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2013 - Winter - Feature 1 

authors: Paul Dalby & Denny Manchee

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Our hometown heroes come from all different walks of life. There are philanthropists, caregivers, role models and visionaries. But they all have one common characteristic: the willingness to work for the common good within our communities. Each of their contributions trickle down the hills and streams and into the valleys of our landscape, forming a watershed of care and service that feeds the hearts and souls of the people whom they touch.

conradbeaubien

Walking – the act of putting one foot in front of the other with no particular place to go – enjoys a timeless appeal. Charles Dickens said walking was great for “musing upon something” and Mark Twain, predictably, said the real pleasure of pedestrianism was “stirring the movement of the tongue”.

Walking certainly changed the life of multi-media artist Conrad Beaubien since his full time move to the village of Hillier in Prince Edward County. Beaubien’s love of ambulatory motion launched him on the most ambitious project of his storied life: to take the 50 kilometre Millennium Trail tracing the spine of the County from pipedream to a paradise.

It all started three years ago after he and his family swapped urban bustle for rural tranquility. Despite the beauty of his new home, Beaubien felt strangely disconnected.

“One of the first things I missed when I got here was walking,” he said. “I live on Station Road and you can walk up and down the road and go out onto the highway. Then what?”

“I realized the difference here was that walking was not going to be a part of my daily events, going for a coffee or picking up the dry cleaning, grabbing some fruits and vegetables or visiting somebody as it is in the city where it’s part of your day-to-day routine. Here you need a purpose for your walking.”

Beaubien discovered that a small, rough trail running near his house was in fact a disused railway line that had been donated to the County. Fifty kilometres long, covering 73 hectares of scrub and wetland, the trail remained little more than a dotted line on the map.

For Conrad Beaubien, 65, a noted filmmaker, writer, artist and sculptor, this presented a welcome challenge. As the creator of the popular long-running TV series Sketches of a Small Town, Beaubien was used to thinking on a big canvas.

Realizing that “not a lot was going on” with the proposed Millennium Trail, he used his considerable powers of persuasion to ignite a community-wide movement to take the trail from a blueprint to glorious reality. Beaubien in full flight is an irresistible, silver-tongued force of reason and romance.

“All I was doing was fanning embers where work had already begun. I quickly recognized where the pitfalls were, where they had got into struggles, and I simply used positive communication about the beauty of what we have on this trail.”

County people fell in love with Beaubien’s grand vision – a vision that promotes a linear parkland. “The trail is a spirit guide, a teacher, a passageway of learning that runs like a spine through the territory,” he told them.

Rolling the dice, he organized a public meeting of support in the month of February, a time when the County is usually hiding away from snowstorms and winds. Beaubien talked it up with his neighbours, fellow artists, local library historians, winery owners, in fact anyone who would listen.

“The Waring House donated a room that was only supposed to hold 100 people but we ended up with 200 people coming,” he said. “And to me that was the first indicator that I was doing something that answered my inner needs. And that became my path into the community.”

In the past three years, fundraising and community sponsorship have contributed to a remarkable transformation of the Millennium Trail. Work is almost complete on an eight-kilometre section adopted by the Wellington Rotary Club, raising $75,000 to grade and level the rail bed, add benches and bridges and make it wheelchair accessible. After a later presentation by Conrad, the village of Hillier voted to adopt another eight kilometres. “It’s very exciting,” Conrad exclaims.

Conrad describes the wave of optimism and energy percolating through the County as simply “people coming together and sitting around a table to get the job done.”

But for the artist who has emerged as a true trailblazer, the rewards are more significant: “The trail for me opened up into a Field of Dreams and through my efforts and work, I came to know various facets of the community, the natural heritage of the area. I feel blessed.” PD

gerogebonn

All the signposts in George Bonn’s life and career as a lawyer point to an overriding commitment to fair play. He has deliberately restricted his practice to representing people who have been seriously injured or representing family members of people who had been wrongfully killed.

In recent years this sense of justice prompted him to volunteer his services speaking up on behalf of wounded soldiers battling for benefits. And it has sparked his long-term, continuing role as a major financial supporter of Belleville General Hospital’s rehabilitation department.

In fact, Bonn and his family law firm (his son is his partner) have made such significant donations that the hospital has renamed the unit as the Bonn Law Out Patient Rehabilitation Day Hospital.

“He just made a very large donation based on the fact that he wanted to help his community,” said Jenn Barrett, director of development at the hospital foundation. “Mr. Bonn is a very philanthropic and a very humble man.”

