An unhappy childhood in her grandmother’s beautiful but cold house was the impetus for Beryl Big Canoe to nurture a warm, loving home for her own family. A testament to her success was the troubled schoolmates her children would occasionally bring home, who needed a stable home with a big heart. Beryl fondly recalls one of the kids who came to stay.
“My son brought Henry home to stay for awhile. He was struggling with the trauma of divorcing parents and a custody battle,” she says. “When Henry went back to his home, my kids talked to me and said he really needed a place he could stay all the time. Christmas was coming and we decided we wanted Henry to remain with us, so we had a scroll made up that said we’d like him to be a part of our family. My kids were too excited to wait for Christmas morning and asked, ‘Can we please give Henry’s gift to him tonight?’”
Henry read the scroll, and wanted to become a part of the family. He even wanted to change his surname to Big Canoe.
“But we told him, ‘No, because when you and your dad become closer, it will hurt him if you changed your name.’ But, he always called my husband Bill ‘Dad,’ even when his real dad was there. His dad didn’t mind, seeing that Henry was happy.” When Bill passed away, Henry spoke at his service and told of how he had joined the family. He pulled out his scroll, which he had kept all those years.
Of her children’s compassion and concern for their young friends, Beryl says, “I always worry that Bill and I weren’t good parents, but it seems to have worked out okay.”
Beryl worked for many years at both Victor School and, later, Blanshard School as a teaching assistant, gaining the love and friendship of her many “kids.”
“Working with special needs students, a teacher either has the ability to work well with them or not,” she says. “All the training in the world won’t necessarily make you better, if your heart’s not in it.”
Common sense, compassion and an endless supply of patience and humour are necessary for workers who enjoy being with their special charges.
“Victor School kids are taken to Hillside Mall, so they can learn how to behave in public. Each child would be with an assistant,” recalls Beryl. “I had this darling little boy who loved his ice cream. I just didn’t realize how much he loved it. He saw this elderly lady, walking with her cane and holding her ice-cream cone. My angelic-looking little boy went up to her and grabbed the cone right out of her hand. It happened so fast and the look on her face was absolutely priceless. I apologized and replaced her cone. I told her I had no idea how much he loved his ice cream!”
Retired from the school system and coping with Bill’s death, Beryl searched for an activity to occupy her time. A short piece in the local newspaper asking for “KidStart Mentoring Program” volunteers caught her eye.
“I didn’t want to do something that would take a paying job away from someone,” she says. “It was an exciting program that needed volunteer mentors for young people, 18 years and under, who needed to be steered away from possible trouble. I felt I had come ‘full-circle’ from my experiences with my children’s friends, so I promptly volunteered!”
Eventually, Beryl was matched with a 13-year-old girl.
“It’s incredible the things we have in common when we weren’t even asked what we like or dislike. We both love classical music. We both talk a mile-a-minute or simply enjoy our quiet time. We tend to doodle on napkins and all kinds of other small things.”
When they’re together, these unlikely friends do different activities, and visit some of the girl’s favourite spots, including the Royal BC Museum and the Bug Zoo.
“I bet I must be the oldest person to spend an hour at Johnny Zee’s!” Beryl says with a smile. “I have a terrific friendship that I think will be there forever. She knows I’m there for her in good times and bad. It works in reverse, too, as she kept in touch by phone when I had my knee surgery.”
Beryl is also involved with “Success By 6,” which is a program to make parents aware that the first six years of a child’s life are the most important and the most formative. It also supports other programs preparing children for school and providing them with confidence when entering the next level of their young lives.
The active retiree and former union rep for the Greater Victoria School District, explains why she still works with children.
“When I was a child, I tried to figure out what I could do,” she says. “There weren’t any social workers or helpful organizations back then. Today, when kids talk to me about what they’re going through in their lives, I understand them. I want them to have their chance in life; to know someone cares about them.”
For information or to volunteer for the KidStart Mentoring Program, call
Laurie Chesworth at 250-386-3428 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For information on Success By 6, email@example.com
SEPTEMBER 2009 - VANCOUVER ISLAND
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