This summer I thought of Walter de la Mare’s line, “look thy last on all things lovely every hour.” It had become indelibly imprinted on my memory when I was still in school decades ago. Although I don’t recall thinking about it consciously at that time, it probably was a reminder that the colour and beauty in people and all life have a finite shelf life.
One glorious day as Linda and I were walking across the tailings that remain from the gold mining era, de la Mare’s words quietly alerted me to the spectacular splendour surrounding us. I decided to record some of the awesome scenes impacting our senses every day, in a variety of situations. The following are a few excerpts from my growing collection of personal encounters with beauty and colour.
I noticed Phaedra’s golden hair and pretty face at the potluck to raise funds for the Tillotson family after their home burned. She was at a table with her children. I didn’t know her and was hesitant to ask if I could take her picture. Feeling she would bring a touch of colour and interest, I approached her with the question. She looked at me rather quizzically. “Why?” she asked, obviously perplexed at this request from a stranger.
“I’m looking for a pretty face for my blog,” I answered.
Her dubious expression suggested she doubted I was serious in selecting her for this role. After a moment of hesitation and consideration, she graciously agreed. Anywhere else I might have been quickly rebuffed, but this is Hedley. And she is pretty.
Lynn Wells had a luxurious assortment of sunflower plants this summer. While enjoying a cup of tea with her partner Bill Day, I asked permission to get a few photos. It occurred to me I should have Bill in the midst of that brilliance. He’s a colourful character himself and has an adventurous past.
Linda and I hike up Hospital Hill or along 20 Mile Creek virtually every day. This entails crossing the bridge over the creek. Almost without exception, we stand quietly on the bridge for a few moments, enthralled by the changes that occur in water levels, colours of the trees, the towering mountains around us, the smell of clean air, etc. Each side of the bridge offers its distinctive, attention holding ambiance.
This former tailings pond is about a 20 minute walk from town. In summer the growth takes on a shimmering golden hue. In autumn the gold colouring gives way to a rich brown. Surrounded by the green mountains, this majestic scene is always an inspiration. Sometimes we stand quietly, in contemplative awe and silence, overwhelmed by a sense of total insignificance.
Now, in late autumn with winter already whitening the mountain peaks, I’m becoming aware once again that this season, like the others, invites us to “look thy last on all things lovely every hour.”
In the early 1990’s I was digging a trench in the back yard of our Aldergrove home. I had my radio tuned to Peter Gzowski`s “Morning Side” program. When he said, “my next guests will be Keith and Marilyn Lamont of Langley,” I lay down my shovel and listened. I knew that Christine Lamont and her fiancee David Spencer were serving lengthy sentences in a maximum security penitentiary in Sao Paulo, Brazil. They had been implicated in the kidnapping of Brazilian supermarket magnate, Abilio Diniz.
I felt no compassion for the young couple, but the pathos in the Lamonts’ voices that morning somewhat softened my thinking. I knew Linda and I would be devastated if it was our daughter.
Looking over my shoulder today and reflecting on my increasingly many years, I’m reminded of author Rick Warren’s words “predictability is the great enemy of adventure.” I was never good at predictability. Possibly my attention span is too limited. I have repeatedly been diverted onto unfamiliar side excursions, sometimes to Linda’s consternation. On this day I would again lapse into the uncertain realm of unpredictability.
After the radio interview I called the Lamont home, planning to say I’d write our MP. A friend of the family was taking calls. She invited us to a meeting at Christ Church Cathedral that Thursday. Our decision to attend would divert our lives onto what poet Robert Frost might have deemed “the path less taken.”
In a basement meeting room of the cathedral we sat in the back row, wanting to remain anonymous. When the MC offered an opportunity for comment though, I got up and made a suggestion. At the end of the meeting, the grey haired man sitting in front of us turned around. Smiling broadly he said, “My name is Eric. I`m chairman of Canadians for Justice for Christine Lamont and David Spencer. Ì’d like to invite you to our next committee meeting.” Having been deeply impacted by Keith and Marilyn Lamont’s account and their gracious, unassuming natures, we accepted. It would prove to be a further step into unfamiliar terrain.
