Volunteer Profile – January 2020 – Susan McKechnie

“Can’t you walk any faster”, she asked.  Of course, I thought, but we would run into the people walking in front of us, which she could not see.  When I mentioned this she instructed me to go around them.  It was then I became aware, almost for the first time, of the numerous sidewalk obstacles:  boxes – mail, newspaper, magazine, and utility; containers – garbage and plant; and, poles – bus stop and light.  These were stationary.  In addition to pedestrians, moving obstacles included cyclists, skate boarders, off-leash dogs, and small on-leash dogs on ‘extended’ leashes.  As a solo, sighted, able-bodied person, I easily navigated my way along a sidewalk.  We were three:  a woman in her mid-fifties who is blind (she would say non-sighted), her guide dog, and a woman in her early sixties who is not blind and a volunteer leisure assistant.  Our progress was stop and start.

We held hands when walking as we had learned on our first walk that we could walk faster than when using the more conventional arm hold.  Her dog’s leash was in her other hand.  As the sidewalk widened, we picked up the pace manoeuvring our way through and around moving and non-moving obstacles.  Groups of oncoming pedestrians parted in front of us.  Even though her dog was off-duty, we paused at each intersection, a necessary part of his walking routine.  At one of our pauses, her smile in response to my question about our new speed told me it was better.  I smiled as well as I felt I was slowly inching up my steep learning curve.

Following eight years at university with one year off between degrees to work, I began volunteering in the early 1980s.  My first volunteer job was as a program volunteer with the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver (EFry)assisting students in the school program at what was then called the Willingdon Youth Detention Centre, a jail for young offenders.  I spent several years volunteering at EFry and served as president of the board of directors my final few years.  A twenty-five-year English as a Second Language teaching career interrupted my volunteer work.  After retiring, I resumed volunteering first at the False Creek Yacht Club and then the West End Coal Harbour Community Policing Centre, both in Vancouver.

After moving to the Saanich Peninsula in 2017, I started to look for volunteer opportunities.  A Recreation Integration Victoria (RIV) flyer at the Sidney Library together with my friend’s daughter’s positive work experience as program coordinator at RIV was the impetus I needed to apply.  Following a successful interview and criminal record check, my first match at RIV was a woman in her fifties who wanted a walking companion after suffering a traumatic brain injury.  Now able to walk unaided, she and I no longer meet regularly but have remained in touch and get together occasionally.  My next match was the fast walker and her guide dog.  I now meet weekly with an outgoing woman in her early thirties who has been blind for almost two years and a delightful woman in her eighties who is adjusting to vision, short-term memory and mobility loss.

The younger woman is having to relearn how to live life, including how to cook.  I have been pleased to help her walk with a cane, ride the bus, and prepare food.  With little guidance from me, she ably chops vegetables and measures olive oil by the tablespoon.

While the older woman and I were reading her family history, written by her now deceased elder sister, she commented on my willingness to spend time reading something that described prairie farm life at the beginning of the last Century.  I found it fascinating as I was not only learning about her history but also about the time in which my mom was a girl.  

As I have been learning vocabulary, service dog etiquette, about how the best air purifier for allergies and asthma helps an allergic person when near service dogs, how to assist someone who is blind navigate the mostly poorly designed sidewalks and crosswalks, about small-town Prairie life, and how to measure a tablespoon of oil using only touch, I have gained a greater appreciation for my independent mobility.          

                                                                                                                           Laughter and smiles are part of every visit with each woman.  Once while my octogenarian match and I were sitting in the garden adjacent to the Sidney library reading, a fellow tending the rose garden gave each of us a rose.  Our smiles were bigger and brighter that day when we parted.