Volunteer Profile – Pat Dunnett

When Pat Dunnett thought about retirement, she had a slightly different bucket list than what might be expected: “If anyone asked me what I was going to do, it was nothing, absolutely nothing!”

There was a good reason for her answer. “When I look back, I was in a caregiving role for years. As a psychiatric nurse, I was a caregiver. Then I had a family; probably one of the first volunteer things I did was at a parent co-op preschool where the parents took on different roles to make it all work. When my dad became ill, I looked after him, and then my mom started to fail mentally and physically, and then my husband became ill. So it seemed I was always looking after somebody.”

Doing nothing, however, didn’t last long for this vibrant and energetic senior. She and a friend did some travelling and eventually she joined Century House in New Westminster for the fitness classes. It wasn’t long before she started volunteering for them.

She began her work with Family Services when the Neighbourhood Small Grants Program (NSG) came to New Westminster. Maylen Crespo, who is the co-ordinator for the program, had sent her an email and asked if she was interested in taking on a role on Resident Advisory Committee. She was and she did.

“Her feedback and reflection have helped me to identify areas of improvement. Pat’s charisma, love, and passion give the program a distinct touch that can be felt its success and the recognition it’s received. I am very fortunate to be able to rely on her support,” says Maylen.

As a member of the Resident Advisory Committee, she helps review the applications for grants. The committee members contact the successful applicants, provide help to applicants if necessary, and attend the events.

She also contributes her time and skills to Literacy New West, which falls under the Family Services umbrella as well. “It’s really interesting from my perspective as a senior,” she notes. “Over 80% of seniors have low literacy skills that keep them from using things like bus schedules. I really found it overwhelming,” she says.

Pat also devotes her time to volunteering for other organizations. For example, for the City of New Westminster, she helped create the Seniors Engagement Toolkit that enables city staff to engage seniors in their community. She’s developed a body of knowledge and wisdom that has proven invaluable to all the groups she’s involved with.

“She has shared stories about noteworthy projects she’s worked on with other advisory committee members, the Program Coordinator, Vancouver Foundation and the community,” says Maylen. “Her insight and knowledge are invaluable to us.”

Pat’s sense of social justice and advocacy was influenced by her aunt. She had trained as a milliner in the late 1920s, but ended up doing midwifery training at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin. “She used to tell stories of the abject poverty and the horrible conditions in which she had to deliver babies,” recalls Pat. When World War II began, her aunt joined Queen Alexandra’s Territorial Army Nursing Service where she nursed soldiers both in England and Germany.

Pat and her family emigrated from Belfast in the early 50s and they settled in New Westminster. After high school she completed her nurse’s training at the Essondale School of Psychiatric Nursing.

“As a student you worked through every particular area and you met a lot of people. I was extremely shy so it was a big step for me because you couldn’t be shy. That stayed at the door,” she says. “It was very challenging learning experience. This was in 1958-that was before all the anti-psychotics and the new antidepressants. We didn’t have any of those so it was really hands on nursing.”

“We were a pretty young bunch,” she says. “But we were enthusiastic, eager and we were willing to learn. We learned by doing—the school of hard knocks so to speak —but it was a wonderful experience.”

Her nursing career was deeply rewarding for Pat, and it’s where she developed a strong sense of advocacy, empathy, and compassion. “Many of the patients had profound mental illness, and communication was by body language, they could not speak out for themselves,” she says. “You’re doing your job yes, you’re doing your nursing duties yes, but you’re also advocating for them if you see something wrong.”

When her mother’s dementia worsened, again, she spoke for her. “You can’t just sit back when you see something that isn’t right, you have to speak out.”

When the provincial government began decommissioning psychiatric hospitals, she went back to school and got her nursing certificate in gerontology nursing. She transferred to Riverview where she worked in geriatric treatment and assessment area until she retired.

Pat’s volunteer work is just about a full time job and one that gives her a lot of satisfaction. “It gives me the opportunity to meet different people, and to keep learning, and to take on new challenges.”