Content Warning: Points of Light is proud to share the following uplifting and inspiring story. However, we acknowledge that a portion mentions abuse and may be difficult for some readers. We encourage you to please care for your own wellbeing above all.
Dena Burian Blacklaw has been volunteering since childhood. “It’s the way I grew up,” she says. Over the years, she has volunteered for a variety of organizations around her Albany, Oregon community, including animal shelters, the Mid Valley Gleaners, Habitat for Humanity and the Lebanon Optimists.
While all of these causes are important to her, the main focus of Dena’s volunteering is Dala’s Blue Angels, an 11-year-old nonprofit focused on child abuse awareness and prevention. As President of the organization, Dena works to raise awareness, as well as organize its many events and raise funds for organizations that support survivors of abuse. To date, Dala’s Blue Angels has raised over $100,000 for community organizations.
Read on to learn what drives Dena to volunteer and how she is helping her community to have difficult conversations around an important subject.
What inspires you to volunteer?
Dala Johnson, the founder of Dala’s Blue Angels, works for the Lebanon Police Department. Dala was deeply touched by a local case involving child abuse. She founded Dala’s Blue Angels as a way to raise awareness about child abuse, and to raise funds for organizations that assist victims.
When Dala asked me to join her, I immediately said yes. The community needs to talk about child abuse, because it’s more prevalent than people think. It’s a subject that people don’t want to talk about. They don’t want to face it, they don’t want to admit it happens in even the “best” families. Well, someone has to talk about it and do what we can to stop it!
Describe your volunteer role with Dala’s Blue Angels.
I am currently the President of Dala’s Blue Angels. I preside over monthly board meetings and all Blue Angel meetings. I do a lot of “spreading the word” and fundraising. Fundraising is essential for our organization. I keep members informed of our events, meetings and fundraisers. I also handle most of our Facebook activities.
I’m also there for any community member who has questions about what we do. In fact recently, a man came up to me and asked if we were the Blue Angels that fly fighter jets. I laughed and said ‘No, we’re the ones who help save kids from abuse.’
Some of our 20 Blue Angels volunteers are certified as security guards. We volunteer at several local events as a way to raise funds. This includes providing security for the Strawberry Festival, Boys and Girls Clubs events and high school graduations.
I also organize and support many other events, including raffles, online auctions, bottle/can drives, hot dog sales, car washes, the Cast with a Cop event, the Santiam Excursion train for First Responders/Veterans, traffic control for the Corvallis Marathon and the National Night Out each year.
Every April during Child Abuse Awareness Month, we “Turn Lebanon Blue” with blue ribbons, pinwheels and signs, to raise awareness of the issue. The first Saturday of the month, we organize a Walk a Mile for a Child 5K event. This is a bittersweet event filled with vendors, speakers and plenty of things for kids to do. Unfortunately, we also honor a child from our community who has died because of abuse. This year we were able to honor a 16-year-old survivor of abuse rather than a deceased child, which was a positive experience.
I am one of the volunteers standing out in front of businesses wearing blue tutus to help raise donations. I also help shop for kids at the annual “Kidzshop” held by the Altrusa International of Albany, of which I am also President.
We donate all money raised to local agencies that help child abuse victims. We try to request specifically what a donation is for. For example, the ABC House got a $10,000 donation from us with the intent that they use it for an exam table where abused children are examined after reports of abuse. We donate money for staff training expenses, goods like diapers and baby wipes, food, and shelter for victims of domestic abuse. We’ve raised well over $100,000 in the 11 years Dala’s Blue Angels has been in operation and all of it has gone back into the community.
Mostly, my aim is to raise funds and spread the word. Whatever I can do to raise funds and get the word out, I do it.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Being able to donate money to organizations that were previously unable to help their clients as much as they wanted to. Honestly, I wish I didn’t have to fight against child abuse but it has to be done. Somebody has to do it. But it’s rewarding when somebody that has been struggling with past trauma is finally able to tell their story. This happened recently when Dala and I were “Turning Lebanon Blue” with blue ribbons. A woman came up to us at the park and asked what we were doing. When Dala told her, the woman broke down and told us her own story of childhood abuse. She had never been able to say anything before, but now she could get the story out.
Like Dala, founder of Dala’s Blue Angels, says, ‘If we can save one child we have done our job.’
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
To quit raising my hand. (laughs). I’ve learned a lot of effective ways to raise money. I’ve learned that there’s a huge need for people who are willing to help.
I have learned about myself, too. I’ve always been a loving, caring person, and I am so appreciative of the volunteer organizations I participate in. Volunteering is a way to figure yourself out, in a way helping yourself while helping others.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
We will be participating in the National Night Out in Lebanon which is a nationwide event where the community gets to know neighbors and police officers and discusses community safety.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
The issue is there, it needs to be talked about. What I do makes my heart happy. Makes me feel like I’m making a difference in my community.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
My 20 fellow Blue Angels are a close family and we aren’t picky about what we do to help. Whatever needs to be done, we do it. We show people that someone does care. We care about each other, and we care about the people in our community.
If you or someone you know has experienced the trauma of sexual assault or rape, you can support them by listening, letting them know you believe them and offering to help them find medical attention or mental health support. Contact RAINN to find help near you or call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk to a trained crisis counselor. These services are free and confidential.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Dena? Find local volunteer opportunities.