The spirit of a unique gathering place for Coquitlam seniors will live on, even as its physical space is demolished.
That’s the hope of Diane Johnston, the president of the board of directors of Club Bel Âge, as she sorts and documents the belongings and knick-knacks collected over the course of 28 years by the Francophone seniors group in Maillardville. Taking inventory is necessary because the club, which is located in a hall next to Place Maillardville on Laval Square, is closing at the end of the year.
Johnston said it hasn't been easy writing “finis” to a place that has served as a home away from home for thousands of seniors over the years who wanted somewhere to socialize with one another, play cards or music, dance, do crafts, celebrate milestone birthdays and sip tea.
But she said it was the best course of action determined by a committee of 22 club members struck to plot the club’s future when the aging community centre is replaced by a new 22,000-sq. ft. facility to be built next door beginning next year.
Johnston said a standing offer to integrate Club Bel Âge into established seniors programs at Place Maillardville, then integrate into the new centre when it’s completed by the end of 2021, didn’t prove to be an enticing fit for the members, who have enjoyed their autonomy since the only French-Canadian branch of the former Old Age Pensioners Organization successfully petitioned Coquitlam council for its own dedicated space.
And while Centre Bel Âge had walls, a small kitchen and even a little office, it was the dedication and devotion of Club Bel Âge members that filled the space with love, support, laughter and even tears, Johnston said.
Many of those members are bonded by their connection to Coquitlam’s small French-Canadian enclave, which settled in Maillardville, attracted by employment opportunities in the old Fraser Mills sawmill nearby. But as the community has evolved over the years, Johnston said the club has been welcoming to all seniors who need a place to go. Currently, it has 175 members, most between the ages of 70 and 100.
Lisa Kamerling, the club’s coordinator, said they can enjoy a variety of scheduled and special activities like cribbage and whist games, monthly suppers and birthday teas, craft workshops and movie matinees. A musical group, The Jammers, practises every Wednesday morning, often attracting members who just want to listen or break into impromptu dance.
“We want people to get out of the house,” Johnston said, adding that other than Kamerling’s professional support, the club is run entirely by volunteers.
In fact, it’s volunteers who crowd into the tiny kitchen to put together a lunch or dinner for up to 75 people, then wash the floor afterward; or lead the autobiography club where members can share and record each other’s life stories. The solid wood storage cabinets that line two walls were built entirely with the skills some members developed over their years working in the sawmill.
That spirit of pitching in and bonhomie has been the club’s driving force, Johnston said, even as members have passed away and newly minted seniors joined. But, she added, it couldn’t overcome the uncertainty of being uprooted to new environs.
“We hashed all this out and nobody wanted to do that,” Johnston said.
And so, items like 50 decks of playing cards, dozens of boxes of craft materials like lace, binding tape and thread, Christmas trees and a shuffleboard mat are being collected for dispersal. Many — including tea cups and saucers, a set of three-pound dumbbells and the wooden cabinets — are being donated to nearby seniors homes or other organizations with ties to the Maillardville community. Others — myriad kitchen appliances, two sewing machines, a couple of used laptop computers, a step ladder, books, decorations and even an old piano and bench — were sold off at a special event last Saturday at the Centre.
The money raised from the sale will go to a Christmas gala for members, to be held Nov. 27 at the Executive Plaza Hotel Metro Vancouver in Coquitlam. The event will also be a last chance for them to celebrate in the warm embrace of their community, Johnston said.