Six decades of service recognised

29 January 2024

Mobilising the power of humanity needs extraordinary human beings. That’s why every year we recognise the service of our people through national honours and awards. We’re a team of over 500 employees and 9,000 members and volunteers across the motu from Kaitaia to Invercargill.

Over 100 Red Cross people were recognised for their service in 2023 and Napier local Joan Cockburn was one of them. Already a Counsellor of Honour — Red Cross’ highest honour — she received a Service Award which recognises her 60 years of service to Red Cross.

Joan first became involved with Red Cross in 1963, joining what was then Red Cross’ Waihau/Patoka Branch. Members learned first aid and organised fundraising events. Joan started going to area meetings in Napier, which expanded to her attending National Council — New Zealand Red Cross’ highest governing body — in Wellington each year. In 1982, she was elected to the National Board, “that was a real education and a stretch of the imagination in many things, in many ways,” she said.

In 1986, she was elected as Red Cross’ National President, a position she held for six years. She was the second ever woman to be elected to the position. “The thing that has always stuck in my mind was the fact that the first woman president of New Zealand Red Cross was Helen Lowry from Hawke’s Bay in 1931,” she said.

That same year, Joan and two other executive members went to Geneva for the 25th International Conference of the Red Cross — now known as the General Assembly and Council of Delegates — the highest governing body of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. At the conference, New Zealand Red Cross was elected to the Executive Council of the Federation. For the four-year term that New Zealand Red Cross was on the council, Joan travelled to Geneva twice a year, as well as other trips overseas for Federation activities.

This included Hong Kong, where she visited refugee camps for people who’d fled Viet Nam in boats or ships. “Visiting those camps and seeing those people made me realise what a vital role Red Cross plays in the world, and I suppose that’s why I’ve kept going.”

In 1989, New Zealand Red Cross received an invitation from the Red Cross Society of China. “My feeling was that we needed to support the Red Cross Society of China, because in the riots that had taken place in Tiananmen Square earlier in the year, Red Cross had set up a first aid centre about two blocks away,” she said.

“They’d done it quietly, there was no press aware of what was going on – but word got round to the protesters, those who were injured, that there was help round the corner if you got there. They’d done exactly what Red Cross should do.”

They accepted the invitation and Joan travelled with the delegation to China. Once there, they were invited to a meeting with a representative of the Chinese Government, who talked about what had occurred in Tiananmen Square. “We just said to him that we congratulated the Chinese Red Cross Society for what they had done, ‘how proud you must be of the fact that they had abided by the principles of Red Cross’.”

Joan grew up in Napier, where she met and married her husband Alan in 1957. They were farmers in Waihau and had four children.  As well as being a dedicated Red Cross member, Joan has also been a Presbyterian Church Elder, member of the Country Women’s Institute, and a Justice of the Peace.

Even after 60 years, Joan is still involved in Red Cross and has no plans to stop, “what I do now is pretty minimal, but by keeping things ticking over in this part of the world means that we’re a stronger society in the worldwide picture,” she said.

“My heart’s certainly in Red Cross.”

Thank you to the Knowledge Bank – Hawke’s Bay Digital Archives Trust for allowing the use of Joan’s oral history for this story.

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Thank you to all our people for your contributions to our mission and Movement – we couldn’t do it without you.

Image shows Jocelyn, Lady Keith, Joan Cockburn, and Denise Coulam – Red Cross Napier Branch President.