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First female CEO leading a modern St John Ambulance ACT

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Last year, when Bianca Russell wanted to learn more about how St John Ambulance ACT worked, she decided that she would volunteer.

The now CEO admits that she probably did “way too many” volunteer hours—200 in total.

“But I just really wanted to understand who those people were, get to know them personally, know what drives them, what engages them, and then have a full understanding of the sorts of people they are, because they’re bulk of what we do,” Bianca says.

What she learned was eye-opening. Bianca oversees 15 full-time staff and 220 volunteers. Volunteers can do first aid at events as big as Floriade, Raiders games, marathons and music festivals (Bianca went to Spilt Milk this year and was so busy she “didn’t stop” except to watch Peking Duck), to smaller events such as school fetes.

They can also volunteer with the CBR NightCrew program, an initiative between St John’s Ambulance and the ACT Government.

The volunteer team sets up a tent near Platform 8 of the Civic bus interchange on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 pm to 4 am. Bianca says she did “heaps of NightCrew” last year and admits there’s a “lot of vomit” involved.

“It’s a safe space where young girls or boys who might have drunk too much can come and recover, sober up a little bit and then we help them to get home by contacting friends or family or get them in a taxi,” Bianca says.

“The team wear white vests, so they’re easily recognisable, and are nonjudgmental. They don’t care what you’ve taken or what you’ve drunk … so long as you’re safe.”

Roving teams of volunteers also move around the city to find young people who might need assistance.

“So often, they might find girls alone—the friends have left them and they’re not well or they’re passed out,” Bianca explains.

Bianca says it was “incredible” to see such passionate, dedicated volunteers, many of whom are medical or nursing students and are as young as the partiers they assist, give up their Friday and Saturday nights, even in winter.

Bianca admits that it was an unusual approach to volunteer so much, and not one that any of her (male) predecessors had taken before. But as the first female CEO of St John Ambulance ACT, she wanted to understand every aspect of the organisation, and also reassure staff and volunteers after a tumultuous period of high staff turnover and financial instability, which she says is now over.

“My leadership style is a more compassionate and empathetic leadership style, which these people really needed,” Bianca says.

“But even last year I was told my leadership style was not OK: ‘People will mistake your kindness for weakness, cut it out, don’t be fluffy, don’t wish people a happy day.’”

But she thinks it’s time to challenge the idea of what a CEO should be. “I think women have known this is the way of leadership for a very long time, but there’s been a fear around doing it.”

Bianca has a “really varied background” in accounts, design and wedding photography. She started at St John Ambulance ACT in 2017 as an executive assistant and then moved into human resources and community engagement. Becoming the CEO was a “natural progression,” because she had already been involved in “every aspect” of the business.

“Given I understood financials and marketing and design, as well as people and HR and the laws and legalities around things, it was almost like I’d been accumulating random skills and they all came together in this role.”

As the new CEO she wants to bust some misconceptions about St John Ambulance ACT, the first being that it is government-funded.

“People don’t realise that we are a charity and we do work on people’s contributions,” she says.
“So every time someone does a first aid course with us, it helps us to then deliver [community engagement programs] for free.”

The charity teaches free basic-life savings skills to children in ACT primary schools, as well as to active retirees, and people at risk in the community such as those in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

“And the second misconception is that we are a military, religious, old boys club, and we’re definitely not that,” Bianca continues. “We are aiming for a modern St John Ambulance ACT.”

With that goal in mind, Bianca says the first aid courses are flexible and take into account people’s busy lives.

She’s especially passionate about the Caring for Kids first aid course, which she says is “really dedicated and gentle.”

Participants learn practical skills such as how to administer first aid to a baby or child who is choking or drowning, what signs of illness to look out for, and how to deal with bites and stings, poisoning, febrile convulsions, fever, diarrhoea, nappy rash, bleeding, burns and shocks, allergies, anaphylaxis, and asthma.

“As a parent there are moments where you really do freak out and you worry for your child and you’re not sure what to do,” Bianca says.

“So this is designed to really be practical training: These are the scenarios that might come up, and this is the best way to deal with them; These are the things that you need to look out for: This is serious, ring the ambulance.

“It’s about confidence as well. And in those sorts of situations, as a parent, you panic first and think rationally later. This allows you to have that ability to think it through more rationally and just deal with the situation more calmly.”

Babies 12 months and under are welcome to attend, and the team can also teach the first aid course externally, at a Playgroup or preschool, for example.

“We want to adapt and make it easy for everyone to get the training and the skills, because it is hard,” Bianca says.

“We’re all busy and first aid, unfortunately, comes down on the list because you don’t think you’ll ever need it.

“But every day we hear amazing stories about people who have saved someone’s life with a few simple skills. When you hear that, you think, ‘This is why we do what we do.’”

This editorial was created in partnership with St John Ambulance ACT. For more information on sponsored partnerships, click here

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