Doreen Bessette has served two decades with Abbeyfield House. She is now vice-president.

Doreen Bessette has served two decades with Abbeyfield House. She is now vice-president.

SENIORS: Bessette has served two decades with Abbeyfield in Port Alberni

Vice-president excited to help Port Alberni seniors’ facility celebrate 15th anniversary

As part of Abbeyfield Port Alberni´s15th anniversary celebration, we now include in this column another long time member of this local society, its Vice-President Doreen Bessette.

Bessette began her involvement in the Abbeyfield movement when Terry Whyte, founder of the society,

approached her to join the group in 1995.

“When I retired in 1995, after about 37 years of teaching, I joined the Echo Sunshine Club,” she says. “This was where I met Terry, who at the time who was seeking support for beginning an Abbeyfield in Port Alberni. I approached him to let him know my interests and beliefs. So, I attended my first meeting with three other people,” she recalls.

“This was the beginning of our search for an appropriate site or building for an Abbeyfield home. We even checked out Ty Watson House. Then, Terry heard rumours of the Extended Care Unit, the possibilities were overwhelming. With his determination and help from friends his wish came true. Several of us put a tremendous amount of work into making this home for seniors,” she adds.

Bessette, who was born in New Westminster in 1937, has vivid memories of her childhood. At first, she lived with her grandfather and her dad’s siblings. In time her dad built a house not too far away. “As young as I was, I was excited to have a bedroom of my own. Another thing I remember when we lived in this house was the day the war ended. We were catching the flyers that were dropped from a small plane. We didn’t realize the importance of it but it was fun to catch the papers. Our mom told us our three uncles were coming home.

“Because my dad had a serious mill accident and became blind in one eye he was no longer able to work in the lower mainland so we moved to a small farm in Salmon Arm. What a shock. It was a new way of life with no electricity, no inside toilet and no bathtub. It was a while before we had the modern facilities we were used to. So much for my own bedroom! Shortly after the move dad became totally blind and was sent to the Blind Institute in Vancouver to learn how to cope with his handicap. That left my mom with five children to raise.

“We soon learned that we each had a job to do. We had a cow to milk, pigs to feed, chickens to tend to and a barn to keep in order. It was my job to separate the milk and cream after my brother milked the cow. I tried milking a couple of times too. We spent more time trying to squirt one another! It was also my job to hang out the wash and bring it in. We had no dryer so in the winter I was bringing in board stiff laundry. When it thawed out we would hang it on the rack we hoisted up in the kitchen.

“My older brother and I helped take care of our three younger brothers. It was up to me to get them to Sunday School every Sunday. In the winter I used the horse and sleigh to transport them. But it wasn’t all work. We had fun sleigh riding and skating in the winter. I remember the neighbours picking up all the kids in the neighbourhood with their team of horses and big sleigh. The sounds of the bells and harness jingling added to the festive season and carol singing. Later we were given hot chocolate.”

Bessette’s father passed away on the operating table at the age of 42.

Up to Grade 6 she and her siblings all attended a one room school. Beginning in Grade 7 they were bused into town. “It was always a chore in the winter when we had to trudge knee-deep through the snow to catch the school bus,” she recalls.

“No snowplows in the rural areas except from the farmers. In the early 50’s the owners voted against the city’s recommendation to increase taxes so we were ousted out of school for three months. We were supplied with correspondence courses but it was a poor substitute for the individual help from teachers. Needless to say it put us well behind the city students. This did not deter me from participating in the graduation ceremony of June 1955. To help pay for my school expenses I worked year round by babysitting, picking berries, house cleaning, and waitressing.”

After graduation, Bessette moved to Burnaby to stay with friends for senior matriculation. “I waitressed full time during two summer months and worked at the distillery in Sapperton to earn money for my tuition to the University of British Columbia.”

Bessette continued working part time during her attendance at U.B.C., at Sears, Woodward’s, and Army

and Navy (in the fishing gear department). Her first teaching job was in Oliver, B.C. (a Grade 4 class). After two years her roommate moved to Vancouver to get married so she moved to Haney, then Coquitlam.

“In 1963 I met my husband, Bob, while bowling in New Westminster. We were married June 30, 1965. We moved to Port Alberni the next day. Bob attended to his car care business that he built on the corner of Fourth and Burde while I continued teaching.

“I taught at several schools in the Alberni Valley: Faber, Sproat, Glenwood, Riverbend, John Howitt and Eighth Avenue.

“While teaching and taking courses our daughters were born; Julia, July 4, 1967 and Cindy, Aug. 21, 1968.

“In 1989 my uncle passed away and left me enough money to return to university for my degree. Cindy was in second year and Julia was in third year (speech therapist). Julia and I roomed together. That was an experience. First week statement: ‘Mom, you are not here to make me three meals a day. We are both students.’

”We had a great time . During registration we made sure none of us had the same classes together. In spring of 1990 we graduated in the same week, but different faculties. I returned to teaching for five years then retired in 1995.”

Back to her early years as member of the Abbeyfield movement, Doreen comments that at the time the board, led by Whyte, opened this home at full capacity and a waiting list, the National Abbeyfield authorities could not believe that Port Alberni had the largest Abbeyfield in Canada.

As soon as the first residents arrived, they found the comfort of a safe and homey place.

“It was most rewarding sharing and working with seniors who were starting another phase in their lives,” Bessette said.

“Evening volunteers socialized, played games and created activities for anyone who wanted to participate. It was truly becoming a new home. As time went on, new residents were welcomed into Abbeyfield.

“They soon learned that their ideas were accepted and there was a freedom they had in their own home. The companionship and provision of meals is “top o’ the line.”

In addition to her time in Abbeyfield, Bessette belongs to Trefoil Guild, Barclay Sounds, Community Choir; church choir; a couple of crib clubs and other Sunshine Club (clogging and ukelele lessons) activities she takes part in; as well as to working with volunteer committees and collating their monthly newsletter, and organizing the annual Volunteer Tea.

Abbeyfield is an organization that relies on the assistance of volunteers who are an important and integral part of the life of the residents.

Doreen Bessette has contributed enormously to the enhancement of the quality of life of the residents of the home as a regular volunteer and one who does recruitment and coordination of those who wish to give their time and effort to this home.