A Love Story From The Yukon

Vern & Cynthia Armstrong, residents of the Yukon.
Vern & Cynthia Armstrong, residents of the Yukon.

When I learned Vern and Cynthia Armstrong of the Yukon have always chosen to make their home in the cold northern parts of Canada, not along the more hospitable 49th Parallel, my curiosity was aroused. I invited them to our home recently to tell Linda and me about their lives. They were in Keremeos to celebrate the 98th birthday of Cynthia’s father, John Merriman.

Even after 22 years, they are probably still a little surprised to be married. Cynthia had planned to be a vet, but was inspired by a nurse to enter nurses training. “I had no plans to ever marry,” she volunteered, “but I knew my mother was experiencing despair because I didn’t have a husband. I put an ad in the Western Producer. The ad asked, Are you the answer to my mother’s prayers?” She received 28 replies which she read to her sisters at a weekend get-away. “It was hilarious,” she said. “We laughed a lot.”

Those men didn’t have a chance, did they?” Linda interjected.

No,” Cynthia said, smiling at the memory. “They didn’t.”

Vern’s life and career trajectory had been quite different. “I attended school for 8 years and got to grade 6,” he said. “I quit then because I wanted to be a farmer and I figured I had enough education for that.” He never did farm but was good at math and managed a lumber yard for 30 years. He got married to Edith and they had 2 children and also adopted 2 indigenous children. After 43 years, Edith died of cancer.

During the years while Vern was married and raising a family, Cynthia ‘s nursing career and adventuresome spirit took her to a number of remote northern locations. When she was sent to Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan, the nurse assigned to train her quit and Cynthia was alone, without the experience or instruction she really needed. Then, at isolated nursing stations along Hudson Bay, she was again the only nurse and there was no doctor.

Her adventuresome spirit wasn’t diminished during a year of training in Ottawa. She suggested to the instructor they invite the Governor General of Canada, Madame Sauve` for coffee. The instructor said this would certainly not be accepted. Undeterred, Cynthia sent the note anyway. Not long after, she and her 12 co-trainees and the doubting, astonished instructor, were in Government House having coffee with Madame Sauve`.

When a Christian mission opened a centre in northern Saskatchewan, Cynthia was hired to run the post office and do maintenance. Vern, now a widower, came to the centre as a volunteer. When he offered to drive her to another location she accepted, thinking he would bring along a male co-worker. Already well into her 30’s, she was considered to have no interest in finding a husband. Vern found her attractive though, and decided not to bring his co-worker. “Until then, I always addressed him as Mr. Armstrong,” she said, “but we took the long way back. That was how it started.”

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After they were married, Cynthia suggested they move to the Yukon where Vern had siblings. “I sometimes wondered why they never wanted to leave, even for a visit,” she said. “Now I understand. It really is nice.”

They settled first in Watson Lake where Vern worked with a carpenter, often doing jobs at the local school. Cynthia worked as a home care nurse.

The people in Watson Lake are terrific, they agreed, but the medical care isn’t. “If we needed to fly to a big hospital,” Vern said, “it took an hour for a plane to come from Whitehorse. Also, the town had only 1 grocery store. The 2 gas stations closed at night and the 3 restaurants closed at 7 pm. The coldest it ever got when we were there was -52.”

As people age and are beset by medical issues, it is common to gravitate to a warmer climate and big city medical facilities. Having both had heart attacks, Vern and Cynthia moved to Whitehorse. They have no plans to come further south. “The medical facilities are great,” Cynthia said, “and the government pays most of our medical expenses. It’s called the “golden handcuff.” “There are about 35 restaurants,” Vern added. “Some serve ethnic meals.”

They have learned to live with the cold and to see humour in adversity. The Yukon is fortunate they are there for the long haul.

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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.

Can’t Afford Christy Clark Dinner

February 14, 2016 -  BC Premier Christy Clark. Photo by Dave Chan.
February 14, 2016 – BC Premier Christy Clark. Photo by Dave Chan.

A few days ago I received an e-mail from the B.C. Liberal party. It began as follows: “We’re honoured to invite you to the 2017 Vancouver Leader’s Dinner on April 10 in support of Premier Christy Clark and Today’s B.C. Liberals.”

Naturally I felt flattered that they’d think of me, a little white haired guy living in an obscure community, far from the centre of provincial power. Before I could even briefly savour the moment or make plans to attend, Linda read the rest of the message. Her words quickly doused my euphoria. “Listen to this,” she said, a tinge of regret in her voice. “I don’t think you’ll be able to attend. Single tickets are $500. For a seat at the Premier’s Circle Table, where I know you’d like to be, it’s $10,000. This is for people in the big leagues. They’re looking for high rollers, like Jimmy Pattison.”

I suppose, even after many years, I’m still hoping those holding the reins of power want to hear from average people like me. I should have known immediately though they weren’t really enthusiastic about having me there, unless I came with pockets full of high denomination bills.

Lately there has been much discussion by political pundits and members of the opposition concerning Liberal fund raising. The party has attached a hefty cost to the privilege of access to the Premier and elite members of her cabinet. Certainly this dinner is not for average citizens striving to feed children, pay rent or property taxes, maintain a vehicle, contend with constantly rising government fees and a plethora of other expenses.

It isn’t surprising that polling suggests the connection between ordinary citizens and governments is in serious disrepair. An Ekos poll revealed that at the national level, the proportion of Canadians who trust their government to do the right thing decreased from 60 percent in 1968 to 28 percent in 2012. In 2013, participants in a Leger poll rated politicians as the second least trusted professionals. Only psychics ranked lower.

In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan state “there is a growing sense among Canadians that conventional politics are not working quite as they should.” They add “for well over a generation, in election after election, voter turn out has declined.”

Compared to the NDP, the Liberals are already lavishly funded. (In one recent week, London Drugs, Copper Mountain Mine, Ernst & Young LLP, among others, each contributed $10,000.) The fact that it will be primarily the wealthy who attend the fund raising dinner suggests the party will be under a huge obligation to corporations.

Having at times expressed the belief that one individual can make a difference, I have sent the following note to Premier Clark.

Dear Premier,

I feel honoured by the invitation to your Party’s 2017 Leader’s Dinner. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend, due to the cost.

My wife Linda and I would certainty like to meet you, however, and undoubtedly would enjoy a conversation with you. We’d like to invite you to our home in historic Hedley when you are campaigning in this area. We’d be happy to serve lunch, or any meal.

I write a column for two Black Press papers, the Similkameen Spotlight and The Review (Keremeos). Often my focus is on individuals doing important things in the Similkameen Valley and in our country. I’d be happy to write some positive things about you. Stopping in Hedley would almost certainly attract the attention of big city media.

Linda and I look forward to hearing from you.”

If you’re thinking this is a “long shot,” I won’t argue with you. If you consider it silly, I won’t argue with that either. I realize Christy Clark’s campaign bus may not even pass through our community, and if it does she isn’t likely to visit Linda and me. I do feel though she needs to hear from average citizens.

As I’m writing this, Linda has just informed me the Premier’s Circle Table is already sold out. Don’t despair though, for a mere $500 you may still be able to sit close to Mike Dejong or Rich Coleman.

My hope is not that Christy Clark will visit, even for a few minutes. Rather, I feel a responsibility to remind her she needs to govern for the benefit of all people, even quiet folks hidden away in the Similkameen Valley.

Basketball, A Preparation For Life

Mascot for "The Demolishers"
Mascot for “The Demolishers”

There are times in life, as in a game of basketball, when the outcome is determined not only by the skills we have acquired, but also by the character and habits we have developed. I was reminded of this last week in a game between Langley’s Brookswood Bobcats and a team I will refer to only as the “Demolishers”. This game was of interest to me because my 6 ft. 5 grandson Brandon was playing centre for Brookswood.

Brandon began playing basketball in grade 8, at that time a tall, gangly kid with lots of energy but little finesse. Observing him in their backyard dribbling, feinting and shooting, his dedication and work ethic impressed me. At times I scrimmaged with him but my grandfatherly body couldn’t match his height, long arms, agile movements and increasing skill. Before long I retired from the backyard court and cheered him on from the comfort of the second story patio.

Now in grade 12, Brandon is finishing his last season of high school basket ball. Unfortunately, none of the Bobcat teams he’s played on over 5 years have been hugely successful. Several of the players he grew up with on the team were scarcely over 5 feet. Opposing players towered over them. In spite of the great height disadvantage however, the boys battled on, bringing enormous energy and commitment to each game. They developed the inner strength to play with amazing determination even when losing, which was frequently the case.