Learning I was a member of a Toastmasters club, the Lamonts asked me to be their media liaison. I quickly realized how aggressively reporters were pursuing this international story. Calls from major media like the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, MacLean’s Magazine, Global TV and others, began flowing to me.
For the Canadian media kidnapping was a crime easy to report on harshly. One morning the phone awakened me at 6:30. I agreed to do an interview with a radio talk show in Toronto. Wanting to stir up controversy and arouse emotions, the two hosts attempted to frustrate me and push me into uncomfortable corners. Standing outside on the patio, I smiled, determined not to give them the satisfaction.
Some of our family and friends were mystified by our decision to work for the release of 2 kidnappers. At times we were also troubled. We did know though that people in some Latin American nations were living in extremely difficult, often dangerous circumstances. On an SFU class research project in El Salvador several years earlier, Christine had seen the bodies of homeless youths strewn along the sides of streets, shot by the police. We also learned that Salvadoran army units at times entered villages and threw babies in the air and shot at them for target practise. Christine and David had joined the Brazilian kidnapping plot to raise funds to change conditions in El Salvador.
In 1998, after 9 years in the dangerous Sao Paulo penitentiary, they were turned over to Canadian prison authorities. That November, having served one third of their sentence, they were given mandatory parole. The Lamonts arranged a social evening for our committee to meet Christine and David just before Christmas. I didn’t look forward to this, thinking they would be hardened criminals. Amazingly, Linda and I found them to be soft spoken, uncomplaining and just wanting to again live as average citizens. They turned down all requests for media interviews, including an offer of $25,000.
By stepping onto this unpredictable “path less taken,” Linda and I gained unique experience and understanding. We also became friends with Keith and Marilyn Lamont, two of the most gracious, unpretentious people we know. Now married, Christine Lamont and David Spencer are law abiding, productive members of their community.
Although the Penticton Vees had won the coveted Allan Cup in 1954, a huge uproar ensued when they were selected to represent Canada in the 1955 World Hockey Championship. “Some at the top of the Canadian hockey scene insisted on an all-star team,” Ivan McLelland told Linda and me during a 2 hour conversation in his comfortable Penticton home. “They complained that at 23 I was too young and inexperienced to be in the net. They wanted Harry Lumly of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Canada had lost to the Soviets the previous year and winning was a matter of national pride.”
Born in South Porcupine, a small Ontario community, Ivan has experienced a good deal of success in his 85 years, but he certainly didn’t get off to an auspicious start. “My dad worked away from home a lot,” he said. “We lived in what was virtually a shack. With 14 kids, my mother’s life was difficult. I got in a lot of trouble. When I was hauled before a judge it really scared me.”
Fortunately, hockey attracted his interest at a young age. “We played on the ponds all winter,” he told us. “When the ice melted, we played road hockey and baseball. Father Les Costello noticed me and asked me to try out for the local juvenile hockey team. Hockey turned me around.” Like a lot of Canadian boys, he started thinking NHL. “Often I lay on the floor of our home, dreaming about playing at that level.”
He wasn’t a good student. “In grade 10 the principal suggested I quit school and find a job.” He was hired by the local gold mine and worked underground. To help his Mom keep the family together, he handed over most of his earnings to her. For 2 years he played for the mine team, the Dome Porkies.
In the net he was agile, with quick reflexes. He was developing an ability to focus intensely on the puck. A New York Rangers scout noticed his skill and grit and he was sent to the Vancouver Canucks, at that time a New York “farm” team.
He smiled at this point. “I made the team but Gump Worsly was in goal. This was 1951 and there was no place for a backup goalie. Coley Hall, the owner, wanted to send me to Penticton where the Vees were being assembled as a team. He told me it was the most beautiful city in B.C. and the only place in Canada where I’d see girls in 2 piece bathing suits. He also told me I’d have to be tough minded because many of the players would be cast-offs from other teams, so we weren’t likely to win a lot.”
