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Feature - Angels of Whistler

There are many people who donate their time to make Whistler a better place, here are five of them

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’Twas the month before Christmas, the snow was settling heavily on a frozen Whistler landscape and there was no room at the inn. In other words, I had just become a typical Whistler statistic. In the early winter season world of cutthroat house hunting, my pre-arranged accommodation had been sold out to a higher bidder three days before moving in. Things were looking bleak, if not downright unfair.

Then a different kind of Whistler local came to the fore. Offers of places to stay until something else cropped up came left, right and centre, from friends and new acquaintances alike. Moving my belongings to temporary homes also came with unexpected help. Seeing my efforts to clear heavy snow off my van with a snowboard prompted a stranger to come over and start helping, before giving me his snow scraper to keep and disappearing back into the storm.

These are the people who make living here worthwhile.

Whistler isn’t the easiest place to get ahead. High rents, low wages, seasonal work cycles, inflated prices and the occasional unscrupulous landlord see to that. But take a glance in the local newspapers and it’s apparent the high level of community support that is here. Those having trouble finding work can get help at the Employment Centre; people without food can get free hampers from the Food Bank; there is help for the homeless; there are free safe-sex clinics and counselling. There’s also help for victims of criminal activity, support groups for women, a cancer support group, outreach workers for young adults with problems and drug and alcohol abuse counseling, to name but a few.

Usually unadvertised but equally accessible are organizations that will help those lost, injured or in danger. People are paid to operate some of these services but volunteers run the bulk of them.

From most accounts, Whistler boasts more volunteers per capita than most other towns or cities. According to many who lived here in the early days, when Whistler was called Alta Lake, it has always been the case. And the tradition carries on.

So here is a Christmas tribute to those who give of their time, energy and sometimes money to make Whistler a better place, whether through voluntary work, by being good Samaritans or just by helping their neighbour. By putting the spotlight on a handful of volunteers in the arts, search & rescue, community care services, fire fighting and animal welfare, we salute you all.

Jim Crichton — volunteer fire fighter with Whistler Fire Rescue Services

The light spilling out from the Whistler fire hall illuminates the snow as the people inside swarm over the vehicles, shouting instructions at each other and preparing equipment. This is not a callout, but one of the monthly full-scale practices conducted by some 45 local volunteer firefighters. Among them is Amaco Construction superintendent and assistant fire chief, Jim Crichton. With 27 years of volunteer firefighting under his belt, Crichton knows the drill better than most. He says there has never been a shortage of helpers, even back in the early days.

"In the 1970s all people living in Alta Lake would volunteer for the fire department," he explains. "There were only 200 people here at that time. Everyone would come together and it was a social thing – and still is."

Advances in technology mean old communication practices such as the old "phone fan out" system (over a local telephone network that relied on party lines) have fallen by the wayside, replaced by pagers. And volunteers now get paid when they respond to a call.

Crichton says modern sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and greater public awareness about fire prevention also means the majority of calls the firefighters now respond to are motor vehicle accidents, rather than actual fires.

But he says the basic principles of volunteering remain the same.

"Helping people during a terrible time in their lives, when their house burns down or something, it’s nice to be able to give something back to your community."

Asked about his most memorable callout, he begins to chuckle.

"We were called out to a dump fire where there was a "honeypit," where they used to empty all the septic tanks. This pit just looked like dried mud and the fire was on the other side of the pit, and the first firefighter to run across sank right into the septic tank. That was a messy one," he laughs.

Bullets exploding during house fires with firearms inside are among other occupational hazards.

"You still get an adrenaline rush when you get a page, that’s for sure. But it’s just about staying calm and doing the job."

Crichton says nowadays a lot of young people join Whistler Fire Rescue Services in the hope of becoming fulltime firefighters. But everyone has to do their time as a volunteer first, and it’s a significant commitment.

"For the first six months you train two nights a week plus Saturdays, then once a month we have a mega practice plus three other firefighting and rescue drills," he explains. "We get training for everything – all types of extrication, swift-water rescue, high angle rescue for cliffs, basic firefighting, crane rescue, terra cranes. Plus first aid, of course."

While it may be a lot of hard work, Crichton says the training is one of the best things about volunteer firefighting.

"Things have certainly got a bit more organized than in the 1970s," he chuckles. "The training is getting better all the time and it’s a great chance to up-skill yourself, as well as work with great people."

Ted Pryce-Jones — Whistler Search and Rescue volunteer

The advent of new and improved technologies, plus better training, has also significantly improved Search and Rescue operations since Ted Pryce-Jones first signed up as a volunteer in the mid-70s. Currently secretary to the 26-member Whistler branch, as well as RMOW village supervisor, Pryce-Jones says communications have seen the greatest evolution.

"When I first started there weren’t small, portable radios at all, just big clunky things that weighed about 15 pounds that you couldn’t really take on a search," he recalls.

"Now the miniaturization of radio technologies along with GPS (geographic positioning system) has made each searcher better equipped and more efficient."

The Whistler Search and Rescue Society is staffed entirely by volunteers. Pryce-Jones says some members have employers that will cover them during a callout, but many will lose income for the duration of a search. He says it’s still worth it.

"I first got involved through North Shore Search and Rescue when I was working as a ranger for the West Vancouver District Municipality and living up on Cyprus Bowl," he says. "I enjoyed the challenges of the searches and the reward of finding someone – there is nothing quite like it."

Crews train under the Provincial Emergency Program, which includes ground search techniques, rope rescue, avalanche training, first aid and communications and mapping technology, as well as working with other emergency response groups. Pryce-Jones says training is key, because it builds strong camaraderie, knowledge and solid working systems within the team.

"Your life is in your buddy’s hands and you have to have complete trust and confidence in each other’s abilities," he stresses. "You must take care of yourself and other team members first, before you can help others. There is always a certain element of risk but that is why you do your training."

Thinking back over the past 26 years, Pryce-Jone says each callout provides its own lessons in how to improve things the next time around. He says the 1994 search for Anne-Marie Potton, who died on Whistler Mountain some eight hours after breaking her leg during a solo hike, was especially an eye opener.

"Sadly she passed away even before searchers were called out, but that incident brought to focus that now we are a major resort and need more equipment and resources," he recalls. "We are now much better equipped with more training as a result."

Then there are those searches you remember for different reasons.

"A couple of seasons ago this executive from a highly well-known international company got lost while snowboarding and ended up on the south side of Whistler Mountain by the Cheakamus River. At around 4 p.m. he got his snowboard and jumped into the raging Cheakamus, thinking it would float him down to the village. Of course it doesn’t go that way and the snowboard was like an anchor.

"He managed to get out and then decided to lie down and sleep, which is the worst thing you can do because hypothermia can set in. Somehow he survived his sleep and we found him at first light at the eastern end of Cheakmus Lake – cold, wet, tired but amazingly, still alive."

He pauses and laughs.

"I still can’t believe what he did and that he actually admitted to it."

Educating people about being prepared in the backcountry is the best solution, says Pryce-Jones.

"Take a shovel, Pieps avalanche transceiver, make sure you have food, temporary shelter, matches, be prepared to spend some time out there in case you get stuck without putting yourselves or others in danger. Even a plastic bag can form part of shelter."

Pryce-Jone admits he has no idea how much time he has dedicated to Search and Rescue over the past 26 years, but doesn’t regret a minute of it.

"It is not like there is a line between your own life and what you do (with Search and Rescue)," he says. "It is a lifestyle and a commitment to your community. You live it and think it, and are just ready when you need to go."

Cora Inniger — Whistler Community Services Society, Whistler Food Bank and the Re-Use It Centre.

When it comes to extremes, Whistler bed and breakfast owner Cora Inniger has experienced a few. Originally from the Philippines, Inniger swapped the tropics for snow when she moved with her husband to Switzerland and then a year later, in 1981, to Whistler. Moving from a Third World country to a first world country also brought its surprises.

"Before I moved here I thought everyone in Canada was rich and it was a real eye-opener to discover how much some people struggle, financially and emotionally," she says.

"Families are a lot closer in the Philippines and will help each other out during hard times. In Canada people are a lot more isolated. The suicide rate, for example, is higher in first world countries."

Approximately four years ago Inniger noticed an advertisement asking for volunteers at the Whistler Community Services Society, and she has been heavily involved ever since. She helps sort and distribute grocery bags at the Whistler Food Bank the first and third Monday of every month, and works regularly at the WCSS’s charity shop, the Re-Use It Centre in Function Junction.

"A lot of people think Whistler is a place for the wealthy but it is so expensive to live here and young people in particular do suffer. They make the low wages, pay high rents and lose their jobs during the seasonal downturns. It is also really tough for single mums and dads," she says.

Rising demand for these social services shows the problem isn’t going away.

"This past November we had 137 people lined up at the food bank one day because many still hadn’t started work and had no money to buy food," Inniger says.

She recognizes some uninformed people may believe those who patronize the food bank are lazy and refuse to work, but says checks are in place to prevent abuse of the service and long-term use is discouraged. Instead solutions are sought, such as help with accommodation or employment. Often, she says, it’s just a case of helping point someone in the right direction.

"It’s a big thing just to see that someone cares," she explains.

As a mother, she finds it "heartbreaking to know kids have not had any decent food for a few days… It is the extremes between rich and poor in Whistler that keeps me coming back."

More recently, Inniger has become involved in a new venture: the Whistler Exclusive Philippines Canadian Society. As the name suggests, it is all about helping out the more than 100 fellow Filipinos living within the resort. The society was formed because there were cases of Filipino women being abused while working as domestics for foreign visitors.

Inniger says Whistler has given so much to her family that her efforts are just about giving a little bit back.

"I just feel good about doing it. I don’t have unlimited money to donate but what I can give is time."

Gayle Melenka — WAG volunteer

Time was tight. The van was stuck in snow and I had 20 minutes to reach Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) headquarters to interview volunteer Gayle Melenka before she drove off to Vancouver for three days. I needn’t have worried.

Opening the door at the WAG office, I was greeted by a cacophony of barks, yelps, meows and purrs – and Melenka standing, smiling in the middle of it all, cleaning equipment at the ready and two dogs bouncing enthusiastically at her side. The atmosphere was affectionate, controlled chaos.

"I find it so hard to leave," she confesses. "I sometimes arrive at 8 in the morning and before I know it, it’s 5 o’clock because there is just so much to do."

A self-confessed animal lover, Melenka responded to an advertisement calling for volunteers 18 months ago and hasn’t looked back since. However, she says more volunteers are needed – whether to help with cleaning, walking the dogs or just spending time socializing with the cats and canines.

"It’s not just a case of feeding them and leaving. We are very particular about our cleaning process because the animals can get sick," she says.

"I fall in love with the animals all the time, but we are all so happy when they get adopted. If one of them is not well I don’t sleep too well at night."

WAG volunteers come from all walks of life. Some are locals and some are visitors who miss their pet at home and want to come socialize with an animal. Melenka says dog walkers are especially tough to find during the ski season when most people are up the mountain, but the door is always open.

Melenka has other strings on her volunteer bow, such as library work, helping out at Whistler’s Spirit Day and assisting teachers, but WAG is her top priority.

"No matter what kind of mood you’re in, what you look like, how you feel, they just love you unconditionally, and that is really special."

Adopting a WAG animal involves a screening process that is taken very seriously. Eligible people are matched with animals of similar interests. For instance if you are a couch potato, a highly energized husky dog probably isn’t the best for you.

Melenka glances out the window, realizing a new storm in on its way and that she had better start driving to Vancouver. Will she miss WAG over the next few days?

"Oh I will," she laughs. "You need a break once in a while but I think about all the animals every day. I hate to leave them."

Sharon Broatch — Whistler Community Arts Council

"The arts are what make us human. Mankind has expressed himself through the arts since prehistoric times and it’s a natural inclination to use music, dance, and art to visually express ourselves.

"Providing opportunities to do that is difficult in a community that is as based on athletics and outdoors activities as Whistler is, but it is coming."

Sharon Broatch’s lifelong passion for the arts is no secret, and for the past 13 years or so her mission has been to bring that passion here.

"I tried to maintain all my season tickets to arts clubs, playhouses and the ballet when I moved to Whistler 20 years ago," she laughs. "I drove up and down the highway because I was determined that I would still be able to do all those things, but eventually it just gets to be too much. But I still maintain the ballet ones."

The primary focus of Broatch’s work though the arts council has been improving arts opportunities for children. The annual Children’s Art Festival, whereby kids get to participate in hands-on art workshops over a weekend, is one of her special projects. She and a friend also initiated the highly popular Missoula Children’s Theatre, an annual event that brings actors to town to work with local children over the course of a week to produce a full musical show. Auditions typically attract up to 100 hopefuls for 60 spots.

"I think the opportunity to perform on a stage in full costume with lights and scripts in front of a live audience is huge," she says. "It’s always intriguing to see different children shine in different areas."

Her other, more general, projects include co-coordinating the annual Bizarre Bazaar Christmas craft fair, which showcases local artists, and the council’s series of performances, which brings musicians, artists and theatre into the community.

To Broatch, it’s all about achieving balance between physical activity, and arts and culture.

"It’s so rewarding to see where we were 13 years ago with some of these events and see how solid and well respected they are in the community, and how people count on them to go ahead for their kids."

However, she says Whistler is still light years away from what similar-sized resorts such as Banff, Aspen and Vail have achieved in the arts.

"Down the road, when Whistler can sustain the operation of a cultural centre, that will be great," she enthuses. "The planned library-museum building and the First Nations Cultural Centre near Blackcomb will be wonderful additions to the community and enhance the Whistler experience, both for residents and visitors. We may attract people because of the skiing, but we will attract them a second or third time because of all the other things we have as well."

As for her own work, Broatch admits juggling teaching, being a mum and working in the arts can be a challenge. But she says the arts in any community only survive because of volunteers.

"I really believe in the things I’m involved in and I enjoy being a part of it. It is something that is deep in our beings, and close to our hearts and you just get involved."

So whether we call them angels, wonder workers, the backbone of the community or good Samaritans, it all comes down to the same thing – giving back a little of what you receive, and in the process transforming Whistler from a plastic Disneyland into a real community with a warm heart.

Merry Christmas.

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