FORT KNOX, Ky. – A Fort Knox volunteer stood in a state of disbelief Sept. 21 when the Kentucky Regional Red Cross CEO suddenly began to praise her personal contributions to the community.
Surrounded by her fellow Service to Armed Forces teammates, Denise McGillen couldn’t hide her surprise when what she thought was this year’s Santa’s Workshop open house also turned out to be her own awards ceremony. Unbeknownst to McGillen, she had been selected as the 2022 Clara Barton Award recipient for the state of Kentucky.
“I’m here to recognize a person who has been so critical to our organization,” said CEO Steve Cunanan. “Throughout her four years as a volunteer, solving problems and stepping up to do things wherever needed has been a hallmark of Denise’s service in the Red Cross.”
According to Cunanan, the Clara Barton Award – named for the Red Cross founder and established to recognize meritorious service in volunteer leadership positions – is one of the highest honors bestowed within the organization.
Though the honor came as a shock to McGillen, Fort Knox Red Cross Regional Director May Giulitto said she wasn’t at all surprised Denise, who has volunteered over 1,800 hours this year alone, was selected as the recipient.
“Denise has been nominated for Exceptional Volunteer for the Kentucky region for the last 2 years,” said Giulitto. “She received the Clara Barton Award at our chapter level earlier this year.”
The award is given each year; first at the chapter, then regional, and finally the national level, which McGillen will compete for later this year. With five chapters in the state of Kentucky, Giulitto said this win for McGillen is particularly special.
“We were so excited to hear she got the regional award,” said Giulitto. “In my 15 or so years here, no one from Service to the Armed Forces has won. This is just so exceptional.”
Giulitto explained those in disaster services are usually honored with this award due to the type of volunteer work they perform. With McGillen, however, she said her service as a caseworker for current and former military members and their Families has been immeasurable.
In addition to the often-difficult task of ensuring veterans are cared for and receive the help they need, Giulitto said McGillen regularly takes on much more than her normal duties.
“Whenever there is a need, Denise is willing to jump in and fill the role,” said Giulitto. “She provides support to all of our programs, and even steps in to man the front desk of the office when no one else is available.
“She’s also my volunteer partner, so when I’m gone, she’s in charge. She can handle any situation.”
Giulitto said McGillen’s personal background is part of what makes her such an exceptional volunteer.
“As a spouse, Denise knows and sees the needs of the military,” said Giulitto. “She is extremely compassionate, knowledgeable and intent on making sure military Families are provided resources to help them through challenging times.”
According to Giulitto, many of the military spouses at SAF feel the desire to show their appreciation to the community who supported their service member, especially when going through hardships. She said that desire is just what drives McGillen, too.
“Denise never wants anything in return. She’s just so kind-hearted and giving,” said Giulitto. “You don’t volunteer because you’re going to get paid or get something out of it. You do it because you feel like you’re giving something back.”
As the ceremony came to a close, McGillen looked down at her award with a smile and slowly shook her head. Like those who work with her pointed out repeatedly throughout the event, McGillen said her passion isn’t motivated by receiving recognition.
“We get to help so many people here. It’s just so heartwarming,” McGillen said. “I love the opportunity to help our veterans and retirees, especially when they’re on really hard times.”