Ivan reflected for a moment, then said, “I was the first player to ever put on a Vees uniform. We were an assortment of disparate characters. Some quiet, some crazy partyers. That first season we won 15 of 54 games. The fans cheered us whether we won or lost.”
“Goal tending is as much mental as physical,” Ivan observed. “In 1954 we played 102 games. In the playoffs for the Allan Cup we were the underdogs. We shouldn’t have been there. Every team was better, on paper. We had to come from behind at each level.”
After winning the Allan Cup they were selected to represent Canada in the Hockey World Championship in West Germany. Wanting to squeeze them out, the top hockey people required the team to raise $30,000 in 2 months, a virtual impossibility. An Alberta radio DJ drew attention to this and said he was sending the team $10.00. People responded and in one month the money was in place.
Coach Warwick courageously insisted on taking the entire team and the players rewarded him with a determined, high calibre effort. Ivan confounded Canadian hockey brass, posting 4 shutouts, a record which still stands. He allowed only 6 goals. The Vees defeated the Soviets’ “Big Red Machine” 5-0.
Ivan has received many forms of recognition, including induction into the BC Sports Hall of Fame (2005). His book “From Gold Mine to Gold Medal” sold out very quickly. He speaks to community groups 25-30 times a year. His awesome power to focus is still in place. “I’m telling the story of the Penticton Vees to inspire people to believe they too can rise above difficult circumstances and beat the odds.”
The blaze that destroyed the aged Tillotson home in Hedley on Remembrance Day is still stirring hearts in the Similkameen valley and beyond. It was the home of Joan Tillotson, her daughter Amy Schindel, and Amy’s 3 year old son Joey. There were many hugs for the two women at a fund raiser potluck Sunday evening. The highlight for Joey was a cake with candles to celebrate his 3rd birthday.
In a conversation with Amy after the meal, the young mother said “We lost everything, but I have Joey. That’s the most important thing. He was sleeping on a couch when my mother and I stepped out onto the porch for a couple of minutes. I suddenly noticed a glow and ran in. Joey was crying. The fire was spreading so quickly all I could do was pick him up and run out.”
“Joey was traumatized,” Joan said. “For a few days, he didn’t talk. He just made noises. Even now he’s frightened when he sees fire, or if there is a loud bang.”
“I know I should have grabbed my wallet to save my ID,” Joan added, “but it was hot and the house was filling with smoke. It all happened so quickly my mind went blank. We got out with only the clothes we were wearing.”
The Tillotson family moved into the two story house in 1954. Joan was age 4 at the time. Later, as a young adult she moved out.
“Amy was the daughter of my sister,” she said. “When my sister died, I adopted Amy. She’s my daughter. My Dad passed away when he was 93 and the house was empty, so we moved back in.”
The potluck, held at the Hedley Community Club, was one of several ongoing fundraisers in the community. It was spearheaded by Doug & TJ Bratt, owners of the Hedley Country Market. TJ said, “The donation box at the store has already garnered approximately one thousand dollars. Pointing to a large jar brimming with donations, she said “There’s probably another five hundred in there.” About 60 people were at the event.
Funds are also being raised by the Hedley Seniors’ Centre and the Hedley Grace Church. Because there was no insurance on the home and everything was burned, there is also a need for clothing and household items. Online donations can be made by transferring funds to email@example.com.
“The moral support of so many people has been wonderful,” Amy said at the end, a note of emotion in her voice. “There are a lot of good people in this valley.”
I’ve observed that politicians and bureaucrats at times appear to develop an instant case of political paralysis when citizens seek help in protecting their community. This is likely what prompted my friend Suzanne to adopt a confrontational approach in her numerous quarrels with government.
A gentle, generous white haired lady, now a grandmother, she has been a community activist much of her life. She decided early that being nice got her no respect or results. When I suggested it would be less stressful if she backed off a tad, she just smiled, probably thinking I was astonishingly naïve. She was certainly right about that. However, subsequent experience has convinced me hers is not the only strategy, or the most effective.
