by Annabel Cooper
When Ann Spencer-Arscott was awarded the ‘Badge of Honour’ from the British Red Cross for 25 years of dedicated service it was not just for the time she’d given and her determination to make people’s lives better.
Also driving the award was that she leads from the front, encouraging staff and volunteers to reach their full potential, and is always on the lookout for new ways to raise awareness and funds.
Three years on from that accolade and Ms Spencer-Arscott has no plans to slow down. She has been executive director of the Bermuda Red Cross since October 1999 and first started working for the organisation in June 1992. “I still love it. I still wake up eager to get to work, eager to try to make a difference and I’ve got a great team. I’m really honoured and proud to work with them,” she says.
She always knew she wanted to do a job that helped people.
“I grew up in an environment of volunteering,” she says. “My mother did a lot of volunteering. I was a Candy Striper, which is the teenage version of the Pink Ladies. I volunteered at school. I taught Sunday school.”
Ms Spencer-Arscott grew up in Smith’s. Her mother was a nurse who later worked at Trimingham’s, and her father worked for Bermuda Wholesalers. She has a younger brother and sister, who are twins. She herself had a twin sister who died in a tragic accident as a toddler: “She put a plastic bag over her head at 18 months. I always freak out when I see a plastic bag hanging around with kids. People don’t realise how fast things can happen. My mother was pregnant with my sister and brother when it happened.”
As a child she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up, like her mother. Later she wanted to be a teacher, but then decided she’d like to have her own business: “I didn’t know in what but I’ve always been very organised. My brother and sister would probably tell you I’ve been bossy and controlling,” she says, laughing. “I knew I had that quality!”
It was after she had her first son, Andrew, now 27, that she and the Red Cross found each other. She was working in the personnel department of Belco at the time, which was “pretty hectic”.
“My husband had a very active and busy schedule and I just had this awful feeling that I was not going to be having a lot of time with him, but I know I’m not a stay-at-home mum either.”
She was put in touch with Frank Gamble who was volunteer director at the time, and she hasn’t looked back since. Initially her role was part-time, but she points out, “When you’re in charity work, it’s never part-time. If you’re that type of a person who gives, it’s tough. You don’t mind and also the charities don’t realise how much work they need done and always ask more of people.”
Ms Spencer-Arscott had her second son, Ryan, in December 1995. “I had a great nanny and things were working really well and that was around the time when another hour was added or another two hours were added to the day. The beautiful thing about working for the Red Cross is that there’s a lot of flexibility. I could go to school to read, I could go to sports days, I could be home if they were sick.”
In the time that she has been with the Red Cross, the organisation has evolved exponentially. Among many other things, she started fundraising dinner dances. She also began offering CPR and first aid courses, expanded the hospital equipment rental service to include childcare items and she established the popular Thrift Shop.
One of the reasons she loves her job so much is because people tell her how much the Red Cross helps them. “It’s just knowing you’re making a difference. We bring companionship to seniors, we train people to be better prepared for the unexpected — whether it’s a breathing issue, a fire or a hurricane. It’s the full gamut.
“Our thrift shop has amazing stuff on offer. The prices are good so I feel we’re helping to bring dignity to people through our driving and our equipment rental as well. We really try to work with people who have financial constraints. These are tough times for many people.”
In spite of the positives, working for a charity has its challenges too. Managing volunteers and handling the budget are two in particular.
“Volunteers are just that,” she says. “They’re not paid. They can come and go as they want however, they are so vital to the third sector.”
It can also be hard justifying the budget.
“I believe that there some people who find it difficult to understand that many non-profits have to operate like a small business and therefore have to employ people to take charge of the programme that gets assistance from volunteers.”
Ms Spencer-Arscott’s family is all on the “volunteer list” with her children very involved in the Red Cross growing up. She is married to Robin with whom she also has a stepson, Steven, and two granddaughters, Madison and Emily.
When she isn’t working, she loves spending time with her family: “Most of our gatherings are around food — having dinner together, lunch together. I like to cook. There’s a really good beef stroganoff I make. My mother was Danish so there’s a lovely recipe for Danish meatballs.”
She is also on the board and Outreach Committee of Christ Church, Warwick, which includes fundraising activities to support Lorraine Rest Home and the Warwick Parish schools.
In terms of her Red Cross future, her immediate priority is to renovate their Berry Hill Road headquarters “to bring the thrift shop downstairs into the office area and to move the office upstairs”.
“Just today I was helping a lady with boxes to go upstairs and she said, ‘These stairs are the only drawback I have about this thrift shop’. We’re hoping we can start that this year.”
Looking back, she says she’s most proud of the fact that “the Red Cross has become more of a household name. People have a better understanding of what we’re about and what we do”.
Ms Spencer-Arscott turns 60 next year but says: “I would like to think that I will be here for as long as I feel I’m making a difference, moving the organisation forward and the board still feel I’m being effective.”
This Article was originally posted in the 2019 edition of the RG Summer Magazine.