The Rehab Hospital treats conditions that range from stroke, brain and spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s and ALS, to MS and arthritis. Each month, the department handles about 450 appointments with its experts in the fields of patient mobility, communication, cognition and psychological development.

George Bonn sees his continuing support of Quinte Health Care as a logical progression from his deep ties with Belleville and Trenton. He was born in Belleville Hospital in 1942 and six years later doctors treated him successfully for a life-threatening illness. Bonn has never forgotten.

“Certainly I have an emotional attachment to the hospital,” Bonn says, but adds there is a second more significant reason for his philanthropy. Many of his clients have suffered orthopedic or brain injuries, and the majority require rehabilitation.

“And many, if not most of our clients, tend at some point in their injury, especially through the rehabilitation process, to use Belleville hospital. So that’s a very strong connection.”

When George Bonn entered the new field of personal injury law in the late 1970s, he quickly realized he was “working in a void”. “I was a rookie at that time, I had no mentor and no direction. And the resources available compared to today were infinitesimal,” he said. Determined to create a base of expertise, he and eight other lawyers formed the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association (OTLA) in 1991. Today it boasts more than 1300 members and is recognized by both the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada as an expert witness in any cases involving personal injury.

Bonn didn’t know it at the time but the fledgling lawyers’ group would later play a key role that directly impacted on his hometown.

Living almost his entire life in Trenton, Bonn, now 69, understood that it is first and foremost a military town. So when soldiers returned from war zones in Afghanistan suffering from serious physical and psychological injuries, they found their needs were often ignored by an insensitive government. Bonn quickly intervened.

“The thought of men and women not being properly looked after is disturbing,'” said Bonn. “They put their lives on the line. They shouldn't have to fight for the benefits they deserve.”

Bonn and fellow personal jury lawyers in the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association offered to help. They represented the wounded soldiers for free in their negotiations for benefits and compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

To Bonn, it seemed like the honourable thing to do. “As we knew from handling cases dealing with government bureaucracies, it can be absolutely maddening and frustrating for the most expert lawyer, let alone a wounded veteran. It would be absolutely debilitating.”

Bonn likes to think the efforts of his group eventually persuaded the government to “clean up its act” and revamp the way they dealt with military veterans.

George Bonn’s dedication to fair play and justice was recognized when he received the Ontario Trial Lawyers’ prestigious John A. McLeish Award, given to the person who has made an outstanding contribution to the goals of a fair trial and access to justice.

“The association has been a vehicle that has hugely improved the standard and quality of legal help for personal injury victims,” Bonn says proudly. PD

glenngibson

Glenn Gibson says he puts everyone to sleep. Not perhaps the kind of idle boast that will get you invited to parties but Glenn is rather proud of the fact. By his own count, he has cured insomnia (temporarily) for almost 14,000 people.

That’s only one of many attributes that go with his 20-year term as the full-time GP-anesthetist at Campbellford Memorial Hospital, perhaps the last of a dying breed. He is also acclaimed for his exploits “riding shotgun” in ambulances.

For a couple of generations in the east Northumberland region, Glenn Gibson has been the quietly reassuring presence in the operating theatre – the first and last person patients see before they are dispatched to what Gibson calls “bye byes” land.

“Good anesthesiology is a combination of things. Certain aspects are very scientific but others are not. Everyone is nervous when they come into the OR, so you do what you can to calm them down,” he said.

A standout in the riotously coloured surgical caps that he makes himself on a sewing machine at home, Dr. Gibson has become a local legend of the OR for his witty banter and warm compassion.

But it’s not just Dr. Gibson’s vast medical expertise as a doctor and teacher that endears him to patients and hospital staff alike. It’s well known throughout the 32-bed hospital that on every public holiday, Dr. Gibson bakes cookies and brings them in for the patients and staff.

And 43 years after he first graduated from medical school, Dr. Gibson is still working a schedule that would tax a man half his age. As the hospital’s sole anesthetist, he is on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.

But five years ago he signaled his wish to retire and devote more of his time to his two young grandchildren. The search got under way to find three-part time anesthetists to replace him so that Dr. Gibson could hang up his stethoscope, a significant recruitment challenge. Dr. Gibson laughs: “I may not have to worry about retirement income, I might still be working at 90. My biggest concern is that if I walk out of here today, things would fall apart, I know that. And I have been committed long enough to this hospital that I don’t want this to happen.”

But it’s Dr. Gibson’s exploits riding in the back of an ambulance taking seriously ill patients to big city hospitals that have made him a local legend.

One particularly heroic effort to keep a burn victim alive earned him the highest accolade from the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons – as one of five Doctors of the Year chosen by their peers as “ideal physicians”.

Answering his pager, Dr. Gibson had hurried into Campbellford Hospital where a dairy farmer had suffered burns to one-third of his body. For the next 23 hours non-stop, Gibson toiled mightily to keep his patient alive. When the farmer was put into an ambulance for a nightmarish trip around southern Ontario hospitals in search of a burn unit bed, Gibson rode with him all the way, keeping him alive with a hand ventilator. He even flew with his patient down to Rochester, New York to an available burn bed. News of the epic life-saving journey spread like wildfire through the Canadian medical community.

Reflecting back now on his outstanding career in healthcare, Glenn Gibson says the secret of his success is really a simple equation: “If it’s something you’re enjoying and it’s worthwhile and I’m making somebody’s life a little easier, that’s the best you’re going to get in this job.” PD

danmilligan

Numbers tumble rapidly from Dan Milligan’s mouth, as though his inner calculator is constantly crunching. It’s a good skill for an athlete, an organizer, a get-it-done leader. He’s got the data ready when it counts. Take this number, for example: 3000. Those are the volunteer hours he personally invested over two-and-a-half years to get the West Northumberland Curling Club off the ground – almost a full-time job, without pay.

Here’s another stat: 4000 hours. That’s what club members volunteered between August 1 and October 1, 2011 to transform the Jack Heenan hockey arena on Furnace Street into a top-notch curling facility. The volunteer-run club now has 378 members, and the ice is used by hundreds more through its rental program.

Fortunately for the Town of Cobourg, Milligan’s retirement from teaching at Brookside Youth Centre five years ago coincided with changing community needs for ice. Curlers had been using the facilities at the Dalewood Golf Club, but the prospect of increased fees meant their future there was uncertain. Meanwhile, with two NHL-size rinks opening at the new Cobourg Community Centre, there was now a surplus of hockey rinks and the town was looking at mothballing one of them.

With the speed of an agitated squirrel, Milligan pulled together a meeting of 120 curlers to look at the options. He proposed forming an independent organization called the Northumberland Curling Association and leasing ice time at Dalewood. “I said ‘I could do this, but I’m not doing it alone,’” he tells me. “I asked for nine more volunteers by 10 o’clock the next morning, and the next morning I had them!”

Milligan then peppered people with emails to get them onside. “We needed 200 members at $330 to make it work. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I sort of had faith that I could make it go.”

It worked. They got 250 in the end and were able to continue throwing rocks for another season at Dalewood. Then in January 2011, the group, now called the West Northumberland Curling Club, began serious discussions with the Town of Cobourg about taking over Jack Heenan Arena. “There were four or five types of organizations looking at the building, but because the ice plant was still in good shape, I think deep in their hearts they wanted the arena to remain an ice facility,” says Milligan.

Armed with more numbers, Milligan and his team made a presentation to council, arguing convincingly that they could sustain the rink and that the spin-off benefits to the town in catering and restaurant revenue would be significant. Then began the nitty gritty questions of maintenance and leasing details. “They had their own idea of leasing it as an hourly rental, but I said curling doesn’t work that way. We have to build stuff to make it a curling club and there can’t be other people in there. We asked for a 20-year lease and got a five year,” Milligan chuckles. Gotta aim high.

It all came together under Dan’s tireless leadership and this is now the third season of competitive curling in the heart of Cobourg. But he’s quick to point out he did not do it alone. “The real heroes are all the volunteers who worked on this building, and continue to volunteer to keep everything running.”

At 60, and with the curling club well established, Milligan’s restless mind and energy are finding new outlets: he’s just developed a product that allows lawn and carpet bowlers with bad knees, hips and backs to stay in the game. It’s called the Ubi Launcher and it’s like an extendible hiking pole with two sizes of bowl grips on the end. What’s more, it’s being manufactured at Custom Plastics in Cobourg.

Retirement never looked so busy. DM

davidsheffield

It all began with a potluck dinner. That’s how David Sheffield, housepainter to the wealthy set and a wallpaper storeowner, met the poor and homeless of Port Hope. And his life changed forever.

“It’s been a huge learning experience for me, crossing over into a different world and learning what exists,” says the modest, soft-spoken Sheffield, now acclaimed as the town’s very own miracle worker with last year’s Star of Port Hope Civic Award.

At 52, Sheffield is not only the town’s community outreach worker, but also the founder and driving force behind the not-for-profit Green Wood Coalition, champions of the disenfranchised in the Port Hope area.