Meeting former MLA Corky Evans in Hedley recently, I was reminded of a few lessons I learned in the early1990’s about community activism. It began when Linda and I became aware of a plan to develop a mushroom composting operation on the periphery of our Abbotsford neighbourhood. I wasn’t concerned until I was invited to visit a similar operation on Sumas prairie, east of Abbotsford. The plant was situated no more than 200 paces from the home of an elderly couple, Joe and Angie. They had lived there some 20 years. The odour from the plant was so obnoxious that, to retain their physical and mental health, they needed to go away for several months at a time.
Soon I received a visit from Roger. He ardently urged that we gather a few neighbours and picket the local plant. I was willing, but argued we should do it only when we had sufficient numbers so we appeared strong. To this end,we partnered with others in the neighbourhood and developed a motivated, cohesive group. We then linked up with a group irate about a large composting plant in Surrey.
On a wet Saturday morning we began picketing the plant being built in our neighbourhood. A car pulled onto the shoulder of the road. It was John van Dongen, then a Liberal MLA and Opposition Critic for Agriculture. For an hour he stood under a large umbrella and explained the Farm Practises Act. We were deeply troubled by what he told us. The Act gave immense protection to agriculture. It seemed to have the power of an 11th Commandment. For us it was the beginning of an understanding that the government would not be able to simply move a few political chess pieces to produce the results we wanted.
In the ensuing months, John van Dongen came to understand our concerns. Although deeply committed to farmers, he agreed to represent our issues to Corky Evans, then NDP Minister of Agriculture. We stressed we didn’t want it to become a partisan issue. That would cause the government to close ranks and adopt a defensive position. Van Dongen patiently worked behind the scenes and Evans began to understand we had a legitimate cause.
We came to understand that governments are constantly dealing with expectations and demands from various quarters. If we didn’t continue to apply pressure, the politicians and bureaucrats would turn their attention to other pressing issues.
Unlike the feisty Suzanne, we didn’t make disparaging remarks about political decision makers. We did continue to picket strategically though, giving the impression of large numbers and drawing favourable media attention. Those in positions of power began experiencing the discomfort that comes from public attention and scrutiny. The agricultural engineer who had initially discounted us, now spoke with near awe of our impressive numbers.
Seeking further allies, we asked Environment B.C. to intervene. We also did a presentation to City Council, with many supporters present. The mayor agreed to our request for a committee of stakeholders, including representation from council.
We kept up the picketing and stayed in touch with Corky Evans through John van Dongen. When the political dust had settled, the owners of the large Surrey composting plant threw in the towel and moved to a sparsely populated area. Due to pressure from the City and the legal efforts of Environment BC, the operation near Joe and Angie also relocated. The plant being constructed next to our neighbourhood collapsed under a heavy snowfall and was not rebuilt.
I still think Suzanne could be less combative and more cooperative with government officials. She’s a loving grandmother but I think feistiness must be in her DNA.
We virtually never hear the blare of the siren at the Fire Hall, except to announce fire practice Tuesday at 7:00 pm. When we heard it Friday, Nov. 11th, we found it hard to believe there might actually be a fire. Probably not, I thought, but I hurriedly put on shoes and jacket and rushed out to be sure. A huge glow on Hospital Hill quickly caught my attention. In the light of the fire, a black plume of smoke was visible, rising several hundred feet into the dark sky.
It was the Tillotson house, a large, very old 2 story wood structure, the home of Amy Schindel, her young son Joey, and her mother. Set against the mountain, bright orange flames had already engulfed the entire building. The fire department had arrived quickly, and was spraying the trees to ensure the fire would not spread up the mountain.
Fortunately, the 3 occupants had managed to get out of the building safely. We learned later that it had started as a grease fire in the kitchen. It was reported later that they had attempted to extinguish it with baking soda. But this was not successful and the fire continued to spread quickly.
In the Sunday morning service at the Hedley Grace Church, Pastor Graham Gore, former manager of the Fire Department advised “the best way to extinguish a grease fire is to smother it with a blanket. Never throw water on a grease fire. It just makes it spread more rapidly.”
