(KMSP) - 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.
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 and click on “Ways to Help.”