Mentally basketball hasn’t been as high a priority for Brandon this year. He has a pretty girlfriend and a part-time job. Although his passion for the game has diminished, his loyalty to the team has not. Their tallest player, he has many times thwarted the shots of opponents. He can also score. Aware of the team’s dependence on him, he has continued to play with the same vigour.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the Bobcats squeaked into the Fraser Valley Tournament. Knowing he was nearing the end of his high school basketball career, Linda and I made the trip to Langley to watch him play. Because the Bobcats were ranked low, we realized they’d immediately be matched against a strong, higher ranked team. We were dismayed to learn this would be the Demolishers, a team with a reputation for rough play.

All games in the tournament were scheduled to take place in the Demolishers home gym. Upon entering the gym, it was evident to us Demolisher fans intended to make noise a significant factor. Watching the Demolishers go through their warm up routine, I became conscious of how much bigger these boys were than the Bobcats. Their swagger suggested a high level of hutzpah. They had manhandled Brandon and his team 2 times in the regular season. Brandon had come home with an abundance of bruises from those games. The Demolishers were confident.

At their end of the gym, the Bobcats were going through warm up drills with quiet determination. In the previous match ups, the referees had allowed the Demolishers to push the Bobcats around almost at will, calling few penalties on them. If that happened again it would be a basketball version of dirty hand to hand combat. Life isn’t always fair, and basketball referees aren’t either.

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Expecting Demolisher fans would again attempt to distract his team with noise, one of the coaches had brought 2 garbage cans for fans to bang on. The mother of one of the Bobcats came with a shopping bag filled with noise makers. The coach had also announced in school he would bring $200 to pay the entry fee for students.

 

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When the play began, it quickly became evident the Bobcats would refuse to be intimidated by their bigger opponents. They surprised the Demolishers with their feisty defense and the scrappy manner in which the point guard drove in to the basket and scored. When the Demolishers tested reffing, a couple of penalties made it clear the refs would not tolerate their rough brand of play. This deprived them of their bullying advantage and permitted the Bobcats to play more creatively, less concerned they might be injured.

The Bobcats pressed relentlessly, determined to beat this team which had bruised their bodies and egos. In the end, their work ethic and inner strength enabled them to overcome a team that relied on intimidation. In basketball, as in life, character can still determine the outcome.

Basketball banner for Brandon's team at Provincials

Visit From A Homeless Girl

Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)
Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)

Some years ago, on a frigid day in early January, I came upon a young homeless girl huddled under a tree against the wall of our Abbotsford condo.

Surprised, and sensing her misery, I asked “are you OK?”

“Yes,” she responded. Her voice suggested she meant “no.”

“You look cold,” I said, pulling off my thin gloves and handing them to her. She protested a moment and then accepted them willingly. Skinny as an anorexic fashion model, she seemed incredibly vulnerable. Giving her a pair of skimpy gloves was a meager gesture.

“Would you like to come in and get warmed up?” I asked.

She nodded.

In our condo, Linda turned up the fireplace. “Sit here,” she said. “I’ll bring you hot chocolate and a sandwich.”

“Complexa” seemed eager to talk about her life. We learned she was only 16, and for the past year her home had been a couple of tarps and blankets under some trees. Without any prompting, she volunteered she had done some drugs, including crystal meth. “I haven’t done a lot of meth,” she said. “I don’t have much money. I don’t sell my body.”

Still, we observed considerable twitching as she talked and ate. We attributed this to the meth.

Thinking she needed a thorough warming, Linda asked if she wanted a bath or shower. This thought appealed to her and she spent a good two hours in the tub.

We became concerned she might have taken drugs in with her and overdosed. Linda asked several times, “are you OK?”

Possibly the long stint in the bathroom was to forestall going back to the snow-laden streets.

We had a commitment that evening and couldn’t leave her in the building alone, so when she emerged from her long sojourn in the bathroom, we attempted to help her find a place for the night.

“Does your mom live around here?” Linda asked.

“Yes,” Complexa replied, “but we don’t get along. I haven’t seen her in over a year. Her cell number is out of service.”

“Do you have a dad?”

