This volunteer extraordinaire finds that she gets more out of community service than she gives - including a lot of fun.
- story by Denise Jacobs
For Bernie, nursing was an external response to an internal call, one inspired by her maternal Cajun grandmother, a “nurturing, caring, spiritual role model.” Cullen remembers her grandma as her “safe space.”
“I think,” Cullen muses, "if back then Grandma had had a profession, it would have been nursing. She may not have had the title, but she was the family’s first nurse . . . I knew that if I could just be one iota of that woman, I could consider myself successful.”
By all accounts, Bernie Cullen has arrived.
In August of 2018, the Hancock County Chamber recognized Cullen as one of Hancock County’s Outstanding Citizens, citing her numerous volunteer commitments. Bernie’s response to the recognition is rooted in gratitude.
“The community has embraced me and my family,” she says. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
“I’ve always been a joiner,” she notes, “from high school on. I always wanted to meet more people in the community. I never realized how many people I’d met until the Chamber Gala this year. I looked around the room that night, and I thought, ‘I know these people.’”
One of Cullen’s first volunteer involvements was with New Orleans’ Relay for Life in 1991. Relay, the biggest fundraiser effort for the American Cancer Society both internationally and nationally, was dear to Cullen’s heart because of her nursing experience in oncology and her personal experience as a mother (Cullen’s son, Joey, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010).
“It’s one thing to love your patients and help them through cancer,” she says, “and quite another when it’s your own child.”
Cullen is currently the chair of the Hancock County Relay for Life 2019 kick-off event and fundraiser, Dancing with the Relay Stars, scheduled for Saturday, January 26, at the Hollywood Casino.
“I see so many people improved by the money the American Cancer Society raises,” she says.
Of all Cullen’s volunteer commitments, Relay tops the list. Cullen says she can’t imagine not being involved in the organization in some way for as long as she lives.
Cullen’s volunteer experience has grown exponentially since her first experience as a retiree living in Waveland, when she felt an impulse to “beautify the city.” While the impulse extends into the present in so many ways, it began with Keep Waveland Beautiful.
“Beautifying gardens was within my comfort zone. I knew that I could pull weeds and prune trees, and I wanted to know more about gardening.” It was a good fit. Now, she is one of the co-chairs of KWB.
The first thing Cullen will tell you about volunteering is that “fit” is important.
“It needs to be a good fit. If it’s not the right fit for you, you can’t give them what they need, and you’re going to feel that it’s just work. I’ve done work. I’m not going to not get paid and not have fun. If I’m not getting paid for something, then it’s not going to be work; it’s going to be fun.”
For newbies interested in not getting paid for having fun, Cullen recommends the Hancock County Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), where she serves on the Advisory Board.
“You can basically pick and choose what you want to do with RSVP,” she says. “It’ so much fun! You don’t have to commit to anything long term—just a few hours will help.”
The Hancock County Library System is also a good fit for Bernie. “I’ve loved books since I was a little girl,” she says, “and the library was a place of refuge for me, so being able to work on behalf of the Library System is a labor of love. It’s an opportunity to give back,” and that’s what she’s been doing during her six years on the board, which she vice-chairs.
Every one of Cullen’s volunteer places gives her something in return. As a member of the Bay St. Louis Little Theater Guild, where husband Terry surprised her by pursuing an acting career in his retirement, Bernie has found the unexpected.
“In supporting my husband as an actor, I have found another family,” she says. “You won’t find me on the stage, but I can read plays and weed gardens!”
The unexpected has found its way into Cullen’s involvement with the Arts Hancock County, as well. “I am not an artist,” she says. “I don’t sculpt or paint or take photos, but I have enjoyed this year with the arts.”
As Board secretary, Cullen brings a sense of organization to the group, a skill she attributes to her nursing career. “As a nurse, you have a process. You’re organized. I often bring my nursing experience to my volunteer role.”
Are there drawbacks to such a deep commitment to community service? Nothing that outweighs the joy factor.
“Every six months, religiously, I look at what I’m involved in,” Cullen explains, “and I find there’s not one thing I want to give up. To me, if you work for your passion in community service, then you get the joy.” Still, at this point, she notes, “the bucket is full.”
What interests Cullen currently is mentoring. “I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” she says. “I want to help others have their day.” These fortunate “others” could not find themselves in more capable hands.
Comments are closed.