Yoga minstrel brings smiles, bad jokes to Tri-Cities seniors shut in by pandemic

Another story reprising some of my favourites I covered for The Tri-City News during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you get when you cross classic sing-a-long tunes by the likes of The Beatles and Dinah Shore, with bad jokes gleaned from books bought from Value Village, as well as a little yoga instruction?

For Chris Ridout, the result is a winning afternoon in the sunshine putting smiles on the faces of seniors shut-in by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ridout has been teaching yoga for 10 years, after a long career teaching business to international students. His clients range from two- to 106-years-old, the latter amongst the several senior homes in the Tri-Cities he visits weekly where he helps keep them limber and teaches them breathing techniques to relax.

But with those facilities off-limits to outsiders during the pandemic to protect the health of residents, Ridout was out of work and the seniors he helped at loose ends.

So he improvised.

Working with management at the various homes on his circuit, Ridout came up with new ways to keep his sessions going, like leading classes from outside while the seniors followed along through the windows of a community room, or putting on personal protective equipment so he could carry on indoors.

Ridout, himself now a senior since he recently turned 65, said the outside connection he brings is important to the residents of facilities like Parkwood Manor in Coquitlam.

“It’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s a reminder that this is not going to last forever.”

Last Thursday, on a bright, warm spring afternoon, staff at Parkwood placed a few dozen chairs in front of the building and helped others using walkers and wheelchairs take their places in the sunshine and shade for a special visit by their yoga minstrel.

With a guitar slung over his shoulder, a small amp at his feet and a bounce in his legs, Ridout greeted familiar faces from afar, then launched into an hour-long serenade of lively tunes like OblaDi, and Yellow Bird, sprinkled with liberal doses of groan-worthy jokes, some of them bordering on the risqué.

“I like to treat them like the adults they are,” Ridout said.

Many of the approximately 50 seniors sang along, some clapped, a few just dozed in the warm sun, their faces protected by wide-brimmed sombreros supplied by staff. In between sets, Ridout reminds them of the breathing techniques he’d previously taught to help ease their anxieties.

And when the show was over, everyone got an ice cream treat.

It was, Ridout said, like spending the afternoon with old friends.

Pandemic forces youth basketball program to take it to the street

This is part of a series reprising some of the stories I’ve covered for The Tri-City News during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As some summer youth basketball programs struggle to find a way to operate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Coquitlam’s Panther Hoops is taking it to the streets — or, more specifically, the parking lot — thanks to the collective effort of some volunteer parents.

Shut out of school gyms and community centres that are mostly still closed, and loathe to overstay its welcome at some outdoor facilities like Port Coquitlam’s Evergreen Park, Panther Hoops’ head coach Doug Dowell said the program needed a more permanent solution to make its plans to put on a full schedule of summer camps viable and sustainable.

“The pressure was on us to find a place we could call our own.”

That’s when several parents decided if they built it, the kids could play.

Over the course of a rainy weekend in June, when pretty much every weekend was damp, they cleaned up detritus from the parking lot behind BC Christian Academy where the program is based, bored deep holes into the pavement, assembled four full-sized basketball nets with glass backboards and poured concrete to lock them in place. A welder was brought in to add another level of security.

The result is an urban playground worthy of a Woody Harrelson streetball movie, set against a backdrop of an auto repair shop, crooked fibreboard fencing and stacks of shipping containers.

More importantly, Dowell said, the makeshift courts have allowed Panther Hoops to offer co-ed day camps for players aged 7 to 16, and evening camps three times a week for more experienced high school players.

Dowell said the camps are an important element of Panther Hoops’ broadened mandate to serve the wider community after it started 13 years ago as a prep program at BC Christian to develop elite players who could contend for post-secondary scholarship opportunities.

The public health emergency threatened to derail that progress.

Dowell said he quickly recognized moving outdoors was the solution.

“With this whole COVID thing, people are on the edge,” he said. “We wanted to get the kids out the door.”

With no gym at BC Christian, Panther Hoops has always led a nomadic existence, so it ventured as far as Pitt Meadows to find open-air facilities it could use for small groups of kids working on their individual skills.

Dowell said one of the biggest challenges was getting his staff of experienced coaches that includes longtime high school coach Rich Goulet, former Cape Breton University bench boss David Petroziello, and former Pitt Meadows Marauders star player Scott Walton, to deconstruct routines they’ve run for years and reassemble them as individual drills that don’t require sharing the ball or close-quarters defence.

He said the exercise has been refreshing.

“In a way, it’s helped us realign ourselves.”

The end result, Dowell said, is a more innovative, free-form approach to basketball, more akin to creative streetball than the regimented strategies and patterns of the sport when it’s played in the gym and a final score matters.

“It’s made you get more into the ingenuity,” Dowell said. “It’s a missing part of the game.”

The weekly camps, that run through to the end of August, have full safety procedures in place, like a staged entrance to the outdoor facility after each participant has answered a health questionnaire, had their temperature checked as well as recorded, and their hands sanitized. Players must also bring their own ball which can be used only by them exclusively, although it’s also wiped down frequently during sessions and before they head home for the day.

And while the outdoor venue means the odd session may get washed away, the kids don’t lose out, as each is issued a punch card so a missed day can be made up as part of another camp.

Dowell said their summer of survival is actually allowing the program to thrive.

“True growth in the sport will only happen when you think outside the box,” he said.

Or in the case of Panther Hoops, outside the gym.

Chalk murals brighten spirits, garage doors in Port Moody neighbourhood

This is a part of a series reprising stories I covered during the COVID-19 pandemic for The Tri-City News.

What started as a little activity to draw chalk rainbows on the pavement has transformed a Port Moody neighbourhood into a gallery of giant colourful murals that is bringing people together and lifting spirits during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Ladawne Shelstad said she was going through a rough emotional patch early in the pandemic when her six-year-old daughter, Maddyn, suggested they create rainbows on the road in front of their Klahanie townhouse.

“They’re a symbol of hope,” Maddyn said.

Working together, Shelstad found the mother and daughter project soothed her anxiety. It also fired her creativity. So they extended their effort to their garage door, decorating it with a giant heart.

When Shelstad discovered one of her neighbours was a nurse, she doodled on paper a design for a mural of thanks she could chalk on her garage door.

A project manager in the communications industry who’d taken some art courses “years ago,” Shelstad found inspiration in stained glass windows. Using tape and a little elbow grease to get the wooden doors clean of dust and grime so the chalk could adhere, she and Maddyn did one mural, and then another as neighbours enquired whether their garages could be included in the project as well. A donation of chalk helped push them along.

Shelstad said the one to eight hours she spent working on each mural were “completely uplifting.” She met some neighbours for the first time, learned about their own interests and challenges navigating the pandemic. Three of them are health care workers, she discovered, along with a teacher who’s coping with doing her job from home, and even some people who’ve lost their job.

“We’re all part of the same thing,” she said. “We’re in this together, but apart.”
Other neighbours enquired about designing their own murals.

Before long every garage door in Shelstad’s lane had been decorated and the gallery has even extended to other lanes in the complex, some fences and the brick rostrum at the entrance to their street.

Shelstad said the project has showed her the power creativity can have to help people get through tough times. So others can explore the healing salve of their own expression, she’s also assembled kits of chalk and art supplies, with proceeds going to Share family and community services.

“You find what gives you joy,” she said. “The whole neighbourhood has embraced something. We’ve been in this glorious bubble of positivity.”

Pandemic resurrects Elvis

This is the first in a retrospective of stories from the COVID-19 pandemic. All appeared in The Tri-City News.

It took a pandemic to revive Elvis.

Or, at least, one of his impersonators, who’s resurrecting his career by bringing his act to neighbourhoods on lockdown because of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

For 30 years, Coquitlam’s Darren Lee was one of the best tribute artists of the famed performer who died in 1977.

In 1997, Lee won the World Elvis Championship in Memphis, Tennessee. He played Las Vegas for 11 years, followed by a four-year run in Maui.

But then, a couple of years ago, a business partnership went bad and — long story short — Lee left the island and found himself back in British Columbia.

“My self-motivation at that point was pretty nil,” he said, adding the lack of gigs eventually neccesitated taking a job driving deliveries for a restaurant supply company so he could get back on his feet.