“There’s an argument to be made that Port Hope is a different kind of community because of what Green Wood Coalition has done, somewhat inadvertently, by getting people to eat together,” enthuses Sheffield, also a noted poet who sports a trademark bandanna.

Even in his days as a house painter, David Sheffield also worked part-time in a group home for the mentally disabled. He knew that he had a natural aptitude for working with people and six years ago he found the perfect outlet for his aspirations. He and his wife Beth joined a newly-formed group of churchwomen starting a weekly potluck dinner for the town’s poor, a “hidden statistic” living within the crumbling walls of the Green Wood Tower Motel.

Once an elegant Victorian house and banquet room, the Tower had fallen on hard times. Its rooms were filled with people who couldn’t afford housing elsewhere, renting by the month. “It was like third world conditions, it was horrible. Nobody should have been living in those circumstances,” Sheffield said.

The first potluck dinner in the unheated banquet hall in January 2007 was not an auspicious start. “We were all sitting at the table with our coats on. About 25 people had showed up for dinner,” Sheffield recalled. “As the room started to warm up, a family of raccoons fell through the ceiling tiles where they were living. They had smelled the food.”

But David Sheffield was not disheartened even when the motel changed ownership and began a renovation program. Rising rents forced many of the long term “residents” to look elsewhere for shelter. The Coalition’s constituency was now spread out all over Port Hope area, often hidden in plain view. A new challenge needed a new approach.

“It’s problem-solving, bridging the gap between formal services in the community and the person who isn’t getting those services,” Sheffield explains.

Sheffield enlisted the support of eight churches in Port Hope and arranged for the potluck dinner to be transferred to a new, permanent home in the now-closed St. Mary’s elementary school.

“When you eat with people there is an implied trust that’s there,” he says. “And we would share our own stories with each other and start to learn something about the life of people living in serious poverty and where they had come from,” he explained of the weekly pot-luck get-together.

The community dinners which eventually offered good food and companionship to around 70 people each week inspired Sheffield to tackle the many problems discussed by his new “friends” around the dinner table.

When he launched the not-for-profit Green Wood Coalition, Sheffield attracted 120 volunteers. “So often we get a volunteer who comes along to help people but then they admit they had been sitting at home by themselves and this has been a wonderful experience for them too,” he said.

In addition to the community dinners, the Coalition offers a creative arts group, monthly music jams and a community garden – all further evidence of its simple mandate to act as a catalyst for people in poverty and improve their quality of life. Little wonder that David Sheffield has become a quiet hero to the poor and homeless of Port Hope. But Sheffield insists that he’s the big winner in all of this.

“It’s the most significant experience of my life. I think in the course of the Green Wood story, I have rediscovered who I am and my place in the world,” he said. PD

lindadowney

If Linda Downey had grown up in the GTA, my guess is she’d be CEO of the Toronto United Way by now. This 50-year-old grandmom of five is formidable, a one-woman social service agency whose energy and commitment to helping others is boundless. Lucky for the folks of Wellington that her path led her from a tiny community north of Sudbury, to Belleville and finally to this lakeside County village.

Downey founded The Storehouse Foodbank at Wellington Pentecostal Church in 2007, after feeding people out of her own home for years. “My husband Bob and I would buy groceries for 15 to 20 people and I’d make sure every week they had food,” she says. Where did this impulse come from? Her mom and dad laid the foundation: “They’d give the shirt off their back to help someone and they taught us you can always share what you have.”

But the compulsion to give became personal after she fled an abusive relationship with the father of her kids. “I was a single mom for eight years,” says Downey. “One Christmas, Seventh Day Adventists showed up at my house with food boxes. I didn’t have any food or presents for my two little girls. I was all by myself and back in school. When they came to the door I was crying and thankful, and I said one day if I get on my feet, I’m going to do this.”

“This” turns out to be feeding 102 clients, from individual seniors to a family of seven. People have to register for the service and show their income and expenses before qualifying for a bi-weekly food box. The Storehouse covers a large region, from Consecon to the middle of Bloomfield, and is now way more than a foodbank, distributing clothes and furniture to people in need. “I had a call one day from someone asking, ‘Do you have any clothes that would fit a little girl?’ I said I’d ask some of my friends, and that’s how it started,” says Downey. Same thing with the furniture, which rolls in and out of the pastor’s garage like a crowd-sourced Leon’s warehouse.

The Storehouse is now full on, 24/7, though Downey had no idea it would take over her life when she started it while working at The Wellington Times. “Seven years ago I went into Foodland and was talking to the owner, and he mentioned there was such a need in the community. I didn’t know anything about running a food bank, but I told the pastor of the Pentecostal Church that this was a project I’d like to take on.”

