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Guiding younger generations

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Joan Vanputten with medals she won for community service with St John’s Ambulance Brigade and the Salvation Army Girl Guides (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Joan Vanputten pledged to do her best and serve others as a Girl Guide at 15. Now, aged 80, she insists she “still lives by the words” she uttered at the Salvation Army’s Second Excelsior Girl Guide Company’s weekly meetings.

“The Salvation Army had their own uniforms, separate from the British Girl Guides,” she said. “We looked sharp.”

She later became a dedicated leader — with the Second Hamilton Girl Guides, the First Shelly Bay Girl Guide Company and the First Newlands Girl Guide company.

She loved taking her girls camping or on long hikes or nature walks. She particularly loved bush cooking with them.

“Everyone would bring some water, a pot and some food, like carrots,” she said. “Then they’d cook in the outdoors.”

She often bumps into her former Girl Guides, all grown up.

“I was out to a function on Saturday evening and I saw this lady and I thought she looked familiar,” Ms Vanputten said.

“She came up after a while and I looked at her. She was one of my girls from way back at the Salvation Army on Court Street. That was years ago.

“I have had one girl meet me and ask me if I still have Girl Guides. When I said no, she said: ‘But I want to send my daughter to you’.”

She has not entirely retired. She is part of the Trefoil Guild for older guiders who want to stay involved.

“We meet once a month, just about, except for the holidays,” she said. “If a guider from your company needs assistance, it is for them to let us know.”

She grew up on Happy Valley Road, Pembroke. Her father Joseph Thomas worked in Dockyard; her mother, Irma, was a maid.

She found her other lifelong passion at 16 — The St John Ambulance Brigade. The organisation was then without an actual ambulance or headquarters and would meet on Victoria Street, in office space above the health department.

To get volunteers to events such as Cup Match, Bessie Barton, the leader of the brigade, would pack them into her grey station wagon.

Ms Vanputten would sometimes zip off on her own to tend to an emergency, on her red Honda motorcycle.

“Bikes in those days weren’t as powerful as they are today,” she said. “If I went over a hill I’d have to completely open up the gas.”

A basket on the side was packed with all her first-aid supplies — everything from plasters to arm slings to hydrogen peroxide.

Sometimes the work involved patching up a few scrapes, other times it was more serious. She remembered one young man who died of a horrific head injury after a motorcycle accident. The law did not require people to wear helmets at the time.

There was also the time a man died at Cup Match despite her efforts at artificial respiration.

After that she backed off for a bit. “I didn’t quit going, I just did a little less duty,” she said.

Eventually, she moved on from the tragedy and was back to volunteering — sometimes three nights a week.

She earned a living caring for children in her family, and at one point worked the evening shift in a seniors’ home.

In her 20s she studied to become a nurse, earning a post graduate diploma in 1961.

“But in the end I decided to stay with the St John Ambulance,” said Ms Vanputten, who only left the organisation when she turned 65, having volunteered for 49 years.

“I figured they had all those young people in there to do all that lifting and bending,” she said.

Today she stays busy by selling fundraising tags for a number of different charities including Age Concern, Pride Bermuda and the Packwood Home.

“You have to step aside and let the younger people get involved,” she said. “But if there is something I can help out with I will do it.”

For her years of community service, Ms Vanputten has received the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour, the Salvation Army Emblem and, from the Bermuda National Trust, the Bermudiana Award.

“The Bermudiana Award was a necklace with three Bermudiana flowers on a round pendant,” she said. “It hooked on to a blue ribbon with a yellow stripe.”

At the last Girl Guide Thinking Day Service at the Anglican Cathedral in Hamilton, she did not pin the necklace properly and lost it.

She is still hoping that someone will find it and return it.

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

Joan Vanputten has always lived by the Girl Guide creed (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Joan Vanputten (Photograph by Akil Simmons)