Category Archives: My Story

Aunt Mary’s Commitment Shaped Lives

Aunt Mary celebrating her 90th birthday.

I wasn’t really surprised there was no mention in the national, or even the local Manitoba media, of the recent passing of my 98 year old Aunt Mary. She had not battled for social justice like Supreme Court Judge Bertha Wilson. Nor did she have Emily Carr’s remarkable ability to create inspiring scenes on canvas. What she did have was an understanding of the importance of commitment. Especially a commitment to living in a manner that positively impacts the thinking and actions of the next generation. In my opinion, she lived in a way that is as beneficial to our country as the lives of more well known citizens.

Working with young offenders in Hedley, I saw repeatedly the unfortunate results of careless, self-indulgent, neglectful parenting. Almost without exception, the youths sent to us came from shattered, dysfunctional families. The parents seemed to not understand that their values and attitudes were exacting a toll on the future of their children. Apparently it did not occur to them that without constructive examples to observe and learn from, their offspring would be ill-equipped to participate productively in the life of our nation.

When Aunt Mary’s husband, David, lost a battle with cancer, she could have become immersed in self pity. David had been a strong man, physically, mentally and emotionally. He had brought order and stability, as well as a sense of humour. At age 46, with 2 young sons still at home, she now needed to be the one who was strong for them.

For many years I had not had much contact with Aunt Mary. To learn more of her life, I called each of her 3 older offspring, all living in Manitoba. Sara, the youngest of the 3 said “mom loved to be with people and to serve them. She was very thankful, and she knew how to laugh. She lived on the 6th floor in a residence for seniors. When a group came to provide music, she always went down to the entrance to open the door for the guests and welcome them. She would often say ‘we should be thankful for people who come to sing.’” Sara also said, “I did everything I could for her. I’m so grateful for that.” She had been inspired by her mother’s example of service to others.

Elsie, the eldest, said their mom walked a lot until she was 95. “If it’s not raining,” she would say, “I’m walking.”

As long as she could walk,” Elsie said, “she volunteered in a care home for the elderly. Often she pushed people in their wheelchairs. When there was a potluck in her residence, if someone wasn’t well enough to attend, she would bring them a tray laden with food.”

Ed said, “Mom often wanted to visit relatives in Barkfield and Gruenthal. These relationships were important to her, so I would take her there. Sometimes there were functions in her church that involved a meal. When she finished eating, she’d get up and help with clearing tables.”

In the Fernwood residence where she lived, people place a yellow card on the outside of their entry door before retiring at night. In the morning, by 10 am, they take it back in. “For many years Mom would walk the halls on all the floors, checking for cards,” Ed said. “If there was a card after 10 am, she would knock on the door and inquire if there was a problem. She was still doing this in her nineties.”

Aunt Mary did all she could to foster strong relationships in her family. “Toward the end of her days,” Ed told me, “she encouraged us to always love one another.”

Having received only a rudimentary education in a remote one room rural school, Aunt Mary never achieved the renown of Canadian icons like Bertha Wilson and Emily Carr. After listening to members of her family and others though, I decided her commitment to service had positively shaped thinking and actions in her limited sphere of influence. She encouraged people with her smile, a cheery greeting, sometimes by noticing they had a need. Aunt Mary demonstrated that if we are alert and willing, there are many little actions that can bring a ray of sunlight and a reminder someone cares. Fortunately she isn’t the only one doing this. Our country needs many more.

Alexa In Basketball

Alexa (far left) with 3 basketball teammates
Alexa (far left) with 3 basketball teammates

Our granddaughter Alexa is an apt example of what can happen when we find the courage and will to step out of our comfort zone and attempt something seemingly out of our reach. Two years ago, in grade 8, she tried out for the junior girls basketball team at her school. Possibly she was inspired by her brother Brandon who was a star centre on the boys team. She frequently scrimmaged with him in their back yard.

At first Alexa’s timidity and anxiety on the court were palpable. She didn’t want to be a starter in games. When she was given the ball and had an opportunity to shoot, she looked for a team mate to whom she could pass.

Evidently the 2 coaches, a husband and wife team not employed by the school, recognized potential in her, were patient, and gave her plenty of personal attention. Alexa certainly did her part. Her commitment surprised all of us. She got up early for open gym before school. She participated fully in P.E. activities and stayed after school many days for team practice. In addition to this, she still scrimmaged with Brandon. Also, last year the coaches arranged for a contingent of players to play in Mt. Vernon, Washington State one night a week. That was a huge commitment, both for her and her mother,Vivian, our daughter.

This demanding schedule of practises and games, plus conditioning like running stairs, developed her body and mind. We became aware of an innate determination. Physically she developed endurance and agility.

A couple of weeks ago Linda and I drove to the Coast to watch Alexa’s team, the Bobcats, play in the Provincial tournament. The girls had grown in skill and belief. They had also come together as a team. Their conditioning became apparent when they were expected to play 2 full length games on the same day. Watching them streaking like sleek greyhounds from one end of the court to the other and then back, I envied their energy and endurance. The demanding physical preparation had stripped their bodies of all fat. They were young, fit, skilled, and committed.

We observed a new version of Alexa. The coaches had appointed her earlier in the season

to be team captain. The reason for this quickly became apparent. She had developed an astonishing work ethic. She harassed the opposing team verbally and could easily be heard from the bleachers. Her shooting and guarding had improved greatly. Her feisty attitude was inspiring, even to people in the stands.

The once timid girl has now been asked to play on the senior team next season. She and her mother are again driving to Mt. Vernon once a week and Alexa is practising with the team. Her new coaches are even more serious and demanding. They expect their team to win top honours in the Provincial Tournament next year. Basketball is taken seriously at this school. Alexa certainly has the commitment and drive to again contribute to a winning season.

Seeking The Hedley Monk

A Buddhist monk.

Autumn had set in and brown leaves were falling freely from the trees when Anna told me about a Buddhist monk living in a cave somewhere in Windy Canyon. I had not heard of him previously and wondered if she was an imaginative storyteller. She was young and had recently come to Camp Colonial in Hedley to work as a cook.

I hiked along 20 Mile Creek yesterday and came upon his cave quite by accident,” she said. “He doesn’t come into town, and he doesn’t want visitors.”

This was the early 1980’s. Our organization, the One Way Adventure Foundation, had recently been awarded a contract by the Corrections Branch to work with 12 young offenders. Many of these youths had not had the benefit of constructive modeling in their homes. They had learned to function by lying, cheating, deceiving, stealing, being aggressive, avoiding responsibility and much more. Most had lived in foster and group homes. Whenever possible, I took the 4 most difficult ones, Phillip, Curt, Bert and Harry away from the camp so they couldn’t influence, intimidate or incite the others.

I was constantly alert for activities that might shift the thinking of these youths away from the street culture with which they were familiar. If this monk living in a cave was indeed real, it might be an opportunity to expose the boys to a radically different set of values and lifestyle.

Already the mercury was dipping to zero at night. For several weeks the mountains surrounding our little community had been bedecked by a mantel of white. On the third day of November, a skiff of snow covered the ground and we began seeing smoke rising from chimneys.

IMG_0742

By December 22nd the ice was thick enough to walk on, and I asked Anna to pack 5 lunches for the following morning. She suspected my intentions and again said, “he asked me to tell people he doesn’t want visitors.” I thanked her for the reminder.

A fine, wind blown snow was falling when I instructed the 4 boys to dress warmly because we’d be out all day, searching for a mysterious monk who supposedly lived in a cave. After breakfast we leaned into the snow and wind, walking determinedly along 20 Mile Creek.

Initially we followed the former mining road. When it turned up the mountainside, we were well into Windy Canyon, a deep mountainous gorge with space only for the creek and a narrow footpath. At the first crossing of the creek, we found a log with short boards nailed insecurely to it. After that the crossings were mostly on ice, water gurgling beneath us.

