get the woman out. Norma instructed him to call 911, then started performing CPR. The woman regained consciousness after about four minutes and by then the paramedics had arrived.
“It is an incredibly satisfying feeling that you just saved a life,” says Norma.
Her service not only spans years, but many states – Michigan, South Carolina, California, and eventually to Bainbridge Island, Wash., where she and her husband, Jerome, moved when they retired in 1996. Located across from Seattle, she is active in the American Red Cross Northwest Region.
It is here that she added Disaster Action Team (DAT) responder to her Red Cross resumé and now has 14 years under her belt. She describes client response work – where she’d show up to fire calls at any hour – as “very rewarding because at four o’clock in the morning when you’re out there and they’re standing there in their slippers and pajamas and that’s all they got left in the world, it’s really nice the way you can help them.”
These days, she does disaster response calls – ensuring those affected by home fires have resources, someplace to stay, and basic necessities – mostly from home. She will also follow up with folks four to six weeks later to check in on them and make sure they still have the support they need.
In addition to her Red Cross work, Norma does Meals on Wheels, works for the Medical Reserve Corps, and assists the Department of Emergency Management at their warming centers. Because her nursing license is still valid, she does health care work at the local senior center, goes to nearby Indian reservations to give inoculations, and was able to help with COVID testing and vaccinations in her area.
It is an impressive amount of activity and perhaps the secret to her longevity. “My mother said to me years ago, ‘You get to lie down a long time when you’re dead so get up and go to work.’ And I’ve also seen it as a nurse. People who sit back and retire and do nothing don’t do well. What I do makes me feel good.”
On July 2, Norma threw a party to celebrate her 90th birthday. Jerome passed away six years ago (they were married for 52 years), but her three kids, three grandkids, and two great grandkids were there, along with about 70 of her Red Cross friends and colleagues from over the years who traveled to be there. Her daughter made her birthday cake featuring a picture of Norma proudly wearing her Red Cross gear – always promoting the organization and encouraging others to get involved.
“There are jobs for everybody. The Red Cross needs help in every area. You shouldn’t feel like you’ve got nothing to offer. Everybody has something to offer.”