For some people, volunteerism is just something they do. Their parents volunteered, or they enjoyed it in college, or their friends talked them into it. For others, however, it is truly a vocation—something that is such a part of their soul that they can’t NOT do it.
For De and Ray O’Brien, helping other people and working hard to improve their community is part of the fabric of their lives. And although they think they serve because “it’s just what you’re supposed to do,” the people they work with feel otherwise. It is their selfless dedication to what they do that prompted their colleagues to nominate them for an award. The Outstanding Citizenship Award is given annually by the Chamber of Commerce to a resident of our area who has demonstrated a long-term commitment of service to enhance the quality of life in our community. Nominees are active in all phases of community life. They exhibit the attributes of devotion and unselfish service to the civic, social, and political life of their community.
Although they say that it’s the amazing people they work with that make them look so good, the O’Briens so clearly demonstrate the attributes of the award that the selection committee was unanimous in their decision to give them the award for 2015 at their Awards Social on May 5th.
The O’Briens arrived in Fuquay-Varina 10 years ago from Oklahoma to be closer to their grandchildren, and within a year discovered the Fuquay-Varina Emergency Food Pantry. “I was working with the Catholic Daughters at St. Bernadette when Mary Frances Goddard came to speak at a meeting,” De remembers. “She ended up giving me a tour that Ray joined us for, and we decided right then and there to get involved.”
No stranger to volunteering prior to moving to North Carolina, the O’Briens were just starting to look for the right opportunity when Mary Frances came into their lives. “She is an amazing woman, and her skill at running that organization made us want to just jump right in,” Ray explains. “I began helping in the parking lot and ended up serving on the Board of Directors relatively soon after.” De started working at the front desk, but changed roles as needed, and now serves as the director of the volunteers.
In addition to serving in those roles, Ray also works with Laeron Roberts to pick up food, donated appliances and any other odd jobs that come along. “I cut firewood with Laeron when I first started, but that job has since been given to a church group.”
The most rewarding aspect of their work with the Pantry is being able to be of service to people in need. “We understand that God has a plan that we can’t see,” explains Ray. “People come in looking for one thing and leave with more.” Their work is about finding resources for people, and Ray shares a story of a man who came in talking about needing an air conditioner and another person dropping off an air conditioner the same day. “Things like that happen all the time around here,” he smiles. “You never know who will come in with a need. In an instant, you become a light in the dark for them, and you didn’t even know you were just what they needed at that moment.”
In the last few years, however, another opportunity to serve the community has become a very important part of their lives. Four years ago, De received a call at Christmas with the news that her brother had taken his life. Not wanting to bring the rest of the family down, De shared the news with a neighbor who she knew had also lost a brother to suicide. In the ensuing months, De’s neighbor Lisa Hoover did some research and found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She and De decided to organize an “Out of the Darkness” walk to raise awareness of suicide. Her neighbors banded together and helped the two women pull that together.
In their first year of organizing the walk, they won an award for the most money raised in a town with a population under 25,000. Part of the money from that first walk helped start a North Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which their group is very proud of. Every year since, they have broken their fundraising record from the year before. Each year now, 50% of the amount raised goes to the national chapter and 50% goes to the state chapter. Last year was their third year, and they raised $20,350 with 297 participants.
Because their fundraising has been so successful, the American Foundation has been able to start offering training programs to provide resources for first responders, therapists, and others who work in the mental health field. The Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) program was held this year for the first time over two days in March. A “Safe Talk” training program will also be offered on June 15th, with 50% of the program for ages 15 and up, and the other 50% for people who work with teens. The Foundation is very excited to be able to offer programs like this for the Fuquay-Varina area.
In the last couple of years, there has been an increased focus on the needs of military veterans. With Ray’s background as a retired Marine, the statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide every single day in this country has prompted him to focus more on veterans during the Out of the Darkness walk planning. “I have done quite a bit of work with Mike Dorman of Military Missions in Action,” says Ray. “In the process of building ramps and other projects with him, I discovered that his assistant’s husband had also committed suicide. I have really tried to pull the needs of our veterans into our planning process.”
The Out of the Darkness Walk for 2016 will be held on September 25th this year, and already has 15 registered participants and has raised over $1,000. “We have really high hopes that we will again surpass our fundraising from last year,” De shares. “The community support has been phenomenal. Even our police department is organizing a team and having a raffle to raise funds for the event!”
When Ray and De are not helping at the Food Pantry or working on mental health issues and planning the next Out of the Darkness Walk, they find time to relax—Ray with golf, and De with quilting. “I need an unwind day,” Ray smiles, “so I take Wednesdays. I still go into the Pantry to do some odd jobs, but the afternoon is mine.”
Anyone interested in helping with either the Food Pantry or the Out of Darkness Walk, or would like to register a team for this year’s event on September 25th, can contact De or Ray at (919) 285-8125 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.