There were no complaints from the boys as we slogged laboriously in the deepening snow. After about 3 hours, Bert glanced up. “Look!” he exclaimed excitedly, “is that it?” We clambered up a steep bank, having difficulty maintaining our footing.

A short wooden wall covered the front of the cave. There was a door of rough boards and a small window. The monk had heard our laboured grunting and opened the door. His bespectacled face revealed no displeasure at our unanticipated appearance. He beckoned us to enter.

I looked around and concluded this man lived in unimaginably sparse circumstances. A small wood stove with a pipe exiting through the wooden wall provided some heat. A large chair and a mantel stood against the rock wall to our right.

Would you like coffee?” he asked, as though he had anticipated our arrival. His voice suggested a quality education and upbringing. The boys nodded and I said “we’d appreciate that. Please forgive us for showing up without prior notice.” He smiled at this, then filled a tin can with water and deftly ground coffee beans with a manual grinder.

Why are you living in this cave?” I asked.

I’m seeking enlightenment,” he replied. “Much of my day is taken up with doing prostrations.”

We talked for about 15 minutes, drinking his delicious, black coffee. The boys listened respectfully.

During our conversation Bert asked where he slept. The monk pointed to the large chair and said, “that’s where I sleep.”

Through the wooden wall we could hear the wind growing stronger. It was time to leave. Before walking out, each of the boys said “thanks for the coffee” and shook the monk’s hand. They seemed to sense they had experienced a bit of Similkameen history.

The Jar of Coffee

jar of coffee (3)

As we slid our heavily laden frontiersman canoes onto the cold waters of Isaac Lake that Wednesday morning, I didn’t suspect that this day the 5 young adult probationers would seriously test my leadership. We were on the second day of the Bowron Lakes circuit, a system of lakes and portages near Barkerville. Farther up the lake another group, consisting of 6 young offenders and 2 leaders, was also breaking camp.

Having been employed by the One Way Adventure Foundation only a month, I had not yet been able to develop relationships of trust with this motley crew of erratic misfits. At 21, Jim was the oldest. I had picked him up a couple of weeks ago from the Oakalla Prison Farm. Missing his front upper teeth from street fights, he was the toughest of the bunch.

Neither Jim or the others, Chris, Danny, Scott or Dave were settled enough to have a stable home. They mostly slept on someone’s couch and reported to our centre each morning. One purpose of this expedition was to provide workers with opportunities to develop relationships of trust and influence with them. They also had a goal. They just wanted to survive the 6 months in our program and successfully thwart all attempts to bring change into their lives.

From the beginning of this trip, I’d known there would be complications. These young men were accustomed to hanging out on the streets of Surrey, not to the rigours of paddling and portaging all day, constantly harassed by mosquitoes and horse flies.

This morning we had paddled in drenching rain the first 2 hours and I was conscious of a growing edginess in my crew. I realized now it had been there even as we were taking down our camp.

Increasingly foul language was flying unrestrained across the water between the other 2 canoes. I sensed a growing spirit of rebellion. As we neared the Bette Wendel camp site where we would stop for lunch, I grasped that Chris was deliberately stirring up discontent. This didn’t surprise me. All his life he’d been shuttled from one foster home to another, never experiencing the love of a parent. His face revealed the despair and anger that seethed just beneath the surface.

Bruce, our expedition leader, was with the other crew. He had wanted to separate the 2 groups. There was no one to back me up if this developed into a Lord of the Flies conflagration.

From the beginning I had been aware they were observing me, watching for weakness. I was in a position of authority over them so I must be tested. Maybe it’s human nature to probe the limits of authority.

Fortunately, my previous work experience had taken me into all the prisons on the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley. I had worked with hard core cons, like Albert, a chain smoking heroin addict doing time for trafficking. There was also Rod, who had accidentally shot his partner in crime during a botched hold up. I’d gotten to know Trevor, doing time for confining and raping a young woman. I talked at times about these men and prison life, never telling them how I had gained this intimate understanding.

Sometimes I overheard them speculating about my history. They eventually concluded I must have done serious prison time. Not at all sure how I’d react, they’d been cautious.

But now they were frustrated and angry. They slammed their canoes hard onto the gravel of the camp site.

I’m not paddling another inch!” Chris announced stridently.

Me either,” Jim growled, throwing his paddle down.

Let’s turn back,” Scott urged.

My mind scrambled madly for a response, and then I remembered the jar of coffee buried deep in the lunch pack. Beth, a senior wilderness skills instructor with our organization had said, “It’s only for staff.” I had not touched it.

I walked into the midst of my mutinous crew and said, “guys, how about you build us a fire and I’ll buy you a cup of java.” Their mouths dropped open as though attached to a common hinge.

“You have coffee?” Jim asked incredulously.

Yes Jim, I do,” I said. “Now, do you just want to stand there with your mouth open or are you going to build a fire?”

The rebellion fizzled. Ah, the magical charm of a jar of coffee.

Thoughts About New Years Resolutions

New Years Resolutions
New Years Resolutions

Like a lot of sensible citizens of the Similkameen Valley, I long ago ceased tormenting myself with New Years resolutions that really didn’t stir my imagination or my will to persevere. Looking back over my lifetime, I see that generally when significant inner change has come, it has not been the result of a New Years resolution. Although it required time, eventually I grasped the silliness of resolving to not eat chocolates or donuts.

In retrospect, I understand now that significant change for me has at times been born of necessity, as when I visited the Toastmasters club in the offices of Langley Township. Walking into that room I was much like a fearful, whimpering cur, tail tucked tightly between its trembling legs. Although I was conscious of what I was doing, it was nevertheless a reckless plunging into territory considerably outside my comfort zone.

I had long considered myself inept in front of a crowd of any size. Exposing my lack of training and inexperience before this group of pretty accomplished public speakers brought on a disquieting weakness in my knees. Gathering up my scant courage and paying the membership fee that day, I embarked on an arduous journey that has taught me some lessons about how to introduce positive change into my life.

The impetus for joining Toastmasters was a fervent desire to participate more effectively in the issues bedeviling our community. I was willing to take this initial step into unknown and dangerous terrain because I believed it was important. Not eating chocolates or donuts might be desirable but seemingly not important enough to make a firm, irrevocable decision.

Possibly bringing about change requires an element of adventure and even danger. Certainly for me becoming a Toastmaster, while not physically hazardous, did introduce a serious threat to my ego. Evaluators of my speeches began making me aware of habits that were distracting for the audience. One said, “Art played the accordian today,” a reference to my repetitive hand gestures. Another observed that “Art did a lot of pacing.” To become a more effective communicator I would have to listen to what these members were telling me. And I needed to apply their suggestions for improvement.

The Toastmasters program provides plenty of encouragement, but after 6 months I felt demoralized, my sensitive ego battered by a growing awareness of my seemingly myriad deficiencies. Much of the battering was coming, not from evaluations by fellow members, but from my own overly critical self-evaluations.

After much soul searching I began to understand that my negative thoughts were dragging me down. I asked myself a question that changed my focus. Was I willing to accept ignominious defeat, or would I dig deep and make a more serious commitment to my purpose in doing this?

I began altering my focus, reminding myself of my desire to make a constructive contribution to my community. This made it easier for me to hear the encouraging comments of evaluators, and to be aware of the progress I was making. In time I was able to turn the experience into an adventure. I set a goal of writing and delivering one speech each month, in addition to serving regularly in other roles. I attended meetings faithfully and made a firm decision to always follow through on my commitments to the club. Some of my distracting habits, like erratic, repetitive hand gestures began falling away.

In time it became easier, even enjoyable. I began speaking outside the club, a couple of times addressing the mayor and council of Abbotsford on environmental issues.

In my years as a Toastmaster, I saw some members grow phenomenally. Others though, became discouraged and drifted away. One member with good potential joined because she dreamed of becoming a professional public speaker. When she didn’t place well in her first speech contest she left, apparently forgetting her reason for joining.

The Toastmasters experience has helped me understand that to attain positive growth, it’s important to have a powerful reason. Affirming the purpose regularly is useful. In my case this provided the resolve to commit more deeply in the midst of perceived failure. Maybe the time will yet come when I’ll decide to dump the chocolates and donuts habit, but not this year. New Years Resolutions can be productive if they have the power to stir our imagination and our will to persevere.

Looking Back At The Blog & Column Of 2016

Elder John Terbasket, holding his great granddaughter.
Elder John Terbasket, holding his great granddaughter.

This week I looked back along the challenging, always exhilarating path this blog has been for me in 2016. Because it is carried as a column in the Similkameen Spotlight and the Keremeos Review, I have invariably been conscious of the looming deadline. At times I’ve begun the week in a state of near bewilderment as to what I would write. Wanting to give the reader something of substance, I have at times looked up and put in a special request for wisdom.

Many of the columns have been based on conversations Linda and I have had with individuals, usually people living in the Similkameen Valley. I prefer to think in terms of conversations, rather than interviews, because they have been intimate. We have wanted to delve into values, ideas and concerns. Often I have asked “what has surprised you along the way?”

Having Linda with me has been a bonus and a delight. Sometimes she comes away with insights that eluded me. We work together on editing and she can be radical. On one occasion she suggested moving the last paragraph to the beginning of the column. At one time, editor/ publisher of the Similkameen Spotlight, Andrea DeMeer, asked if she could borrow her. I declined to share this secret to my success.

Initially when I began asking individuals to engage in a conversation for publication purposes, I didn’t expect a high rate of consent. Frequently these people didn’t know me. Why would they trust someone to write about them in a newspaper? I’m still astonished and gratified that very few have turned down my request. If someone says, “I’ll think about it,” I’ve learned it probably won’t happen. If I know the individual well and really want their story, I may (gently) harass them for a short time, although so far with little success.

Often the accounts are inspiring and really deserve a wider audience. John Merriman of Keremeos, at age 97, was still driving people to medical and other appointments. Rhianfa Riel shared her formula for combating depression. Harvey Donohue and Derek Lilly talked about their Metis heritage. On a chilly morning last winter our neighbour Barry Hildebrandt invited Linda and me to come and bid farewell to his much loved dog, Silk. If we had not had a conversation with John Terbasket of the LSIB two weeks before he passed on, some intriguing aspects of his life might never have been recorded. Often the stories reveal something of significance about the character, values, priorities and memories of the person.

Possibly many people are willing to engage with Linda and me because, as Richard Paul Evans says in ‘The Walk’, “in each of us there is something that, for better or for worse, wants the world to know we existed.” Certainly most of us hope our children and grandchildren will at times think of us once we’re gone.

Sometimes I ask myself, “Why do I write the column?” It does consume time I’d like to devote to other activities. Why, in fact, does anyone write? A thoughtful response came recently from a Syrian writer in a radio interview. “The point of writing,” he said, “is not to change the world. It is to keep truth alive.”

One truth I have sought to keep alive is that a single individual can make a difference. Anita Reddick, founder of The Body Shop said, “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” If an issue we’re concerned about requires the power of numbers, we can join with others on SumOfUs or Change.org.

There are times when I experience an overwhelming reluctance to ask one more person to talk about their life, or when I just don’t want to write one more column. On such occasions I remind myself of the words of David Usher in ‘Let the Elephants Run’. He said, “the ability to dedicate yourself to the work part of creativity is what will differentiate you from most of your peers.”