“My dad faded out of my life quite a few years ago,” she responded. “I don’t know where he is.” There was no indication of regret.

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“I have one brother,” she said. “He’s in prison.”

“What about grandparents?”

They were separated and living somewhere in Ontario. We attempted to find a phone number for them, but without success.

I phoned Community Services, the Salvation Army and the Abbotsford Police. I learned that only one small facility took in young girls. No answer there.

In the end, Complexa asked to use our phone and someone agreed to take her in. This person frequented a “drug house” in our neighbourhood.

Before leaving, she ate a bowl of hot stew and a bun, then thanked us warmly. When she walked out of our door, she walked out of our lives. In more than four hours, she had not smiled once.

Living in a strata building with strict rules, I’m not sure we could have done much more for Complexa.

Although I was aware of our limitations, I felt great unease knowing this 16-year-old unsmiling girl must wander about with no hope, no real destination and no connections outside the drug scene.

The social ills that were already prevalent in Abbotsford at that time have also been creeping into the Similkameen valley. In Hedley, addicts freely visit the much complained about drug house on Daly Avenue. Several are reputed to be making drugs available to teens. It seems that as a society we are capable of building impressive edifices, but we do not know how to create a future for drug addicted,homeless youths. The recent provincial budget, in spite of its many spending promises, will not change this.

Can we do more than wring our hands over this condition that is festering in the bowels of our society?

If our community and our larger society are to be healthy and vibrant, we must make a serious commitment to individuals and families in trouble, before they walk too far along this perilous path to utter hopelessness.

In spite of the scarcity of resources, I’d like to say to the addicted homeless Complexas in our communities, “don’t stop looking for help. It’s always too soon to give up.”

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.

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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.

John Horgan Up Close

In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton. Photo by Josh Berson
In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton.
Photo by Josh Berson

When I called the provincial NDP office in early December to request an interview with party leader John Horgan, I considered it a “long shot.” With a provincial election looming, would he want to talk with a small market columnist? I suggested to his effervescent press secretary, Sheena McConnell, that he is well known as a politician, but not as a person. My interest was in writing about his non-political life. She said, “Let’s set something up in a couple of months.”

Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Photo by Joshua Berson

On his early February whirlwind swing through the Okanagan Valley, we met in the Shades on Main restaurant in Penticton. He turned out to be everything I had not expected in an NDP leader.

Upon entering the restaurant, he walked briskly to our table accompanied by Sheena. He had already been interviewed at 8 a.m. by CBC Kelowna, also by Kamloops and Victoria stations. He had met people in two Kelowna coffee shops and one in Osoyoos. In spite of the travel and interviews, he exuded energy and congeniality. I would learn that at age 57 he has the concentration of an NHL goalie.

In response to my question about family, he said “my father suffered a brain aneuyrsm on Christmas Eve and passed away a few months later. I was an infant and have no memories of him. My mom didn’t have a drivers licence or job. A few years later, I’d come home from school, turn on the tv and make myself a peanut butter sandwich.”

There were serious hurdles before he found sure footing. “I went off the rails in grade 9”, he said. “I started smoking and hanging out with a bad crowd. I skipped classes and failed math, science, typing and French. The principal, counselor, and basketball coach worked hard to keep me in school.” In grade 12 he was elected president of the student council and captain of the basketball team. “In basketball, soccer and lacrosse, I learned a lot about personal discipline. I came to understand the importance of working together.”

Along the way he got experience that seasoned him and helped him understand people with limited means. “I’ve worked in mills,” he said. “I’ve worked in construction. I know what it’s like to live paycheque to paycheque.”

On his first day at Trent University, he met Ellie. “She was gorgeous and she was kind.” They have now been married 33 years and have 2 sons. He rarely takes Ellie along campaigning. “I’m concerned for her,” he said. “It’s too distracting.” He needs to be away a lot so he doesn’t see her as much as he’d like. He says, “Even so, she’s my oasis in all this madness.”

John didn’t hesitate when I asked if we could talk about his bout with cancer. “Sure,” he said. “I was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 49. I’ve had surgery since and it went well. It helped me understand that every moment is precious. We need to make an impact and try to help others.”

