Heather Charbonneau does not fit the profile of a typical Wellspring volunteer.
She didn’t join Wellspring because she had experienced cancer herself … she hadn’t. She didn’t join because she had been a caregiver and wanted to share what she had learned … she hadn’t. She didn’t come with a fiery passion to help uplift others and make their cancer journey more bearable.
Heather joined Wellspring to change herself.
“I vowed that when I retired, I would step outside my comfort zone; be uncomfortable; do something I’d never done before in my life; change and grow to become a better version of myself,” she said.
Heather shared how her nearly 30-year career as an environmental consultant with engineering companies made her bold and gritty.
“My job was to solve client’s problems. My client base was primarily developers, investors and stakeholders of the real estate market sector. Timelines were short, deadlines demanding and extensions came with financial consequences. I thrived on the fast-paced nature. I rarely let my guard down as there’s not a lot of room or time to overthink things or be vulnerable.
For this and other uncanny reasons, Heather found her way to Wellspring.
“My husband and I used to run marathons and the training took us on long Sunday runs near the Bow River. We often ran by this beautiful piece of property with a cute little white bungalow. I’d tell Ken, I love that house, let’s buy that house and move out of the suburbs.”
As Heather pined away for her bungalow near the Bow River, and nearly stopped by to appeal to the owner to sell it to her, little did she know that negotiations were underway for a newly formed non-profit group to take possession of this very land to build Calgary’s first cancer support centre, Wellspring’s Carma House.
“One day we ran by and my house was gone! In its place was this two story brick structure that I thought was a commercial property. I was devastated!”
Years later when Heather entered retirement and was in search of the volunteer position that would move her out of her comfort zone and crack her well-honed emotional armour, an acquaintance told her about Wellspring.
“So I filled out the application and went to Carma House, the very spot I thought I’d live someday, to interview for a role I had no idea how I could ever perform,” said Heather.
There was plenty of discomfort to navigate through as Heather completed her volunteer training. “At one point during a role play exercise I put my head in my hands and said, ‘I have no idea what to say’.” But with her tenacious spirit and a goal to change and grow, Heather persisted and became a front desk volunteer at Carma House.
This revelation and a newfound ability to be an awesome front desk volunteer came just at the right time. Six months into her volunteer experience, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. “I’d say that Wellspring is where I was meant to be.”
“At the beginning, I was so afraid I’d say or do the wrong thing, or that a member (or I) would break down emotionally, that I busied myself cleaning the windows, blinds, watering the garden and any other odd jobs I could find – just to avoid an uncomfortable encounter with a member,” she said.
“But I knew I had to change. People would pick up on my tension. It would be like going to the doctor and noticing the doctor is as scared as you are.”
Change came the day that Heather realized it was not her job to fix people’s problem. “For 28 years it was my job to fix the problem. That was who I was. Now my job was to be silent. I didn’t have to have the answers. I just needed to listen and to learn how I could help support the Wellspring member.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Heather reached new levels of her goal to grow and change. She travelled to Ontario in early 2020 (pre-COVID) to help care for her mother. She became adept at making Peer Support calls to caregivers, who she could now relate to. She made welcome calls to new online members and became a co-host for two weekly online programs. She found meaning and value in her ability to listen and create a safe space for members to share the challenges of their cancer journey.
Today Heather prides herself on being a changed person, even one who cries quite regularly.
But make no mistake, she can still bring on the grit when needed.
Editor’s Note: Heather’s mom Sherle has responded well to treatment and is glad to be able to take part in Wellspring Calgary programs online. Because of the pandemic Heather has not been able to see her for a year, but they stay in close touch through texting, phone calls and FaceTime.
**Read about the extreme cycling trip Heather and her husband Ken are embarking on this summer to raise funds for Wellspring Calgary. Conquer the Divide 2021 – 5,000 km self-supported bikepacking trip from Jasper, Alberta to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.)