I’ve been honoured to have people tell me their life stories in 2016. Also to have the opportunity to address some disquieting issues in our nation. I’m sure that in 2017 one major challenge will again be to squeeze some of the significant elements of a life history, or a societal issue, into a column of approximately 730 words.

Linda and I wish each reader an abundance of health and positive adventures in the new year.

A Telephone Call At Christmas

Actor Marc Lawrence as a gangster, a role model for Shefield (photo Wikipedia)
Actor Marc Lawrence as a gangster, a role model for Shefield (photo Wikipedia)

I was doing research into inmate culture at Matsqui Institution for a fourth year Sociology course at SFU. On this day Shefield and I were sitting on stiff backed wooden chairs in a cramped interview room. About 35, with an unsmiling face that was prematurely lined, he seemed a man who would never enter into a conversation with a prison guard or counsellor. After observing me a few minutes, he seemed to decide I could be trusted. Much like a penitent sinner who feels compelled to tell all in a confessional, he began talking about memories from his dark past.

Speaking out the side of his mouth with the wary mannerisms of a gangster in a movie he said, “You’re my first visit here. I’m doing a lot of time. Shot a cop in the leg in an armed robbery.” He paused and I sensed he was assessing my reaction to this revelation. I waited. “Last time I saw my parents was in the Stony Mountain Penn in Manitoba, 6 years ago. They gave us 45 minutes. The folks had come from Ontario.” His watchful eyes glanced about uneasily, as though suspecting a hidden microphone.

My life changed big time playing poker with some guys I met in a bar one night,” he said. “Got behind real bad. When my money was gone, I threw my house on the table. I knew it was a mistake, but I wasn’t going to walk out a loser. Luck wasn’t with me. Those guys cleaned me out.”

He ran a hand through his thinning black hair, then in scarcely a whisper said, “I had to go home and tell my old lady and 2 young boys we were moving. She told me she’d had enough of my crazy life. She and the boys would move out on their own and I could go to hell or anywhere I wanted.”

He shifted uneasily in his chair. “I was a fool,” he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. “Wanted to get everything back in a hurry. That’s how the armed robbery happened. A witness picked me out in a line up. The judge wasn’t joking when he said he was giving me a lot of time to think about my life. Never saw the old lady or the kids again.” We talked further and when our allotted hour was up, a guard pushed open the door, jangled his keys and told Shefield to move out.

When I completed my interviews with inmates and staff 2 weeks later, the conversation with Shefield lingered in my mind. After handing in my final assignment, I began visiting him. In time a measure of trust developed between us and when he became eligible for citizen escorted absences, I brought him home several times.

A few weeks before Christmas, Linda and I asked Shefield if he wanted to go with us to a program in a local church on the 24th, then stay in our home over night. He was apprehensive about being in a crowd of strangers, but decided it would be preferable to staying inside the prison walls.

At the church on Christmas Eve, he became anxious so I took him downstairs where a few others were hanging out. Shefield quickly got into a discussion with Willie, a man I’d known many years. When he realized Willie was a Calgary City police officer, he became agitated and argumentative. After a few minutes I explained to Willie that Shefield was an inmate at Matsqui. Willie was as hardened against criminals as Shefield was against authority. He never spoke to me again.

Shefield slept on our couch that night and the next morning I said, “Shefield, I’m sure it would be very special for your parents to hear from you. Our Christmas present to you is a telephone call to them.”

We were able to obtain a number from Directory Assistance and as he was dialing, I left the room. From the adjacent room I could hear his voice but not understand the words. When the conversation ended I returned to the kitchen. Shefield was unashamedly dabbing at his eyes with a hankie. He seemed surprised. In a shaky voice he said, “I guess that proves I’m human after all.”

For each of us, Christmas can be a time when we reach out, reconnect, and recommit to relationships that were once precious to us.

Freedom For Christine Lamont & David Spencer

Christine Lamont & David Spencer
Christine Lamont & David Spencer

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.

Remembering Len Roberts

Len Roberts photo: Providence Funeral Homes
Len Roberts
photo: Providence Funeral Homes

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.