Still, Lee felt a hunka hunka burning love to perform.

“Your voice has been singing for all these years, your legs are used to doing all these moves,” he said. “I’m older, but I’m not done.”

Opportunity knocked when Lee’s brother in Edmonton, Robin Kelly, launched Facebook Live performances of his own Elvis tribute act to weather the shutdowns of entertainment venues and large gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two collaborated weekly, accepting tips by PayPal.

But Lee’s upstairs neighbours weren’t as appreciative.

So he got in his car, popped some backing tracks into the stereo, rolled down the windows, balanced his phone on the console and went for a drive.

The rolling Facebook performances caught the attention of a friend in Port Coquitlam, who invited Lee to join her neighbourhood’s nightly 7 p.m. cacophony of appreciation for frontline workers. His guest appearance turned into an impromptu two-hour concert that only ended when his car’s battery died.

Even though the audience was no more than 10 people — all properly practising physical distancing — Elvis was back.

“It was the biggest audience I’ve had in months,” Lee said. “You want to get that applause. I thrive on it.”

Lee said he feels his temperature rising. In fact, he’s taking requests for guest appearances in other neighbourhoods. And his brain is flaming with plans to reinvigorate his career when the health emergency has passed.

“I’m an entertainer, it’s what I do,” he said.

When friends open a brewery

There has been more than a few beer stories in these pages. But this latest one has a bit of a twist.

These newly-minted brewers are friends; they ride in our cycling group. Or, at least they did, until they decided to open a brewery.

Actually, their new venture is been brewing for more than a couple of years. But as any entrepreneur knows, getting a new enterprise successfully off the ground all comes down to crunch time.

Thankfully, they were able to take a few moments out of their hectic days leading up to their grand opening to allow me to help tell their story.

Spry seniors pilot Big Bike for charity

As the Tri-City News’ ad-hoc cycling reporter, pretty much any story on two wheels gets sent my way. But not all bikes have just two wheels. Or one rider.

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can get him on a bike every couple of years.
At 106 years, Don Simpson certainly qualifies as old. In fact, according to Phil Reist, the driver of the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s “Big Bike,” he’s likely the oldest participant to ever ride the 29-passenger behemoth bicycle that helps raise money and awareness to prevent heart disease.
Simpson was the captain of a contingent of spry seniors from the Mayfair Terrace retirement home in Port Coquitlam who took the Big Bike for a 20-minute spin on the roads around Coquitlam Centre last Friday. It wasn’t his first rodeo, though.
Simpson cycled the Big Bike when he was much younger — two years ago when he was 104. But he also remembers riding his bike as a boy around Vancouver’s Stanley Park and attending the six-day bike races at the old China Creek velodrome.
“That was our stomping ground,” he said.
So when it came time to climb aboard the gargantuan single-geared machine, Simpson knew exactly where he wanted to be. He ignored the requests of a photographer and cameraman to mount an outboard seat so they could get a clear shot of him pedalling, and instead scrambled — slowly, and with a bit of help — to the middle row at the very back. After all, who’s going to argue with someone his age?
And with a few last-minute instructions from Reist, a shake of the maracas and other noisemakers to ensure passersby notice the big bike — like they’re going to miss it? — they were off.

 

Beer brings new moms together for support

This story appeared originally in The Tri-City News

Alex Turner was a new mom when she ran headlong into postpartum depression.
She didn’t have it. But the former television reporter felt deeply connected to the news coverage of a young Burnaby mother who’d gone missing for three weeks until her body was found near Bowen Island.
In a heart-wrenching post on Facebook, the woman’s husband said she had been struggling with breastfeeding her newborn son, but without a community of moms around her to provide support and reassurance, she gave into her feelings of guilt and anxiety.
“I could feel her struggle,” said Turner, whose own son was about the same age as the woman’s child. “You have a new person you have to care for, yet you can feel you’re so alone.”
So when Turner became pregnant with her second child, she was determined not to let herself become isolated by creating her own community of new moms who could lean on and learn from each other, who would appreciate the opportunity to just get out of the house.
A year later, Turner’s Tri-Cities Moms Monthly “Meeting” group has more than 500 members from New Westminster to Maple Ridge, several dozen of whom gathered with their infants and toddlers for their regular assembly Thursday at the outdoor patio behind Yellow Dog Brewery in Port Moody.
Turner said while social media like Facebook and Instagram might provide a refuge for new moms, digital connections aren’t a substitute for real, personal interaction.
“You need to come together face-to-face,” she said.
And what better place to do that than the family-friendly environs of one of Port Moody’s craft breweries where moms can have adult conversations while their babies and toddler roll around on blankets spread on the soft wood chip ground of the expansive and shaded back outdoor patio?
“We’re in this together,” Turner said.

The passion of Cosimo Gericatano

One of the (rare) perks of being a journalist is being able to share some stories that are so cool, you’re walking on Cloud 9 when you leave the assignment.
One of my newsroom colleagues heard about a retired Italian engineer, who also ran a Ferrari and Lambourghini car dealership for several years, with a passion for painting reproductions of masterworks by the likes of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Gaugin, Renoir. We made arrangements to meet, but nothing could prepare us for the splendour in Cosimo Gericatano’s house.
Every wall, and even some of the ceilings, were hung with precise duplications of renowned paintings that adorn the best museums in the world. Mona Lisa, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Creation of Adam, Allegory of the Planets and Continents were all there, every brushstroke and subtle hue recreated over hundreds of hours of exacting work.
Hanging with Cosimo was like spending a couple of hours with the Italian gentleman we all aspire to be, from his crisp cotton shirt and pressed trousers, as well as his trimmed grey hair to his encyclopedic knowledge of the paintings and artists he’s reproduced, gleaned from hours of research on the internet and visits to the museums where the originals are displayed. Not to mention the red Testarossa parked in his pristine garage.
Here’s the link to our story. And here’s the photos I shot.

There will be mud

While the major rainstorm that was forecast held off, dozens of riders still got down and dirty at Saturday’s annual Donkey Cross cyclocross race in Port Coquitlam’s Castle Park.
The race was the first of seven that comprise the Lower Mainland Cyclocross series.
Cyclocross is like steeplechase racing on two wheels. Riders navigate a winding, undulating course for several laps that includes obstacles, a metres-long “beach” of soft sand, and even a stretch of snow from a local arena dumped into a corner. The sport originated as a form of off-season training for road cyclists in Northern Europe who would often challenge each other to get to the coffee shop in the next village the quickest. Often, that meant traversing farmers’ fields and hopping fences and hedges, elements that are still honoured in modern cyclocross racing.

Requiem for a friend, and mentor

We all have mentors. They’re the people who show us the way, whether they know it or not.
Mine was Ron Kuzyk. He was a steelworker and a hell of a photojournalist who worked the weekend shift we came to share for a stretch at the Burlington Post, where I started my career.
Ron passed away this week.

In 1984, I was just out of journalism school and determined to use a camera as my storytelling tool of choice. Circumstances that summer connected me to George Tansley, then the chief photographer at the Post. He said he could offer me some shifts to relieve his weekend guy who spent his weekdays working at Stelco and sometimes needed a break from the grind.

That guy was Ron.

We probably first met in the studio/darkroom one of those weekends; he was likely passing through to collect something, and I was probably trying to figure out how I too could get some of the great shots that were printed and hung on the walls of the studio and down the hall outside it. I particularly remember a colour wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence, arms and leg splayed out; I loved that photo.

190427Ron2
My friend, and mentor, Ron Kuzyk, was the king of the silhouette. He loved shooting them, even as editors told him they needed to see faces in the newspaper. Of course, when Ron came back from an assignment with one of his beautiful silhouettes, it inevitably ran in the paper, usually on the front page.

Of course it, and many of the others, was shot by Ron.

Especially the sports.

I knew I wanted to be able to shoot sports like Ron.

He could capture peak action like nobody’s business, but he also had a keen eye for those quiet moments, like the kid stealing a glance back at his coach, the consoling hand on a player’s shoulder, the goofiness of 5 year-old t-ballers.

And, amazingly, he didn’t need big time pro athletes or glorious bright arena lighting to get his great sports photos. He made them in dark high school gyms, dusty sandlot baseball diamonds and pocked minor soccer pitches.

Over the course of that summer, as Ron and I crossed paths, we became buddies. He encouraged me, talked me through the frustrations of learning how to shoot with the Hasselblad because the big colour transparencies made for better front page colour reproduction. But mostly he showed me the way with his eye and his instincts.

Whenever I had the chance, I studied his contact sheets, checked out his prints, paid attention to his byline (although, by the second week I was already pretty good at spotting a Ron shot in the paper), and when my shooting shifts came, I distilled what I learned to get in the right position for a good baseball shot, look all around at a spot news scene to find that storytelling moment, seek out a fun juxtaposition at a community event.

When I happened to be in the darkroom and he popped by for a studio shot, I studied how he set up the lights and, more importantly, how he made his subjects feel at ease, joked with them, broke through their guard to find something that captured the story they were there to tell.

Ron was the most natural, instinctual photojournalist I ever met. More importantly, he was also the most fun. Because as much as we liked to bitch about shooting pet of the week or real estate features, as much as the repetitiveness of shooting the same cycle of community events year after year wore down your creativity, he really got a kick out of his job, and that joy came through in every one of his frames (well maybe not the photos of used cars for dealer ads).

The next summer, all the lessons I’d absorbed from Ron paid off when I landed a full-time gig at Oshawa This Week.

On the weekends I wasn’t working, I often came back to Burlington to visit my family and hang with Ron. Usually over beers, sometimes in the vicinity of naked women dancing on stages. We kibitzed and kvetched as professional colleagues. We also complained, because that’s what journalists do when we get together (oh, if only we knew then what was coming for our industry, for our profession…)

But when Ron finally made the decision to cut his ties — and the big paycheque — to Stelco, he was over the moon with delight, thrilled to be working full-time at his passion even if it meant keeping his heap blue car that smelled like an ashtray on the road a little longer.

There were often adventures on those weekends, usually involving Post sports reporters Kevin Nagel, Dave Rashford and Tim Whitnell as well; road hockey in the back parking lot on New Street, some ice hockey games, the annual Metroland slo-pitch tournament, a concert or two.

When a group of us bought a tournament package for the 1987 Canada Cup series, Ron somehow managed to get photo accreditation for the climactic final so when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky and the rest of that amazing Canadian team were celebrating their victory on the ice at Copp’s Coliseum, we were peering through our binoculars from the upper deck at Ron sliding around working the scrums. Oh yeah, he scored an amazing photo of the two superstars celebrating, jumping into each other’s arms behind the net in his corner. Like I said, Ron had great instincts for timing.

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Ron Kuzyk and a great love, and eye, for shooting sports. He also had that innate instinct for being in the right place at the right time with the right lens. Oh yeah, and also for finagalling accreditation for bigtime events even though he worked for a community paper.

When I headed west in 1991, our contact became more sporadic.

He came out once, riding shotgun in his brother’s big rig. I drove him around, showing him my new turf, including a bar or two that may or may not have had a brass pole. I think the motel in Port Coquitlam where he stayed burned down shortly after his visit.

Again with the timing.

When I was home for a visit, we’d go for beers or lunch and shoot the shit about old times, compare notes about our current situations.

But I’ve always felt Ron’s guiding hand, tried to follow his eye, even as I forged my own path as a community photojournalist.

I know the changes to our industry weren’t easy for Ron. He was old-school, driven to get the shot and to hell with all the bullshit of the business.

After he left the Post, we caught up a few times on my visits back to Ontario. I think one of those times I managed to tell him how much impact he’d had on my own career, how those early exchanges in the Post studio set me on my path.

We also tried connecting on social media, but Ron was never one for the Facebook, unless he was trading/peddling his vinyl records. I think he Tweetered about 12 times.

But even as our contact waned, Ron was often in my thoughts. He’s the reason I park myself about three metres back of first base at a baseball game so I can reach second base for a steal or double play, but also can grab a close play at first. He’s the reason I sit instead of stand at the touchline of a soccer match because that means a cleaner background. He’s the reason I keep my eye on the bench near the end of a big game as much as on the playing arena. He’s the reason I’m still trying to emulate that great wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence.

Thanks Ron, my friend. RIP