Unfortunately the building was not covered by insurance. Several organizations in town are raising money for the family. There is a jar for donations at the Hedley Country Market. The Seniors’ Center and the Hedley Grace church are also inviting contributions. The church has pledged a donation of $200.00 and members are adding to it. Lydia Sawicki has also set up an account for donations to be made directly to Amy by etransfer at firstname.lastname@example.org Although several outbuildings were saved, the fire entirely destroyed the main structure.
Apparently many of us in this wealthy nation agree with our Prime Minister that if we spend enough money, there will be endless sunny days ahead. Given that, according to the TD Bank, Canada’s deficit for the current fiscal year could be $34 billion, and the debt load of individual Canadians has jumped upward again, we must be well on our way to a state of exquisite euphoria. Possibly I’m experiencing some puzzlement at this thinking because I grew up under the influence of parents who lived through the Great Depression and weren’t aware of this “amassing wealth by spending” formula.
Having some experience with life’s evasive curve balls, I’m inclined to agree with Aldous Huxley’s observation “reality doesn’t cease to exist just because we ignore it.” Anyone living a high roller life style based on high limit credit cards could benefit from reading “Great by Choice. Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck: Why some thrive despite them all.” Based on unstinting research, authors Jim Collins and Morton T Hanson offer a perspective that would likely be disconcerting to those at the highest echelons of most governments, and also some deep in debt citizens. They suggest “the dominant pattern of history is not stability but instability and disruption.” They contend we need to expect chaos and upheaval in our lives, and plan for them.
Collins and Hanson compare the strategies of highly successful companies operating in turbulent conditions, with others that have achieved only mediocre results in similar circumstances. It’s when they step away from the corporate world and examine the strategies of 2 polar expeditions that their findings and recommendations become fascinating and useful at a personal level.
In June, 1910, two rival expeditions set out for the South Pole, one under the leadership of Roald Amundsen and the other led by Robert Falcon Scott.
Amundsen’s philosophy is succinctly captured by his statement “Victory awaits him who has everything in order. Luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time. This is called bad luck.”
Amundsen’s preparation fully backs up his words. To condition his body, he rode 2000 miles on a bike. He lived with the Inuit to learn about surviving in extreme cold weather. Knowing he might be forced to eat food to which he wasn’t accustomed, he ate raw dolphin meat. He enlisted expert, well conditioned skiers for the expedition and used dogs because they were suited to harsh polar conditions. Also, he could shoot penguins and seals to feed the dogs. For the crew he took along plenty of extra food and set up 7 depots. He made a decision to travel 20 miles every day, when the sun was shining and also in snow and cold wind. Along the trail he erected 6 foot high cairns as markers for the return journey.
Scott followed a less rigorous, less disciplined approach to preparation. He didn’t require his crew to become proficient on skis. He chose ponies and motorized sleighs to haul supplies. All feed for the ponies needed to be hauled. Because, unlike dogs, they sweated, they needed to be dried with blankets. The ponies didn’t have the stamina and died along the way. The engines on the motorized sleighs cracked in the frigid temperatures. When the ponies and motorized sleighs gave out, the men needed to haul the sleighs. Scott had not taken extra food so there weren’t sufficient calories for the more strenuous labour. He set up only 2 depots.
Amundsen arrived at the South Pole on December 14, 1911, Scott on January 17, 1912. On the return trip, Scott and 4 men died due to starvation, only 10 miles from the next depot. Amundsen and his entire crew returned safely and had actually gained weight.
Collins and Hanson point out that like Amundsen, the best corporations understand there will be unanticipated, potentially calamitous difficulties. They plan for these “Black Swan” events with such measures as building a substantial contingency fund that enable them to survive and even thrive, while other companies are failing.
Unfortunately, our politicians may not choose to follow this advice. I do believe though that each of us can benefit by evaluating our borrowing and spending, and thereby ensure we have control of our family budget. Meticulous planning and preparation will give us balance, decrease stress and create greater satisfaction in life.
