Maria Lee describes her longtime work with Girl Guides of Canada as being part of a family.
Richmond resident Lee became involved with the organization “many, many years ago” when her daughter was a member. After helping as a parent, she was convinced to become a leader, and even after her daughter finished the program and left the organization, Lee stuck around.
This spring, Lee was among some 100 Canadians to receive the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers, recognizing her years of dedication to the Girl Guides organization. Being named as a recipient was a shock, she says.
“I remember because I was out that day and came home to a voice message on my landline,” says Lee. “It was a total shock—I didn’t expect it at all. I never thought in my life that I would be getting an award like that.”
Lee still doesn’t know who nominated her for the honour, but says she is very grateful. The award arrived in the mail on the last day of 2020, which she says was a good way to end a challenging year.
Lee’s unit of Guides—girls in Grade 4 to 6—has been participating in the annual Vancouver Chinatown Spring Festival parade for more than 30 years. While the parade was originally geared towards new immigrants, Lee says it’s become a great way to learn about different cultures as well as having fun.
During the pandemic, the parade has been cancelled. And that’s not the only change Girl Guide groups have had to face due to the onset of COVID-19. Units moved their meetings online, and at times have been permitted to meet outside with other safety protocols in place.
“It was difficult, because most of my girls are pretty chatty face-to-face. When they were online, it seemed like they were a lot more quiet, so it was difficult to get them to engage,” says Lee. “Even answering simple questions, like (their favourite) ice cream flavour—if I was seeing them face-to-face I would get a lot of different names, different flavours, they could go on and on. But online, they were so quiet—the answer would be ‘I don’t know’.”
Despite the challenges, Lee says she enjoys watching girls grow up and move through the stages of the Girl Guides program. Because of her longtime involvement, she says girls and younger leaders come to her for advice and guidance, particularly when searching for jobs or choosing a university.
“It’s pretty much like a big family,” she says of her fellow leaders. “I’ve seen a lot of them finish programs, finish school, come back, get married, and a couple of them are no longer leaders but we stay in touch and try to get together a couple of times a year just to catch up. Two former leaders’ daughters are turning five and they’re coming back to (join Girl Guides) this September. To me, it’s almost like the family’s just expanding, bigger and bigger.”
And just like in a family, the greetings are often familiar rather than formal. Lee appreciates being called by her first name, as that differs from the more proper greetings she would receive from her kids’ friends.
“It really brings people together,” she says. “A five-year-old or six-year-old—we’re really the same level with them, we’re just taller and bigger.”
Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel