Volunteer Service Award winner inspired to help
“I am grateful for every opportunity I have to be of service, and I feel like my career is my calling. It’s an opportunity for me to serve my fellow man.”
These are more than just strong words from Nurse Practitioner Deanna Sykes, the Athabasca University (AU) 2020 Volunteer Service Award winner—her actions speak louder than these words ever could.
She has an impressive list of professional and volunteer accomplishments, including two graduate degrees and philanthropic work that spans the globe, including Haiti, Israel, Guatemala, and Cambodia.
These accomplishments would be notable over the span of a 40-year career, but are made all the more impressive for the fact Sykes has been a nurse for less than half that time.
Sykes grew up in Ontario, where she developed an early appreciation of volunteering through involvement in groups like the Girl Guides, although volunteering wasn’t at that point a significant passion in her life.
She finished high school at 17, and went to college in the United States, but at that time didn’t develop much of a sense of the value of education. Rather, she describes her only priority at the time as having fun.
Shortly thereafter she returned to Ontario, then moved out to Alberta, where she and her husband had six children. She wanted to return to university, but wanted her husband to have that experience first.
It wasn’t until her oldest child was 20 that she returned to school, first upgrading her high-school marks then taking a two-year nursing program in Edmonton.
“As soon as I got out working, it wasn’t long before I started working on my degree through Athabasca. That was pretty soon after I became a Registered Nurse,” Sykes said.
She finished her Bachelor of Nursing from AU in 2011. Working in a rural emergency room, she soon realized she wanted more autonomy, so she returned to AU and completed a Master of Nursing – Nurse Practitioner degree in 2016.
She has since then also completed a graduate degree in disaster and emergency management. Most recently, she completed training through the Center for Functional Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, focusing on a more holistic approach to health.
“I was always involved in some kind of helping thing,” Sykes said. “But the real trigger for me was working as a nurse.”
Through a friendship with a physician who had done not-for-profit work in Israel, she was inspired her to find a way to help. She found a way to help in Sderot, an Israeli city near the Gaza Strip border that has often been subject to rocket attacks—so she went once or twice per year to help out, developing relationships with some high-ranking officials in that country.
In 2010, when an earthquake hit the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti, she knew she had friend in Israel who were helping with disaster relief, and she got a team of Canadians together to help.
Sykes recalls an experience in Haiti that had a profound impact on her. While working in Haiti, the team’s local interpreter asked them to visit a more remote community.
“He took me to a little orphanage where there were 30 kids, and a man and his wife had started the orphanage before the earthquake,” she said. “And then the guy running the orphanage said to me can you help, even a dollar a day would help.”
The man wanted to build a school for their community, and so Sykes worked to launch the Foundation for Rebuilding Lives, of which she is still the president.
“I was always involved in some kind of helping thing, but the real trigger for me was working as a nurse. ”– Deanna Sykes
Sykes was further inspired in this work after doing a presentation at a school in Hill Spring, Alta., about the foundation’s work to build a school in Haiti.
“We showed them all the pictures in Haiti, and it was just so amazing to see these kids’ hearts moved. It brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “They raised money for that year, they worked hard, and we took all that money to Haiti.”
Her foundation, in partnership with other organizations, raised money to build that school in Petionville, Haiti, which now serves 300 students in that community.
Called to serve
Despite so many notable accomplishments, Sykes is humble about her own role, preferring instead to emphasize the importance of community in making these kinds of positive impacts on the world—if you ask her, she will insist none of this is about her.
She added that especially during this time, with the COVID-19 global pandemic, the real heroes aren’t people like her, but rather the healthcare staff working together on the front lines to keep the community safe.
“Sometimes I forget the things you do because life gets busy, and I think wow, I’ve done a lot of things in my life that have been high adventure, and that’s great, but it’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about community, it’s about working together, and it’s about connecting.”
Learn more about the Alumni Awards and watch short videos about the 2020 winners on the Alumni Awards webpage.