Listening to the bagpipes and watching the aging veterans in uniform, I always experience a tugging at the heart on Remembrance Day. They’re a reminder that during the 20th century our troops fought with valor and tenacity against the forces of Kaiser Wilhelm, then Hitler. They stood on guard against the aggressions of Stalin and his descendants, then served with distinction in Afghanistan. Given the successful track record against degenerate aggressors, it’s tempting to become complacent and believe our nation is secure.
Times have changed radically and the dangers we face today are not always physical. Although it may seem unrelated, the numerous malicious Facebook responses to Andrea DeMeer’s column a couple of weeks ago alerted me to an insidious enemy already deep inside our defense lines. It’s strategy for penetrating our borders is eerily similar to that of the Greeks when they built a wooden horse and left it as a “gift” at the doors to Troy. The citizens of Troy brought the horse inside the city’s impregnable walls. That night they slept soundly, believing the Greek siege had ended and their enemy had finally been thwarted. As is well known, while they slept, Greek warriors poured from inside the horse, opened the city gates for their army, and ransacked the city.
In her column Andrea wrote about being groped outside the Princeton court house. She could have named the groper but chose not to. Even so, a number of Facebook goons launched a vicious tirade of hateful comments against her. Their assault is troubling because it suggests there is a contingent of individuals committed to shredding the values and fabric of our society.
I realize that one local, seemingly isolated incident does not in itself portend disaster. If we consider events across our nation though, we might come to the uncomfortable conclusion that Canada is under attack from advocates of morally destructive thinking. The murder of an innocent teenage girl in Abbotsford last week is a recent example of evil stalking our nation.
History is replete with examples of complacent societies falling prey to destructive forces. J.D. Unwin, the eminent British anthropologist studied 80 civilizations spanning some 3,000 years. He wrote that “In 100 per cent of the cases, when these civilizations fell, it was because they abused the freedoms they had. They no longer honoured families, values deteriorated, people turned to immoral ways and crime abounded.”
Unlike an attack in a conventional war, we cannot dispatch an army against this aggressor. Who will defend us and how will it be done?
Some years ago historian and diplomat George F. Kennan expressed similar concerns for America. He wrote, “in the west, both in the traditions of Christianity and Judaism, we were brought up to feel individual responsibility. There is in the U.S. no one to hold people to that today. Churches have lost the power to do so, the state cannot attempt to do so, and our two political parties would not know how to begin to do so. They cater to what is basest in the American electorate.” The venomous rhetoric employed by both candidates in the 2016 U.S. election makes it clear there has been significant further deterioration since Kennan’s time. Anyone observing the Canadian scene might agree that we too are moving inexorably in a similar direction.
Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We cannot expect that our government will push back against the forces seeking to destroy our social structures and the values that undergird our way of life. Their foremost objective is to be re-elected.
I do not meant to suggest that all is lost. It is encouraging that some readers have supported Andrea DeMeer with positive Facebook comments. I was also heartened at reading the supportive letter to the editor penned by Hedley resident Kim English.
People like this understand that when a man gropes a woman and other men applaud, we cannot just stand by and shake our heads in disapproval. On Remembrance Day we will honour those who fought heroically to defend our way of life. When we sing “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee,” we need to remind ourselves to support those who express views that attract the ire of the faceless denizens of the internet underworld.
My experience with Len began on June 1, 1974. That morning he picked me up from our home in rural Abbotsford to go to Hedley for training. During our 3 hours together in the car, he gave me an extensive verbal tour of the organization’s purpose, philosophy and methods. “We employ unique ministries to establish a common ground with the students. Our goal is to build relationships with them so we can share our life style, values and where appropriate, our faith.” The next morning I received my first hands on experience with Len’s “common ground” concept. Beth Hall, one of the wilderness skills instructors, asked me to join her and 3 girls to do rappelling.
I was behind the others as we walked across a field of brown grass to the rappel site. Observing these street wise girls in their tight jeans and blouses, I wondered if I’d ever be able to work effectively with kids like this. There seemed to be a wide gulf between me and them. They ignored me completely, as though unaware of my presence or existence. We made our way to the top of the high rock face down which we would rappel. I began to see the anxiety in their faces. They must also have seen it in mine. We feared the thought of descending on a rope down that sheer rock face. The rappel process required us to depend on each other for safety, and we began to talk. By the end of the morning we were no longer strangers.
Reflecting back on my years with the Foundation this past week, I began to understand more fully what Len had put in place, with Jean’s consistent help. It was Jean who kept the wheels on the rails and the trolley on the tracks.
Initially there were 2 programs, both in Surrey. Each worker was assigned a “squad” of 5 students. Len recognized the need to burn off a lot of excess energy and the program consisted of such activities as swimming, roller and ice hockey, hiking and camping. Camp Colonial in Hedley was purchased and became the wilderness hub. This made possible rappelling, rock climbing, canoeing, map and compass, horseback riding, skiing, and wilderness expeditions like canoeing the Bowron Lakes circuit and back packing in Cathedral Park. During those years Len traveled between Surrey and Hedley on an almost weekly basis. He was away from home and family frequently. It was a huge sacrifice for Len and Jean, and their children.
In time they moved the Foundation headquarters to Hedley. They sold their home in Surrey and the family also moved. The Foundation became like a complex puzzle in which each piece was required to support the whole. Some students lived in staff homes and saw how a husband and wife team interacted with each other and their children. Many students attended the organization’s school, taught by Ann Pinchin, who is here today. Len purchased the former store and reopened it, naming it The Mother Lode. Students were assigned there for work experience. Students were also assigned to the kitchen and dining room to learn culinary and public service skills. The emphasis was always on finding a common ground, developing relationships and winning the right to build positively into the lives of the students.
Our family and friends didn’t understand why anyone would want to live in a hot, remote community that had almost nothing to offer. Amazingly, a lot of young singles came, and stayed, and also young couples with children. That is what kept the Hedley school open as long as the organization was there. They came in large part because Len was able to speak compellingly about his vision for the work. He couldn’t pay high wages but he did offer a fascinating opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people. And he offered an action packed program that was rare at that time, and still is. Young, inexperienced workers obtained work experience and developed skills they could later take elsewhere.
Len could be quite pragmatic. When Ruth Woodin, now the Hedley Post Master, applied for a job in the office, Len said, “I’m looking for someone who won’t get pregnant and quit, or who won’t get married and move away.” He had experienced both. Ruth didn’t do either, and she stayed to the end. She told me “when I was going through a very difficult valley in my life, Len & Jean stood by me all the way. Especially Jean. It was the best job I ever had.”
Len didn’t avoid the long hours and dedication he expected of us. When there was an AWOL, he was out late at night, patrolling the highway. Sometimes his quick mind made the difference. One day I was talking with several students on the top balcony of the Coach House. I noticed Eugene pacing agitatedly. He was an extremely intense, worried kid. I knew what he needed was attention. Before I could get to him, he slipped away and was running down the hill to the highway, obviously emotionally out of control. I went onto my radio handset to alert our workers. At the same time, Len was in his red toyota, coming down the hill from the Lodge toward town. He heard my call, pulled alongside Eugene and opened the door. “Quick get in before they get you!” he said. Relieved, Eugene got in and felt safe.
Did the Foundation make a difference? Ruth Woodin thinks it did. “A number of former students have come into the Post Office,” she told me. Again and again they said, “I was a kid in a program here. It turned my life around.”During the Foundation years, I knew Len as a boss and to some extent a friend. I understood his need to maintain some distance so people wouldn’t crowd him too much. Everyone wanted to ask him a question.
When a new government closed the Foundation doors in 1993, Linda and I kept in touch with Len and Jean. We saw that this was a difficult time for everyone. For Len and Jean it was especially difficult. They had invested many years of their lives in this work, now they needed to wrap it up.
We moved back to Hedley about 4 years ago and our home needed improvements. Len offered to help with a plumbing project. Then he and a friend replaced all windows and doors. They also drywalled almost the entire lower floor. They did it at a price no one else could touch. He had once run a complex organization. Now he was willing to work with a hammer, wrench and screwdriver without grumbling. We felt he wanted to help us.
