Category Archives: Inspiration

Abbotsford Sundown Toastmasters

When Linda and I were still members of Abbotsford Sundown Toastmasters, I often said to visitors, “Other than obtaining a university degree, joining a Toastmasters club is the best career move you can make. For some people, it’s even better.”

Last Thursday evening Sundown celebrated 30 years as a club, and

Abbotsford Sundown Toastmasters Celebrates 30 Years
Abbotsford Sundown Toastmasters Celebrates 30 Years

we drove to the Coast for this. It was an opportunity to renew friendships and also marvel at the growth of members we have known for many years. Jack Sweeten, who joined during our time, is now Area Governor. Lois Boughton, another recruit during these years is Division Governor.

Sgt. At Arms, Phyllis Kotyk and President Dr. Caroline Cesar
Sgt. At Arms, Phyllis Kotyk and President Dr. Caroline Cesar

Phyllis Kotyk opened the meeting as Sergeant-at-Arms. She joined the club at about the same time as Linda and I. Her confident, welcoming voice and demeanour gave us a surge of joy. This wasn’t the timid Phyllis we knew in the early years. Caroline Cesar surprised us with vitality, wonderful vocal variety and an abundance of confidence. As President, she chaired the meeting.

David Hobson, my personal mentor for a number of years,

David Hobson, a Distinguished Toastmaster
David Hobson, a Distinguished Toastmaster

delivered the keynote address. He is a professional presenter, trainer and coach. Also the most committed Toastmaster I have known. He has given considerable thought to the subject of Evaluations, key to improving speaking skills. David shared specific, helpful insights to enable T.M.’s to provide substantive evaluations.

One of the great benefits of Toastmasters for virtually everyone who joins a club is a tremendous growth in confidence. This comes from performing a variety of roles in the club. Each role is evaluated, usually with an

James Njeru. A Toastmaster who could be in the movies.
James Njeru. A Toastmaster who could be in the movies.

observation as to what went well, and also a suggestion for improvement. The club provides a safety net for the terrified novice speaker. Even if a performance is considerably less than stellar, it will not be criticized. By being shown how to improve, the Toastmaster gains the courage to speak outside the club. It’s an encouraging environment.

Although there is no club within reasonable driving distance of Hedley, Linda and I continue to benefit from the encouragement and evaluation we received at Sundown. It gave Linda the confidence to accept the position of Vice President of the Hedley Historical Museum Society. As a columnist for two small town newspapers, I approach people virtually every week to request an interview. Whether they agree or not depends a lot on my initial, very brief “pitch.” Toastmasters taught me a well thought through, effectively presented request is more likely to produce a positive reception.

Linda and I are deeply grateful to the members of Sundown Toastmasters for many positive, often wise evaluations. With your help, we have been able to move on and accomplish more. We are delighted with the enthusiasm of the members and the strength of the club. It is definitely built to last.

The Allisons at Standing Rock

Henry and Barb Allison live on Reserve land directly across from the iconic Standing Rock on Highway #3 near Keremeos. From the IMG_0841outset of our 2 hour conversation with them in their immaculate log home, my wife Linda and I were impressed with their warmth and congeniality.

My interest in them stems in part from their status as Elders in the Lower Similkameen Indian Band. I was also curious about Standing Rock, a revered First Nations ceremonial site.

In response to my question about their home, Henry said, “I was a logger. I personally logged the trees for the house. I traded logs in exchange for the construction.”

I encouraged Henry to continue. “We weren’t going to build on this

Henry & Barb Allison with Standing Rock in the background
Henry & Barb Allison with Standing Rock in the background

site,” he said, “but Barb’s mom owned the land and she insisted we build here so we could protect Standing Rock.” They have been diligent in carrying out her wish, at times telling people not to deface the Rock with writing.

Henry was born in Princeton and lived in Hedley, attending school here to the end of grade 6. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “The other kids teased us a lot because we were Indians. For a time we had to sit on a bench along the wall. The white kids had desks.” He completed grade 8 in Keremeos. In grade 9 his teacher said, “We don’t know how you’re doing it, but you must be cheating. You couldn’t be getting such high marks.” Frustrated by the racially inspired accusations, he quit school.

It was at the Keremeos School that he met Barb. They come from very different families. Barb’s parents were ranchers, living in Chopaka. “Dad was sent to a residential school,” she told us. “When the authorities came for us, he wouldn’t let them take us away.” She and her siblings rode horses across the Similkameen River to their school in Cawston. Like Henry, she and other Indian children had to initially sit on a bench against the wall.

Especially at that age, being Aboriginal was difficult. “One day some white boys told us they would wait for us at the railroad tracks,” she said. “They were going to beat us up. We waited at the school, hoping they would leave. Finally we went to meet them. When we put up our fists to defend ourselves, they ran away.”

Henry’s mom had been taken to a residential school at age 10 and wasn’t returned home until she was 18. “She didn’t see her mother all those years,” he said. “She never learned to be a mother and as an adult alcohol got a hold of her. Once, when I was 8, us kids were left with cousins in a cabin in the bush near Hope. We fished and picked berries to feed ourselves. We didn’t know if our parents would ever return. I felt abandoned.”

“I didn’t understand her life until I attended a workshop about residential school experience,” he said. “Then I was finally able to forgive her.”

Henry grew up to be physically robust, with a desire to leave his past behind. Working in the bush, he became a skilled logger, eventually owning 2 mills and his own logging show. He and Barb began dating and he gave her an engagement ring as a graduation gift.

“That really upset my mom,” Barb recalls. “She was completely against our engagement. She wanted me to go to university and become a lawyer.”

Barb and Henry met with her parents to talk. Finally her dad said,“ we better let them get married or they’ll run away.”

Henry was non-status at the time so when they got married, Barb lost her status.  Later she and a group of women travelled to Ottawa to plead for status and it was granted. “I had some trouble persuading them I was Indian,” she said. Possibly the bureaucrats in Ottawa didn’t understand that an Indian could be so intelligent and articulate.

After gaining some life experience, Barb was nominated for the position of band chief in 1994.  She won in spite of intense opposition.  Believing band accounting might be flawed, she submitted the books for a forensic audit in Kamloops. Irregularities came to light and some individuals lost their jobs and band funding. This was not an easy decision but she possessed the integrity and inner strength to do it.

We sensed the depth of their despair when they talked about the loss of one of their 3 children.  “Our son was 18,” Henry said, “He was my right hand man in our logging operation. One day when he was on the job the new pickup he was driving stalled on a hill and went over a steep bank. I was away with the logging truck at the time. When Barb arrived, she climbed down the bank and lay down beside him until he died.”  Now years later, both Barb and Henry still carry the grief of that loss.

When we left the Allisons and their comfortable house of blond logs, we felt we had become friends. The racism in their early years and also later hasn’t made them bitter. The tragic loss of their son has not robbed them of joy.

They have decided instead to focus on the wonderful blessing of having 2 children, 10 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. They have become resolute, people of integrity and strong character. Henry and Barb would indeed be good friends.

Embracing the Storms of Life

On a visit to Mountain Prison near Agassiz some years ago, I encountered a number of round faced men, clad in drab grey prison P2260031garb. They were sitting on hard wooden benches set against long metal huts. Except for occasionally inserting a cigarette between their lips, they sat still and lifeless as sand sculptures on a forgotten beach. I approached them and asked, “what are you all waiting for?”

An elderly man with a balding scalp roused himself and responded quite amicably, “we’re waiting for the ringing of the lunch bell. Then we can go in and eat.”

On subsequent visits, I saw the men there many times, often arriving long before the bell summoned them. For some, meals were the most significant events in their day. In time I understood that prison life had fostered a toxic lethargy in them and most had no realistic goals or vision for anything better. They seemed not to grasp they could be preparing for the rigours of life awaiting them beyond the high chain link fence around the prison. Inside the fence they were able to blame others for their plight. Outside they would need to deal with reality. They feared reality. Although they admitted it only rarely, some felt safe only within the fence. They reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men.”

Seeing these men was a reminder to me that it is in the storms of life that we grow strong. I realized how true this is later when I was Art (far left) paddling on a Bowron Lakeworking for the One Way Adventure Foundation in Hedley. Each summer we took small groups of Young Offenders on a Bowron Lakes canoe expedition. The trip consists of portaging, canoeing on lakes and rivers, and camping in a pristine wilderness. Once on the lakes, we had no means of communicating with anyone outside our group. If a canoe began to leak, we had to deal with it.

On one trip our crew consisted of 3 leaders and 9 adolescent boys travelling in 6 sturdy, Frontiersman canoes. The youths came primarily from poorly functioning homes. They generally arrived at our campus with a distinctly uncooperative attitude, often with a swagger. They attempted to portray themselves as tough and street smart. Having no chain link fence to protect them from life’s harsh realities, they had donned a mask to hide their sense of insecurity.

We wanted to expose them to mosquitoes, horse flies, paddling or portaging all day, sometimes in incessant rain. We considered it important that they feel the discomfort of a canoe yoke digging into their shoulders on portages. The experience would plant a significant memory in their psyche. A memory of grappling with unaccustomed and unexpected challenges, and discovering they had the stamina to persevere to the end. They would see that we, the leaders, were also being ravaged by the insects and the elements. Masks would begin to slip as we all contended with a reality we could not ignore.

It was an overcast Thursday morning when our little contingent emerged from the fast flowing, dangerous waters of the Cariboo River onto Lanezi Lake. A powerful headwind was already whipping up waves. Spray blew into our faces and we could scarcely move. Our canoes bobbed like corks on the restless water. Because the towering mountains descended on either side to the edge of the lake, we could find no refuge there. Fear gripped the boys. They were city youths and had never paddled in turbulent water like this.

Fear in their voices concerned me. It was quickly eroding their inner strength. I needed to do something to give them confidence. I started singing, “row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.” Initially they looked at me as though doubting my sanity. Sensing my confidence, a couple of the older boys began singing with me. Their voices weren’t much better than mine but in the blowing wind, it didn’t matter.

“Row, row, row your boat.” Soon we were all singing and whooping and paddling like mad voyageurs. Suddenly, we were lusty and strong and free.

I looked at the 2 straining, sweating boys in the canoe closest to me and both of them grinned broadly. They were having too much fun to be scared. Three hours later, in the safety of our rustic camp, with tents set up, a camp fire warming us, and hot food in our bellies, we knew we had conquered our fears.

Now, with a new year dawning, this is a good time for all of us to decide we won’t be content to sit on a bench mindlessly waiting for our next meal. This is a good time to think about how we will respond to the storms of life that may descend on us in 2015.