Art Martens with Len Roberts (photo taken 2015)
Art Martens with Len Roberts (photo taken 2015)

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.

Gary Clarke, Del Riemer, Jim Martin, 3 of the many former staff that attended the Celebration of Life on Oct. 29, 2016
Gary Clarke, Del Riemer, Jim Martin, 3 of the many former staff that attended the Celebration of Life on Oct. 29, 2016

Candace Has Run!

img_3098

During my years working with young offenders at the One Way Adventure Foundation in Hedley, we at times had students run away, especially from the Residential Attendance Program (RAP). The students in RAP were sent by a judge and were deemed among the most difficult and devious. When they arrived, most were burdened by a history of failure, a gnawing sense of despair.

Pretty 15 year old Candace was in this program and when I heard on my 2-way radio that she had just run, I was disappointed but not particularly surprised. Possibly the prettiest female student ever assigned to RAP, at times she was also the loneliest and saddest. The referring probation officer had expressed concern she was drifting inexorably into drug using associations and a criminal culture. The judge said, “By sending you to Hedley, I’m giving you a chance to think about your life.”

From the beginning, Candace exhibited a volatile emotional state. In her happy moments she brushed her black shoulder length hair until it shone in the Hedley sun. At such times she wore clean jeans and usually a white blouse. Her effervescent laughter lifted the spirits of those around her. In these happy moments, she sparkled and could have been a successful beauty queen contestant. On group outings to Penticton, men sometimes gazed at her unabashedly.

Now dusk was already approaching. She must have hoped she could elude us in the coming darkness. Almost certainly her plan was to get to the # 3 highway, which passed through our community. With her attractive face and pleasing figure, any trucker would be quick to stop.

Fortunately she didn’t get that far. “She’s on the rock bluff overlooking the highway,” the voice on the radio announced. “Threatening to jump.”

Already I saw her slim figure high on the bluff, facing away from me toward the other side where several staff were gathered, anxiously looking upward. From this high perch I faintly heard her voice, tinged with desperate despondency. “You come up and I’ll jump!” Strenuous urging to come down might cause her to become unhinged mentally and emotionally. She needed time. I realized though that even if we waited, inner turmoil might compel her to leap.

Intent on keeping those on the other side of the bluff under surveillance, she had not noticed me. Realizing I was out of her line of sight, I began climbing up the unstable shale, proceeding carefully so I wouldn’t send chunks of rock clattering down.

After climbing steadily for about 10 minutes, my upper body was at a level where I could see her standing, no more than 4 meters away. Not wanting her to think I might attempt to seize her, I didn’t ascend higher.

When she ceased shouting down at the workers, I said quietly, “Candace, I’m here. I won’t come closer.”

Surprised, she turned to face me, then sat down resignedly on a large rock. “It’s no use Art,” she said. “I’m tired of trying. It’s too hard. No one cares.” A tear trickled slowly down one cheek. I knew the workers closest to her cared deeply, but we were not her family. “My mom and sisters have come once in 3 months. The farther away I am, the better they like it.” She brushed away the tear.

You’re very special to everyone here,” I said.

Without my family, I have nothing.” She turned toward the darkening valley. “Don’t come close,” she warned. “I don’t want to talk anymore.”

Although I felt she had come to trust me somewhat during the past 3 months, she was now shutting me out. The workers below realized someone was attempting to engage her and had grown silent. I was concerned that once darkness settled in, her gloom would become more intense. Sensing she had drifted into a realm beyond my reach, I whispered a desperate silent prayer. Even now I don’t know if I expected an answer. “Candace,” I said. “I’ve been asking God to put his arms around you and keep you safe.”

She sat unresponsive for a long moment and I wondered if she had heard my words. Then, in the fading light I saw her rise and silently come in my direction. Not knowing what to expect, I stepped aside on the shale. She passed and cautiously began descending. Candace had found hope for another day.