During the first Greater Victoria board of education meeting following the Nov. 19 municipal elections, I watched trustees around the board table bid an emotional goodbye to a longtime colleague and I found it difficult not to get a little misty-eyed myself.
I had previously overlooked the full value of 90-year-old John Young’s work by noticing only what was on the surface: his public fight against school fees, his age and perhaps, as many like to point out, the length of his hair. At the meeting, Young was outed after having given his wages anonymously to poor children each Christmas. And when he was handed a parting gift, he simply quipped: “I thought you were going to give me a haircut.”
I would later sip a coffee with the modest man and learn the details of his work – his generosity and resilience that are rooted not in personal or political interest, but in the simple goal of helping those unable to do so for themselves.
’Tis the season of reflection, of new beginnings, and for some, of finding the inspiration needed to make positive change. Others are a source of this inspiration, either for their singular remarkable actions or an everyday approach to life from which we could learn a thing or two.
In the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with people whose stories would make even the most disconnected of sorts want to climb atop the 2012 water dragon and ride it all the way to a stronger, happier, more generous and self-realized 2013.
Like Young, two big-hearted women didn’t hesitate to stand up for the underdog when they befriended Derry, a mentally ill homeless man. For months the anonymous women, who knew Derry only from seeing him regularly at Tim Hortons, drove him to medical appointments and selflessly slogged through red tape in an effort to reveal his identity and secure a pension and stable housing for him – a task made near impossible by Derry’s inability to communicate details of his past. Finally, the women went against his social workers’ orders and contacted the News to broaden their search. Through our coverage, the story made it back to Welland, Ont. and to Derry’s family, who hadn’t heard from the man in more than 25 years.
In August, I sat inside a Tim Hortons near Derry’s new government-run apartment as his sister Diane Marlatt thanked the women she calls Derry’s angels, for ending the family mystery and for giving her brother the kind of love and respect marginalized members of society go without. People like Derry are to be enjoyed, not pitied by society, Marlatt said.
What Derry’s angels did was take a risk that yielded a huge reward. Any one of the many people who contacted me after the stories were published to share their Derry experiences could have done the same for him, but they didn’t. I have no doubt the women have moved on to more grassroots philanthropy around town, just as Young will continue fighting for kids regardless of whether or not his name tag sits on the board of education table.
In Saanich, we’ve been lucky to meet some outstanding newsmakers in the last year, from our newly elected Green MP Elizabeth May to Claremont’s Caitlin Stockwell, who was, at 17, named one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 by a Canada-wide youth advocacy group for her environmental leadership. I loved seeing both those stories in national media. Sometimes though, the stories we need to hear the most are the last to make it into the headlines.
Resolutions aside, here’s to 2012 and all those devoted to having a positive impact at every level. As for me, I would resolve to keep my emotions fully in check while witnessing long-lost family reunions of the homeless or experiencing some of the impact one person can have when they give their entire life’s work to others — but I don’t like making promises I can’t keep.
Natalie North is a reporter with the Saanich News.