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Betty Forward founded Helping Hands Orillia 43 years ago

Kate Grigg, Special to the Packet & Times

KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES
Betty Forward, 86, founded Helping Hands in 1972, then a housewife raising eight sons.

KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES Betty Forward, 86, founded Helping Hands in 1972, then a housewife raising eight sons.

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It was Miles's idea. Miles, at 16, already an idea man, wanting to work, start a business rather than stay in school. Helping old people, he said, was work that needed doing. If his mother would just fill out the application for an LIP grant -- Miles's handwriting, notes his mother, Betty Forward, not being fit for "human consumption." Which Betty finally did, to stop Miles nagging her, then forgot about until a cheque for $3,700 arrived in the mail.

A surprise that galvanized Betty to action; excuses being anathema to Betty Forward, who has no tolerance for words such as "but" or "should." As bad as cuss words, she says; put them in the garbage can, words that stop people getting things done.

Something her parents taught her; the father who went off to both world wars and the "unsung" mother who kept a little table by the door set with "cheap" sandwiches to feed hungry men during the Depression. If something needs doing, don't hesitate to do it, Betty's mother used to say. A woman who didn't hesitate to leave the house at 2 a.m., when, on a winter night in Cochrane, it might be 40 or 50 below, to help someone who was having a baby. Frantic once when the newborn wouldn't breathe. Willing it to live, praying the doctor would arrive and, when he did, astonished to see him dip the baby in a snowbank, then a pan of warm water, over and over until the baby cried. Proving what was possible if you did something, if you took action.

So despite being at home with two in diapers and one preschooler (Betty and Colin Forward had eight sons), despite having been "ultra-shy" as a girl and not attending school until she was 13, despite being told it would never work, Betty set about making Miles's idea a reality. (Miles later became an electrician.) She'd need more funds. They'd have to write their MP, Betty told the old ladies, if Helping Hands was going to work. (Someone else came up with a similar concept called White Gloves, but Betty thought a helping hand was what her clients needed.) Three days later, Ottawa phoned and said they were drowning in letters, inundated; could she please "turn off the tap."

Betty turned off the letters to Ottawa but never the phone. No matter how busy things were at the Forward house ("wall-to-wall boys," Betty says), the rule was when the phone rang, everyone kept quiet. They'd be rolling on the floor sometimes, boys in the middle of an altercation or a wrestling match, faces red with suppressed shouts and contained laughter, tears running, but no one made a sound until the call was over. Because no one phoned Helping Hands without getting a listening ear. Even the unpleasant callers, those lacking a sunny disposition, were quickly assisted. Betty refused to keep a wait list or waste time on assessments. If none of Betty's staff was available (her pool of employees and volunteers included everyone from young hippies to older housewives), she would round someone up or do it herself. There were no "buts," no "should-haves." If someone needed something -- a ride to the doctor, a prescription picked up -- Helping Hands got it done.

Even when helping wasn't easy, when the plight of being old made someone unkind, illness made a client difficult, Betty and her team carried on knowing work to be its own reward. Everyone felt better for trying, even when a client railed against her fate and anyone who came in sight. The old lady, for instance, living in the country with two vicious dogs. No electricity, her hands black from the wood stove, her judgment skewed by time and isolation, her once-reasonable self battling the final curtain and other imagined foes who also seemed to want control, berating the volunteer who brought her hand cream to soothe her ravaged skin. It was the dogs, Betty thinks, that caused the fire; they'd been known to bite their mistress as well as unwelcome visitors. Must have knocked her down when she was holding the oil lamp, starting the fire that killed all three.

More than one client died in a fire. Sad how things turned out sometimes. All the more reason to lend a helping hand, to make connections, ease problems. All the more reason for a helpful voice on the phone, a cheerful, productive visit. Betty didn't want her staff wearing uniforms; they weren't policemen, they weren't there to take over. They were to show respect and do what a client wished. Because no one should lose his or her dignity and life leaves too many wishes unfulfilled.

Though Betty has been lucky, a happy, interesting life, she says. Lovely parents, a "wonderful" childhood on the last farm before James Bay, hosting imaginary tea parties, floating little boats in the creek, driving her dog team over to visit her married sister; a "wonderful" husband, rewarding work, eight fine sons.

Life gave Betty everything she could ask for, except for wavy hair, a good singing voice and a daughter; daughters being more inclined to take you shopping, chat over coffee. Not that her sons aren't everything to Betty; the most rewarding thing in her life, she says. And maybe everything worked out the way it was meant to since Helping Hands -- which Betty founded in 1972 and calls her "ninth child" -- has spread as much kindness and caring as a thousand daughters.

Learn more about Helping Hands at helpinghandsorillia.ca or by calling 705-325-7861.

Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Orillia and tells stories of local people in her weekly column. If you have a story you think she might be interested in, email kategrigg@gmail.com


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