After returning to Hedley, our friendship with Len & Jean deepened. Over the past few years they had numerous medical appointments in Penticton, and they at times stopped in at our place on their way home. Over coffee, Len would regale us with details about medical procedures and interactions with doctors, nurses and other patients. We could tell that at times his sense of humour had made the appointment entertaining for those who dealt with him.
For many Len Roberts was rare and special. For Linda and me he became a valued friend.
And of course, we continue to value Jean as a dear friend.
Last week Linda and I visited the soup kitchen run by the Keremeos Community Church. We were sitting at a table with Mike Andersen, a man with the physique of a heavy weight boxer, but not the intimidating demeanor. “The 4 men on the other side of the room wouldn’t have eaten today if they had not come in,” he said. He smiled and waved to a couple walking through the door, then turned back to us. “We serve soup to the community every Thursday. Some come because they’re hungry. Others hope someone will accept them and listen to them. People also come to support us in showing a friendly face and outreached hand to the community. We’re happy to feed them all.”
Looking around, I saw microphones along one side of the spacious room, an indication that on Sundays this is a worship area. Today casually dressed people of all ages were sitting at 4 long tables, chatting animatedly and laughing. A few men wore caps, suggesting the dress code is relaxed. People seemed at ease, enjoying the company and the soup.
I had sensed the welcoming atmosphere the moment we walked through the door. Kathy greeted us warmly and guided us to a table. She returned with bowls of steaming chicken vegetable soup. Also a bun, coffee, and dessert. She rises early each soup day and bakes the delicious white buns.
Mike, a farmer for 20 years, has broken horses and trained trail horses. He still rides his large sturdy mule. This morning he had arrived at the kitchen at 8:00 to prepare the soup. “The vegetables we use are fresh,” he said. “We comply with all Health Branch regulations.” Noticing that my bowl was empty he asked, “would you like a re-fill?”
The volunteers running the kitchen are a committed and diverse lot. Joanne said, “I’ve been where some of the people are. The church rescued our family. Now I want to give something back. It’s good to see people low in life feeling loved and accepted.” It was her first day in the kitchen.
Like Mike, George Spencer has been there from the beginning. Before Keremeos, he worked 40 years as a bartender and waiter in a Vancouver hotel. “Alcohol, crack cocaine and crystal meth ruled my life those days,” he told us. “I had tried recovery programs without success. It was God who delivered me. I came to Keremeos to escape that scene. I agreed to come to this church only if my dog was allowed in. That was ok with the church.” Once introverted, he laughingly gives slinging beer credit for preparing him to interact easily with the people who come for soup.
“There’s a story behind each person who comes in,” Mike said. “Some have serious needs.
Today a young man walked out with a jacket that was donated this morning. Some rarely get out of their home, except when they come here. Everyone needs to feel accepted and loved.”
A donation box is placed in the opening to the kitchen, not where people will easily see it. “There’s no requirement to put anything in,” George said. “Those who can usually do. Also, some ladies from local churches contribute desserts. We get financial help from individuals and businesses. Valu Plus donates food. Our costs are pretty much covered.”
The emphasis seems not to be on proselytizing. “We just want to reach out to people and touch their lives,” George said. “It’s by our example we want to show them the love of Jesus.” I noticed a couple wave at him as they were about to walk out the door. He smiled and waved, then turned his attention back to us. “Sometimes people are dealing with difficult situations and they ask us to pray for them.”
They’ve been serving meals to 40 to 50 people between 11 am and 1 pm two days a week since February of this year. Mondays it’s sandwiches and Thursdays it’s soup and a bun. For Christmas Day they will move their operation to the more spacious Seniors Centre and serve a special meal to individuals who need a place where they will feel welcome and not be alone.
We found the excitement of the soup kitchen volunteers contagious and uplifting. Judging by the ebb and flow of voices and laughter, they are providing much more than just physical nourishment.
A small town perspective on people, community, politics and environment.