I’ve only met her once, but my gut says it’s hard to say no to Linda Downey’s intense blue eyes. She’s insistent, persistent and utterly convincing. “Because I worked in advertising at the newspaper I know a lot of the businesses,” she says, grateful for all the donations that regularly pour in – like the roasts from C.B. Freezers, the coffee from Tim Horton’s, the baked goods from Schroeder’s. She also gets huge support from the churches and service clubs in Wellington: The Lions Club does Easter fundraising, the Legion handles summer and Thanksgiving, the Rotary does Christmas and the Women’s Institute fills in many important gaps.

And Downey now has seven regular volunteers and “25 to 30 we can call when we need them.” Among her dedicated board members is 90-year-old Al Harrott, her bargain shopper. “He’s got more energy than anyone I know,” says Mrs. Energy herself, fuelled by glugs of Coke. “He’ll come back with margarine for 50 cents. He loves to shop and he knows where to get the deals.”

Downey inspires that level of effort in her every action. She’s the kind of person you want to work with, not just because she gets so much done, but because it’s for all the right reasons. She makes you take stock, step up and ask yourself “What more can I do?” DM

ozzylamoureux

They say it takes a community to raise a child but in the case of Ozzy Lamoureux, it was a child who raised the community. It was an end of day phone call that led Watershed to Ozzy Lamoureux. The voice at the other end of the line – Dr. Lex Luttikhuis – explained that earlier that week, Ozzy had visited him at his Northumberland Veterinary Clinic to deliver a special gift. Ozzy is a Grade 4 student at the Northumberland Hills Public School in Castleton.

Quietly composed but definitely determined, Ozzy arrived at the clinic on a mission. He asked to speak to Dr. Lex who took him into an examining room. A few minutes later, Dr. Lex emerged from his meeting with tears in his eyes, an oversized card in one hand and a fat envelope in the other. The card was painstakingly drawn – an orange cat resembling Garfield without his stripes graced the front. Inside the card, a handwritten note explained the purpose of Ozzy’s visit to the clinic. Underneath Ozzy’s message to Dr. Lex and Dr. Michelle were three columns of hand printed names – all contributors to his cause. And his cause? To help the clinic in its work with abandoned or stray cats. The envelope contained a whopping $200 in small bills and change.

At the beginning of our interview with nine-year old Ozzy, he stuck close to his mom, their eyes meeting as she prompted him to tell his story. The more he spoke about his cats, Zoe and Zara, the more his confidence grew. He rhymed off their characteristics and outlined their care but he was also aware of the importance of looking after other less fortunate animals. He told us that he often checked in on the strays at the veterinary clinic and he wanted to help Dr. Lex and Dr. Michelle look after them.

“I started studying about vets and cats when I was about five. I loved cats my whole entire life. It was my birthday and I already had a lot of Pokémon cards and I didn’t need any more, so when my friends asked me what I wanted, I just said, ‘I would like money for my birthday.’ Even my brother gave me money to help look after the cats…I asked him, ‘Do you like money or helping sad cats?’ He said he liked both but he gave me the money.”

According to Dr. Michelle Chiunti, the clinic looks after between 50 and 60 stray cats a year, using their Pet Trust to feed, spay, neuter, vaccinate and find homes for unfortunate felines. Their trust – supported by the veterinary skills of Dr. Lex and Dr. Michelle and a donation box on the clinic counter – also helps pet owners who can’t afford care for their pets, and offers a spectrum of treatments for strays and rescued animals. How far reaching is the fund? Last year the trust looked after a bunny that required three surgeries before the clinic found a new home for it and even nursed an orphaned fawn.

While the recipients of Ozzy’s gift sported Cheshire cat grins, many of the staff and the pet owners in the waiting room had tears streaming down their cheeks. The selfless gift of a nine year-old boy had touched their hearts and made a significant contribution to the food, shelter and general wellbeing of the many sick and stray cats taken under the wing of the Northumberland Veterinary Clinic. And when folks tell you that volunteerism and a sense of community is the purview of the over-sixty generation, tell them Ozzy Lamoureux’s story. JK

 

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carl wiens

cwportraitCarl lives in Belleville, teaches iIllustration at Sheridan College in Oakville…

meghan sheffield

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Meghan is a Cobourg writer, web producer and social media manager....

norm wagenaar

Norm DSC 0763Norm has been a reporter, photographer, editor, freelance writer and gardener....