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Volunteer Nanaimo program spans generations to preserve personal histories

Hand-in-Hand Intergenerational Storytelling matches volunteer writers with seniors
Volunteer writer Benjamin David Dyck and Evangelia Alvarez have met every Thursday since March to create a written record of her life as part of Hand in Hand Intergenerational Storytelling, a Volunteer Nanaimo program that enables seniors to tell their life stories. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

People have tales to tell as they get older and a volunteer program in Nanaimo is capturing those personal histories for future generations.

Benjamin David Dyck and Evangelia Alvarez met in March after Dyck happened to see a notice from Volunteer Nanaimo, which co-ordinates the Hand in Hand Intergenerational Storytelling program, in a Vancouver Island Regional Library branch.

“I called the number and then I had to do some background checks and do all that stuff first, late last year,” Dyck said. “That took a while and then we finally got a connection going.”

Gwen Vonarx, volunteer coordinator for the program, said every match between volunteer writers and seniors is different and the seniors and volunteers discuss what stories and aspects of their lives they’d like recorded.

“This is a special project that we’re doing,” Vonarx said. “We started it last summer … and now it’s really picked up … It’s just cool because it connects seniors and they get to tell their stories. The seniors have so much wisdom to share, but sometimes they don’t have that opportunity to do that and this project gives them that opportunity.”

Dyck and Alvarez have met every Thursday, when Dyck records the details of Alvarez’s life story. Over several months, he wrote a factual account and thought he was done, but then decided to rewrite it in a “novel or story style.”

“I’ve been really inspired to take everything that she’s told me from her life and turn it into an actual story with moving parts and such and more of an interesting read, I guess, like reading a novel,” he said.

Alvarez, 83, came to Canada from Greece where her father and brothers were fishermen. She lost her father and one brother in a storm at sea when she was 10, which she said was a major blow to her and her family. She lost a second brother at sea as well after she emigrated to Canada.

Alvarez met her husband, Fernando, originally from Spain, in Sparwood, B.C., and together they operated restaurants in Saskatchewan. He also had a painting business when they lived in Victoria and Nanaimo.

Alvarez said she found it easy to talk with Dyck and share episodes of her life she’d kept bottled up.

“Lots of things happened, tragedies, and maybe I was ready to talk because I told him things I didn’t even tell my husband,” she said. “[Dyck] had a nice way to ask and it was OK with me. It was a little bit painful, but then it was a relief to tell somebody … I think all people have something inside them.”

Alvarez said Dyck gave her the opportunity to talk, as she has no children of her own and her husband died in 2006.

Dyck said he’s long been a song and poetry writer, but this is his first foray into writing a book. Some of the inspiration to join the program came from the book Tuesdays with Morrie, by American author Mitch Albom, about Tuesday visits and discussions with Albom’s former university professor Morrie Schwartz in the later days of Schwartz’s life.

“This is definitely the biggest project that I’ve been involved in … I had some time to volunteer and it just kind of went from there,” Dyck said.“We also have really enjoyed meeting up with each other and, basically, really enjoying our good connection. She’s my grandmother now. We’ve adopted each other as grandma and grandson.”

“He’s wonderful. He’s helped me a lot,” said Alvarez.

As for who she’d like to read the book, she said it doesn’t matter.

“Whoever wants to read the book, read the book, because I don’t have family, I don’t have kids, I don’t have anybody,” she said.

To learn more about the Hand in Hand Intergenerational Storytelling project, visit

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Volunteer writer Benjamin David Dyck and Evangelia Alvarez, who holds a photo of her with her husband Fernando on their wedding day. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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