He had thoughts of social work when he began undergraduate studies as a psychology major at Trent University in Ontario. This changed when he attended a talk by Tommy Douglas. Then about 82, this iconic political elder kindled a flame in him. “He was a small, frail man, but I was impacted by the power of his voice, his speaking skill, and his message. He spoke of compassion and empathy, the importance of protecting the less fortunate. I shook his hand, convinced I could make a greater difference in policy development.”

John switched to political science and history, and went on to attain an M.A. in Australia. In 1983 he joined the NDP.

Having grown up in a politically conservative family, I’ve long been wary of NDP policies. I decided to ask a few political questions. His responses suggested he might be closer to median voters like myself than I had anticipated. He said, “A linear spectrum of politics doesn’t work anymore. The needs of business people and working people are the same. Seniors aren’t concerned about ideology. Students aren’t interested in manifestos.”

We need investment in industry. Workers understand that to have jobs, business must prosper.”

After 35 minutes he needed to hurry to a meeting with the Chief and Council of the Penticton Band. In his values, especially his concern for all people, John Horgan caused me to think of J.S. Woodsworth, respected founder of the CCF, now the NDP.

George And Christina, Still Valentines

George & Christina, with a couple of Christina's creations.
George & Christina, with a couple of Christina’s creations.

For me a relationship that has been tested by the storms of life holds a more riveting fascination than young, often transitory romance. Aware of the cloud overshadowing the marriage of George and Christina Thiessen, and with Valentines Day approaching, I wanted to hear their story. Last week they invited Linda and me to their spacious heritage home in Hedley.

For reasons that will be revealed, George did most of the talking. “We met in Reno,” he began. “Christina was a passenger on the bus I was driving for Maverick Tours. The Tour Guide asked me what I like to do in Reno. I told her I’d probably go dancing. I just needed a partner. She introduced me to Christina, and that evening Christina was my dancing partner.”

She told me later she had not expected to hear from me again, after we returned to B.C.”

George had been married twice. His first wife had borne 3 children, then died at a young age. The second wife had become a demanding, unruly alcoholic and the marriage had been a crushing failure.

Upon meeting Christina, George realized she possessed the depth of character he had been longing for. Smitten by her pretty, smiling face and evident kindness, he called her.

In time they moved in together. “Christina wouldn’t marry me though,” George said. “She had also been hurt in previous relationships and didn’t want to commit again.”

George continued to drive the tour bus, at times away for 11 days, with only a 1 day break between trips. Christina was working at the Surrey Memorial Hospital, cleaning operating rooms. George’s driving schedule and their history of hurtful relationships might have made this a rocky union. Fortunately George’s stability appealed to Christina and reassured her.

When I lost my 17 year old son in a bike/automobile accident, it was a difficult time,” he said. “Christina stood by me. Then my daughter passed away and again Christina was at my side, supporting me.”

They saw an ad for a spacious home in Hedley and called the realtor. Entranced by the house and the large yard, they bought it. The house needed serious updating so George studied magazines, bought tools and set to work.

George & Christina, in front of their Hedley home, Oct. 2015
George & Christina, in front of their Hedley home, Oct. 2015

He began experiencing severe sciatic pain and Graham Gore, pastor of the Hedley Grace Church, drove him to Kelowna for surgery. After recovering, George and Christina attended the church on a Sunday morning to thank the congregation for their support. Liking the people and the atmosphere, they continued to attend. On May 30, 2009 Graham married them in a small ceremony on their park like grounds.

About 2 years later the aforementioned cloud appeared on the horizon, scarcely noticeable at first. “Tests were done and we were told Christina had a slow progressing form of dementia,” George said, a note of deep sadness in his voice.

The diagnosis changed their lives. “Christina was always very talented in crafting,” George said. “One year she made 30 teddy bears to give away as Christmas gifts. She inspired me to take up woodworking.”

He pushed back his chair. “Come,” he said, “we’ll show you some of our creations. He led us upstairs to 3 rooms where we were greatly impressed by an array of Christina’s stuffed animals lolling on chairs and George’s intricate wood creations displayed on the walls. A beguiling aura of genius pervaded these rooms.

George with one of his wood creations.
George with one of his wood creations.

The dementia has caused this creative activity to cease. Their lives have become constricted. They still attend the church but participate only briefly in the coffee time afterwards. “Christina becomes anxious in groups.”

George paused. “Sometimes when I’m doing yardwork she wanders off and I don’t notice Fortunately, if she stays on the route we walk, she can find her way back. Usually when people see her alone, I get phone calls. People want to help.”

Christina playing the keyboard.
Christina playing the keyboard.

Not all is lost. Christina played the key board for us and her rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz was delicate and pleasing. Also, we had observed that while George was talking about the dementia, she sensed his distress and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. When they go out, she requests his assistance in selecting appropriate combinations of clothes. Although her comprehension is limited, she is able to engage in simple exchanges.

I love Christina and I’m committed to her,” George said. “I won’t place her in a home. We’re in this together to the end.” They’re still Valentines.

Ayrelea In India

Ayrelea Nimchuk
Ayrelea Nimchuk

We would likely not be surprised if a 15 year old girl decided to spend at least a portion of her summer earnings on designer clothes, jewelry and cosmetics. Quite possibly Ayrelea Nimchuk of Hedley was also tempted by these allurements. I was amazed to learn that she chose instead to pay for a trip to India where she volunteered for about 3 weeks at a school for underprivileged boys.

Sitting in our sun room she said, “I heard Dan and Olga McCormick talking about going to a boys school in India. I asked when they were leaving and said I’d like to go with them.”After several discussions and some research, her parents agreed. Ayrelea saved her income from working at the Hedley Museum to pay almost $3000 for the trip. The Hedley Seniors’ Centre gave her $200 and the Hedley Grace Church contributed $500 for a chicken dinner for the approximately 500 boys at the school.

Prem Sewa is a free boarding school for boys from poor homes,” she said. “They can start at age 5 and go to grade 12. Parents are eager to have their sons attend. They know there is no future for them without an education. In their home these boys often received only one meal a day. At the school they get 3 meals. She smiled and said, “the plates are really big and the boys go back for second and third helpings. They eat it all.”

In addition to Dan and Olga, there were 3 other recruits from Keremeos. “ We played football (soccer) with them. It’s a big game there. Also, they love volley ball. Their ball is very hard but they really smack it. They are good players.”

Ayrelea in India (3)

Another smile. “They all wanted us to take pictures of them. They’d say ‘one photo’, but they meant many. They’d look at the picture and burst out laughing.”

According to the school’s website, it’s purpose is “to give children from poor homes, orphans and semi-orphans, a chance to study in schools and institutions, which otherwise would be closed to them.” There is a computer lab, a wood workshop, a mechanics shop and land to grow crops. If a boy demonstrates special promise, Frank Juelich the founder, will personally pay for him to attend college.

Ayrelea in India, rolling dough to make chapattis.
Ayrelea in India, rolling dough to make chapattis.

The school, which has a sister school for girls about 650 kilometers away, actually was not begun intentionally. As a young man Frank Juelich traveled in India and wanted to learn a local language. He found 3 young men with a desire to learn English and they began studying together and helping each other. One of these men knew a boy who needed an education and asked if they could help him. Soon there were 40 boys attending sessions.

Frank became aware of the pressing need for educational opportunities among the very poor. He returned to Canada, raised $42,000 and purchased 17.75 acres in a rural area.

Now the school has a small medical clinic with a nurse on duty. A doctor comes in once a week. They also have an ambulance. The boys bathe 2 times each day and learn about hygiene. Since the inception of the school, dormitories and other facilities have been constructed. A settlement has grown up around the facility, and approximately 150 children are day students at the school.

The language of instruction is Marathi, with English also required.“We sat with them in the English classes and helped them,” Ayrelea said. “When we went to the market, we took along a few of the boys who were more advanced in English to translate for us.”

I was impressed to learn that most of the staff are graduates of the school, including the Director and also the President. Frank Juelich, now elderly, is continuing as a consultant. He wants to die in India.

Ayrelea returned with many vivid memories. Cows, pigs and chickens wandering unmolested, cow dung used to fill joints in walls. Markets with a rich array of offerings. Also, she loved the peanut butter. For her the experience reinforced a desire to be involved in humanitarian work somewhere.

Ayrelea dressed in her salwar kameez.
Ayrelea dressed in her salwar kameez.

She’s a pretty young lady and really doesn’t need the designer clothes and jewelry. Her decision has provided her with rich experiences and memories, and it brought smiles to the faces of the boys in India.

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.

A small town perspective on people, community, politics and environment.