[This is an entry in my project to write something every day in the 100 days before my retirement, reflecting on my career and life]

I used this original entry for a non-fiction writing workshop I took at Carleton and this appears elsewhere on my website in a slightly different form.

2,304 hours (96 Days) Remaining
May 27, 2018

When we first start out looking for full-time employment, a resume setting out our experience is a must. That first “real” resume is usually thin in terms of experience (and especially relevant experience), and as an employer who has responsibility for hiring, I smile widely at some of the jobs listed under that ubiquitous heading on everyone’s resume: “Previous Experience.”  My first resumes included ‘Organizing Birthday Parties,’ ‘Paper Route,’ and ‘Snack Bar Attendant at Cinema.’

The ‘job’ I had that was hardest to describe on a resume, but the one that made the biggest impact on my life, was a four-year stint as a volunteer. It started with an announcement at school, looking for volunteers on Saturdays to travel to Smiths Falls, Ontario to the Rideau Regional Hospital School.

Google tells me that the Rideau Regional Hospital School originally opened in 1951 and closed in 2009.  It was originally called the Ontario Hospital School, changed its name to the Rideau Regional Hospital School in 1967, and in 1974 until it closed in 2009 it was known as the Rideau Regional Center.  Residents/patients had developmental disabilities and from the turn of the century, the Ontario Government housed citizens with these disabilities in institutions such as the one in Smiths Falls.  At its peak there were 2,650 residents (we never called them patients) and during the time I was a volunteer, 1968-1972, the population hovered around 2,000.

Volunteers from area high schools would gather early Saturday morning at a local shopping mall, where we would meet a yellow school bus, driven by Bob, a volunteer himself.  The 90-minute bus rides became just as much fun as the work at the Center where I got to meet other teens from local schools.  I started volunteering when I had just turned 13 (in grade 9) and went every Saturday for four years.  During the summer of grade 11, I worked full-time at the Center as a “paid” volunteer; my pay being a $50/week stipend from the Ontario Government.

Our job was to socialize, interact, participate and engage in activities with the residents who were ‘educable.’  I remember wondering what the heck that meant, but quickly forgot about the classification of the residents as I fell in love with each and every one of them. They were all excited to see us on Saturday mornings, sometimes waiting outside to greet the bus.  The Rideau Regional Center was a massive complex on the outskirts of Smiths Falls, and was fully equipped for activities.  There was a bowling alley, swimming pool, craft and play rooms, a theatre, outdoor athletic facilities, etc.

On my first Saturday, I was assigned with another volunteer to a ward that housed young men. I worked with this group of young men for most of the four years I was a volunteer. I will never forget Michael, who was probably three times my age, maybe older, who knows.  He greeted me that first day with the biggest smile and a bear hug that took my breath away. He was glued to me for four years and I looked for him first every time I arrived at the Center.  Michael was tall and gangly with crooked teeth and had an aura of goodness and kindness about him that melted my heart.  He held my hand everywhere we went and I remember trying to teach him to bowl and showing him how he had roll the ball down the alley without holding my hand.  Michael was mute with the intellect of maybe a four-year old.  He was educable.  I taught him how to bowl after all.

My full-time stint at the Center in the summer of 1971 introduced me to the hospital area of the Center that housed and cared for the residents who were immobile/bed-ridden.  I cried like a baby the entire ride home after my first day, and consider that day as the end of my naiveté.  Overnight I became a full-fledged adult.  Until that time, every Saturday trip to Smiths Falls had been fun and entertaining. My introduction to the poor souls in the hospital ward was gut-wrenching and awfully sad.

The patients on these wards were well cared for, the facility was clean, and well-equipped and the staff were wonderful.  But for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why I was assigned to this area of the hospital.  What would I be expected to do with these residents, who could not speak or express themselves, who could not move and spent their entire existence in a bed? I wanted to quit. I was scared of these people who couldn’t talk to me.  I didn’t understand their needs. I was fifteen years old. 

But I went back the next day. And every workday that summer. Fulfilled my obligations and fell in love with these residents too. I read to them and never knew if they understood. I fed them pureed food and never knew if they enjoyed the taste. I changed their diapers, and wheeled their beds outside into the sunshine, and sang to them.  I could write a whole book about Bonnie, my favourite resident on that ward.  She had the most beautiful face and whatever malady trapped her in her useless body, she was entirely serene and accepting of her fate. Every time I looked at her I was sure she was an angel.  Each and every resident on that ward was special to me and it was because of them that I decided a few days before my 16th birthday that I would become a nurse. Other than fleeting thoughts in grade school of being a kindergarten teacher or a hairdresser, this was the first time in my life that I felt a calling to a profession.

Circumstances eventually got in the way of a career in nursing but even now, ready for retirement, if I thought my body was up to it, I would have applied to the University of Ottawa to take a degree in nursing.  Instead, I am sharpening my pencils and readying my book bag to go to Carleton University in September to undertake a degree in English literature.