BILLINGS, Mont. – Norma Pilkington is a legend. She’s too humble to say it, but her fellow Red Cross volunteers quickly reach for the word when describing the 84-year-old great, great grandmother from Bloomington, Ill.
The organization is famous for its volunteers, so what makes this lady, who introduces herself as “Mean and nasty,” stand out? Well, to start with, the Montana fire relief effort marks the 92nd time Pilkington has left her loved ones to help others following a disaster.
Since her first relief operation, a flood response in 1996, Pilkington has averaged nearly six deployments a year and normally spends Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and countless other days away from her family. She was in Montana for the birth of her seventh great, great grandchild and also her most recent birthday.
“When the restaurant found out, they gave me 84-percent off my bill,” she said with glee.
The client casework manager has responded to almost every type of disaster including wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and even an ice storm in Texas. “It was like a big saw had come and chopped the trees off,” she said.
Her most memorable Red Cross experience was the first of three deployments she made following 9/11.
About three weeks after the terrorist attack, Pilkington was helping people in the New York area. A lady had waited all day for assistance, but didn’t have the necessary paperwork. Pilkington handed her a phone card and told her to come back the following day.
Upon her arrival, the lady grabbed Norma and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“My mother loves you!” she was told. “She lives in Hong Kong and I didn’t have enough money to call and tell her that my son and I were alive until you gave me the card yesterday.”
Pilkington became involved with the Red Cross after taking an early retirement that she wasn’t ready for. Her pastor suggested disaster relief work and she hasn’t looked back.
“The Red Cross has made my senior years very worthwhile,” said Pilkington, who has never turned down an assignment. “God gives every one of us a certain thing to do and I feel that serving other people is mine.”
Her coworkers would agree.
“She is sharp as a knife, knows casework and does it well,” said John Luong, a client casework supervisor volunteer from Los Angeles. “It was humbling to work with someone who has so much experience and knowledge.”
She also has a great sense of humor. Years ago, her late husband tagged her with the “mean and nasty” call sign while using a ham radio. It’s a moniker she still goes by today.
“People remember you by that,” Pilkington said.
Luong, and presumably many others, would disagree. “She’ll be remembered more for much more than that,” he said.