Sometimes it takes more than a village to light up a Christmas tree

Barry's Bay -- There's an old saying that argues 'to raise a child, it takes a village.' But there are about 70 local volunteers here who also know it takes more than a village to keep a local hospital up and running efficiently.

Last week about a dozen of those volunteers -- all members of the St. Francis Valley Healthcare Foundation -- gathered at the Royal Canadian Legion in Barry's Bay to prove that point once again. Within a single eight-hour workday, they stuffed 2,800 envelopes, all destined to fly to addresses all over North America, each with a letter asking for a donation to help buy a $200,000 Ultrasound machine for the local hospital. Officially, this year the annual fund-raising effort is known as the Foundation's Tree of Lights Campaign 2022, and it culminates with a ceremony that will light up a large Christmas Tree at the old Barry's Bay Train Station on December 2nd. But everybody in the know knows it's really about a global village of volunteers and what makes them all tick.

Maxine Smaglinski, a local grandmother, is one of them. And why she volunteers for the Foundation, the non-profit corporation which organizes those 70 volunteers to help raise funds for St. Francis Memorial Hospital, the Valley Manor Long-Term Care Home and the Madawaska Valley Palliative Hospice, is a story as breath-taking as it is essential.

In May 1965, Maxine's 10-year old brother suffered a horrible accident. He was taken to St. Francis Memorial Hospital, which had only opened five years earlier and where Ms. Smaglinski’s mother worked. But her brother's condition was so perilous he had to be removed to Ottawa. The only problem: The Barry's Bay hospital didn't have the right equipment to do the job. There was no ambulance available. In fact, the current paramedic service had yet to be established.

The only solution back then was to jerry-rig the village undertaker's hearse, and so with Dr. Peter Smith personally holding an IV bag all the way to Ottawa, that hearse took up its alternate duties. Within a week, Ms. Smaglinski’s brother would return to Barry's Bay, sadly this time using that village hearse for the purpose it was originally intended.

Since that tragic day, she has been there for this village to make sure the next little boy who needs proper hospital equipment has it. She humbly follows a long and distinguished tradition among similar local women who have tried to make a difference.

In the fall of 1960, when Ms. Smaglinski was a Grade 3 student attending St. Joseph's Primary School, her teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Shalla, proudly marched her entire class out to watch the Premier of Ontario officially open the doors of St. Francis Memorial Hospital. It was Mrs. Shalla who, 11 years earlier had, in 1949, first gone door to door in Barry's Bay, in hopes of collecting money to build a hospital. Then there was Helen Dombroskie in 1956 who added a room in her home in Barry's Bay at her own expense, so that Dr. Dooley could incredibly deliver 156 babies there that year, four years before St. Francis was built. The list goes on, including two recent members of that honour roll who Maxine remembers fondly and who still inspire her today -- Agnes Pecarski and Teresa Murray.

Why is Maxine Smaglinski so passionate? Well, there are a lot of reasons besides her own brother's untimely death.

"To give back, for one," said Ms. Smaglinski, who began working as a volunteer Candy Striper at the Barry's Bay hospital shortly after her brother died. "When I finished high school in 1970, Sister Rosenda, the hospital administrator at the time, asked me what I was going to be? My mother answered that 'I really wasn't sure,' and so Sister Rosenda hired me at the hospital.

"I started off in Admitting and then I worked in different areas of the hospital, and I ended up staying there for 37 years," she added. "I never left until I retired in 2007."

Even after retirement, Ms. Smaglinski continued to work for the hospital as a Foundation volunteer, working in the gift shop and as treasurer of the auxiliary. She also continues to work on other Foundation fund-raising teams, including the Catch-the-Ace volunteer team.

"I enjoyed working in the hospital; it was nice seeing people come there, get better and leave," she said. "And I admired a lot of people who were then volunteering and I often thought 'Someday, I will do that!'

"I'm not one to be able to sit quiet very long," she added. "I like to keep moving and doing things -- working for the Foundation, for the hospital. It's working for the good of everybody."

Over the years, Ms. Smaglinski also witnessed a lot of technological changes at the hospital. She understands the need to keep up with those changes by constantly improving technologies. She clearly remembers when St. Francis first opened with 34 beds, an operating room where surgery was once performed and even a maternity ward where she would deliver her own children. Now, the hospital, though no longer the same place, she says, has become a place where, thanks to the wonders of telemedicine, patients "can access physicians in Ottawa or wherever and have a meeting or do follow-ups instead of having to drive hundreds of miles."

She knows that Foundation volunteers have also provided essential fund-raising services for all 17 Tree of Lights campaigns over the years, allowing the hospital to buy everything from X-Ray machines, wheel-chair scales, Evacu-Sleds and standard hospital beds, while at the same time keeping up with the ever-changing world of new diagnostic equipment.

"When you work at the hospital you quickly realize that you don't get things like equipment just because you ask for them or need them," she said. "You get them because volunteers go out and raise money to get them for you, so yes, I learned early the value of volunteers and the community around us who supports our hospital. That equipment just didn't appear unless a lot of local people worked really hard to raise that money and get it for us.

"The price tags on equipment is phenomenal; everything costs so much," she said. "And not just the basic equipment but all the computers, monitors and IT that has to go with that piece of basic equipment to keep it functioning."

Ms. Smaglinski also knows her own motivations for helping out her community are both very deep and very personal.

"After working at the hospital for so many years, I understood I was lucky to have that job and so it is now time to pay back the community for all that the hospital does, not just for me, but for all of us.

"Whether it was working at the hospital or now volunteering for the Foundation, I met so many interesting, nice people. It felt like one big family and it still feels like one big family."

Sue McAllister shares that same feeling. She's one of the newer Foundation volunteers. A bookkeeper and business manager from Ottawa, she and her husband permanently moved into the area in March 2020, just as the COVID pandemic was about to change how all of us lived.

"My mom -- Margaret Burbage -- was born and grew up here," Ms. McAllister said. "I came up here as a child with my parents and I happily hauled my husband and my kids up here after I got married. We just loved the area and always have."

Two and half years ago, after years of visiting the area, she and her husband bought a house belonging to her aunt, Bernadette Burbage, a well-known local historian who wrote an excellent book about the history of Brudenell. But nine months later, disaster struck.

In December 2020 Ms. McAllister was diagnosed with cancer and so had to start chemo-radiation therapy.

"Before that, I had been at the hospital quite a bit here in Barry's Bay for various things -- transfusions, tests, etc. -- and I got to know a lot of the people who worked there and I really enjoyed them."

She enjoyed them so much that after she successfully finished all her cancer treatments she decided "I really did love those people at the hospital and so I wanted to 'give back’." And rather than just offer up a financial donation, she thought her time was valuable and her skills were valuable and so she thought, 'why not volunteer?'

With 40 years of professional and business experience behind her, Ms. McAllister was right. The Foundation gladly accepted her offer to volunteer.

"I love helping people," she said. "Anybody who knows me, knows I like to help people. I like to keep busy."

And busy she certainly is. Currently, she's also volunteering with Our Lady of Angels Parish in Brudenell as part of a small group of energetic people attempting to bring back those famous Brudenell suppers.

"My parents were a driving force in that they volunteered a lot in their community and church and so I guess it rubbed off on me," she added, as she happily and hurriedly stuffed Tree of Light Campaign 2022 envelopes.

Anyone wishing to donate or wanting more information about this year's Tree of Lights ceremony to be held on Friday, December 2nd at 6:30 p.m. at the old Barry's Bay Railway Station, can contact or call 613-756-3045 ext. 217.

Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader