Technically, Marie Harker worked with clients at the Garth Homer Centre. In reality, it was a job akin to hanging out with dear friends and family.
Harker has been on the ground working with developmentally disabled people for more than a generation, long before government agencies or large non-profits stepped in.
After 40 years on the job and 37 at Garth Homer, the centre’s longest running staff member by far has finally retired.
“There are so many memories,” Harker said at Garth Homer, shortly before staff and clients held her a retirement party. “This job is never boring. It’s not easy. It can be intense working with people … but its never boring.”
She started out in 1973, fresh with a master’s in fine arts. Harker led the Arbutus Crafts shelter workshops in Royal Oak, where clients weaved baskets and crafts for sale to the public, and was first through the door when the Garth Homer Centre in Saanich opened in 1976.
Now 70, Harker guided generally older clients through arts and crafts work – crafting, painting, knitting and weaving – activities to focus creativity and to keep minds active. Some clients have been with her since day one, such as Richie Goldie, who brought her flowers at her retirement party.
“I’ve known Richie since 1973, and his whole family,” Harker said. “I’m called the dinosaur around here. Who else has lasted this long?”
Harker has witnessed the change in the style of care and recognized early that developmentally disabled adults were living longer, and that would have ramifications in the present day.
Garth Homer adjusted its programming for aging clients, called Pathways, with comfortable chairs and slowing things down.
“We look at the individual and ask what they want to do, ask what is important to you?” Harker said.
“Pathways is about being happy, it’s our mantra. I can infect people with the joy of knitting because it’s what I love. I teach crocheting, painting big banners, and needle felting. It’s what I love to do and I pass it on to others.
“At Arbutus Crafts they weaved and made baskets and sold it to the public. But methods and theories of programming for developmentally disabled changed,” she said.
“The shelter workshops allowed more interaction with the public. I hope a variety of that evolves in the future.”
Harker retired unexpectedly late last year when her husband had a health scare, and she started caring for him full time.
“My husband’s health hit us hard … but it made it easier to separate myself from here. That’s one positive thing out of this, she said laughing. “(Leaving here) would have been very hard.
“I went off at Christmas and didn’t come back. My new job was keeping my husband well. I would have retried anyway, but with some warning. It was abrupt.”
Cathy Victor, team co-ordinator for Pathways, called Harker “the Energizer Bunny.”
“Her energy is contagious. She has been with the clients for so long it’s like family,” Victor said. “It’s going to be a big loss for us. She has so much history with these guys. She knows them so well.”