Perhaps it’s fitting that Nancy Thomas, who has spent years helping people take care of their health, should credit her volunteer work with saving her life.
On Monday, Thomas, 89, was named the winner of the Kushiro Cup, which recognizes Burnaby’s 2006 outstanding citizen of the year.
About 20 years ago, Thomas was a founding volunteer with the Seniors Health Watch program at Edmonds Community Centre for 55+. She still assists at weekly sessions where volunteer registered nurses check the blood pressure and pulse of local seniors, as well as provide education through speakers and videos, visits from pharmacists to discuss medications and the like.
The whole idea is health prevention, and on more than one occasion, Thomas and other volunteers have strongly suggested people visit their doctors when their blood pressure was found to be high or other potential problems were detected.
In addition to that, Thomas has volunteered at just about every dance, social or special event held at the seniors centre over the past 25 years, served on the centre’s board and still performs with the centre’s choral group, the Mellowdares, whose performances include visits to care facilities.
She’s just recently started knitting baby hats for premature babies at Burnaby Hospital, now that she’s no longer making sweaters for her two adult grandsons. On top of that, she still manages to keep fit by swimming three times a week.
“I was doing aerobics with the seniors,” but decided swimming was easier, Thomas said in an interview Tuesday. “I fell and broke my hip eight years ago so it sort of held me back a bit, you know.”
Thomas came to Canada with her family in 1928 as a girl from her native south Wales in Great Britain. After living in Vancouver, she’s been a resident of Burnaby for more than 50 years.
After raising her son and daughter and teaching Sunday school at Gordon Presbyterian Church for years, she responded to her husband Tim’s retirement from BC Hydro by getting a part-time job at Sears.
She was in her late 50s by then and simply wanted to stretch her wings, having never worked outside the home before that. She only worked for about 10 years and Tim “used to come and get me every day.”
The couple would spend time in Hawaii every other year, a place Tim loved and the place where he died suddenly more than 25 years ago.
“My mother and father were not only mother and father, they were also very best, best friends,” said Thomas’ daughter, Carrol Ann Thomas, who nominated her mom for the award.
Having Tim pass away while on holiday was “very traumatic,” she said, and “I think she could’ve gone from a broken heart.”
That’s how the Edmonds seniors centre and her volunteer work saved her.
“I had to do something,” Thomas said of the centre. “It was a godsend.”
She started out walking up the hill to the centre from her home and just spending time there, sitting in the lounge knitting, drawing comfort from having people around her. Eventually, she began meeting people and finally one of the staff members asked her to join. She’s been volunteering her time ever since.
“My husband wouldn’t want me to be any other way,” Thomas said, choking back tears.
While she said some people, as they get older, tend to feel a sense of entitlement, Thomas said, “You have to make your own enjoyment.
“I enjoy all my volunteer work. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t happy.”
And every day she appreciates her good health. “Thank God I’m well enough to do what I can do.”
Carrol Ann, 59, noted that her mother’s assistance extends to her family as well. “She looks after all my books,” she said, and caring for her daughter during a bout of recent ill health.
“Here she is, taking care of her 60-year-old daughter when her 60-year-old daughter should be taking care of her.”
Carrol Ann got the idea of nominating her mom for the Kushiro Cup when she saw an ad in a local newspaper. “I thought, what a better person, she’s a shoo-in.”
And she managed to keep it all a secret until the last minute. “When city hall phoned me [with the news] I handed the phone to her and I thought she was going to pass out,” Carrol Ann said with a laugh.
“I was so shocked, my legs started to go,” Thomas recalled.
While she’s enjoyed the excitement and congratulations from family members she says she’s rather embarrassed by the attention.
“If you want to say thank you, that’s fine that’s enough for me,” she said of any of her efforts. But being put in the spotlight, “that embarrasses me.”
Thomas will be presented with the Kushiro Cup at Burnaby’s citizen appreciation dinner May 4 at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.