The Chief Reindeer

By Karoline Cullen

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I call Carlene on New Year’s Day and ask “What time did you get in last night?”

“Around 5:30 AM.” she replies with a yawn.

The logical conclusion is that this energetic, late-60s dynamo was out partying. Not so. In her own fashion, Carlene welcomed in the New Year as part of an Operation Red Nose team driving holiday celebrants home safely.

Operation Red Nose (ORN) is widely supported in communities across Canada and in several European countries. It began in 1984 in Quebec City as a fundraiser for Laval University’s swim team. Over the holiday season, in at least 13 communities in British Columbia, alone, teams of three: a driver, a navigator, and an escort driver, ensure party goers and their vehicles are driven home. Not a taxi service, it is an alternative to drinking and driving. There is no charge for the service, but all donations raised are in support of youth.

If you happen to be in a pub or restaurant on a weekend evening in December, you may meet Rudi, the reindeer mascot. Rudi has a big red nose, white antlers, and a red jacket. Rudi may play a tune with the band on stage or sidle up to the bar for a chat. Rudi never leaves without posing for photos, getting a hug, or handing out cards with the ORN dispatch number to patrons.

Calls for rides are accepted from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. The dispatcher’s challenge is to learn from exuberant callers where they want to be picked up, what type of vehicle they have, and where they live. Once all the relevant information is collected, the head dispatcher alerts a driving team closest to the pickup point and the team heads out.

Carlene Lewall is the “Chief Reindeer” or the chair of the Delta/Richmond Operation Red Nose, which started in 2002 as a fundraiser for the Delta Gymnastics Society.

“It is a huge undertaking, but it’s a fun thing to do and it’s a great service,” says Carlene.

She coordinates the large group of volunteers needed to solicit sponsorships, organize driving and office support teams, stock the dispatch centre with food and thank you gifts for the teams, contact the media, coordinate with the police and ICBC and, of course, make sure Rudi and his handlers are ready to go.

In 2014, the Delta team of 427 volunteers worked nine nights from the end of November to New Year’s Eve. One-hundred-and-thirty-nine driving teams gave 614 rides and covered just over 29,000 kilometres.

People like meeting others who are volunteering and, each year, volunteers renew friendships made in previous years. Several couples make driving on New Year’s Eve their annual tradition. Kathleen is often inside the reindeer suit. She has volunteered every year because her husband died from a drunk driver and she does not want that to happen to anyone else. John has been on a driving team every night of every year since the beginning. He saw ORN operating in Quebec and thought it was such an amazing idea that he promised himself if it ever came to his community, he would volunteer. He told Carlene his dedicated participation is just fulfilling what he told himself.  

A thank you dinner for the volunteers is held in the New Year. The venue, the food, and recognition gifts are all donated by sponsors. Stories are swapped about driving many kilometres in all types of weather and of donations large and small. It is a jolly, social time.

Carlene has always believed in volunteering, and like that battery powered bunny, she just keeps going and going. Beyond the coaching and executive director duties she did for many years at the Delta Gymnastics Society since 1979, she served on a variety of Gymnastics BC committees including judging, coaching development, technical, and the Board of Directors. Gymnastics BC awarded her its Volunteer of the Year Award in 2000 and its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. More recently, she was instrumental in getting the Delta Sport Development Centre built, which opened in 2011.

Her energetic contributions go far beyond the gymnastics world. From 2008 to 2010, she spearheaded the 2010 Spirit of Delta Community Committee in advance of the Vancouver Olympics. She is one of the founders of the Delta Sport Council, serves as chair of Kidsport Delta, and is on the Ladner Business Association Executive, the Delta Sports Hall of Fame committee, and the Tourism Delta committee. Regarding that pursuit, she comments “I thought working in the tourism sector might be a possibility at one point in my life. I love BC and love inviting people to visit.” In recognition of her extraordinary service to the community, the Delta Chamber of Commerce named her Citizen of the Year in 2011. Also in that year, she was given a BC Community Achievement Award.  

Besides all of the above, she delights in her five grandchildren. She is a wonderful cook, loves to garden, and enjoys travelling to places where she can experience the people and culture. Her zest for life is a never ending inspiration.

She strongly believes in the youth of Delta and the benefits they can garner from physical literacy and sport. “I am very excited about Delta Gymnastics’ mission to promote physical literacy. Through sport, we are developing many wonderful characteristics in young people. They are our future leaders.”  

Her belief in volunteering never wavers. “You can volunteer to learn a new skill or to be around people who might mentor you. Or you have a skill and you give back by sharing your knowledge. It is very satisfying. If you believe in something, go for it and make a difference. Just do it!”
Aside from calling for a ride in the holiday season, there are many ways to support Operation Red Nose. Individuals can volunteer for driving, dispatch, or organizational roles. Businesses can sponsor ORN by supplying many of the things for the program and its volunteers: phones, food, advertising, and recognition gifts. Companies can coordinate their holiday party with Operation Red Nose as well.

See the following websites for more information:




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