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May 26, 2021

From a COVID Tragedy to New Horizons

In April 2021, we asked members to share their stories about finding new purpose in work during retirement. Retired teacher and ARTA member, Alice Campbell shared this story of loss and finding a new calling.

On April 2, 2020 I lost my new partner to COVID-19. Suddenly, I was devastated and alone — a senior adrift. April was a long and difficult month, yet, by the time it was over, new life pathways were emerging.

My partner, Dr. Art Whistler, was a conservation icon and was globally respected for his five decades of research in the botany and ethnobotany of the South Pacific. Now we had lost him, and I felt this great loss, just as we were embarking on a new life together. It was my goal to continue his legacy in the South Pacific, in Samoa in particular.

I soon heard of an idea to create a rare plant garden in his honour, within Vailima Botanical Garden in Samoa. Along with many others, I ran with the idea — I wanted to help further his incredible legacy in the South Pacific. Little did I know, it would change my life and my retirement years, as well as further the protection of the biodiversity in Samoa and help support marginalized peoples of that country.

I went from being unable to locate Samoa on a map to being part of a team creating a rare plant garden in Apia, Samoa. The garden’s purpose was to protect and preserve the rare and endangered plants of Samoa, first identified by Dr. Whistler. In Samoa, he was known and revered as Tupu o le Vao, the King of the Forest.

Gradually, I learned more and more about conservation in Samoa, and the work of the Samoa Conservation Society (SCS). I became their first Canadian member and started learning about different projects and the international grants available. Next thing I knew, I was proofreading grant applications, which evolved into editing applications and more. I was becoming fully immersed in protecting Samoa’s biodiversity.

As plans for the garden progressed, a raised walkway was suggested to facilitate access over the rocky and root-lined paths. It was my ‘aha!’ moment. In Samoa there is little, if any, barrier-free access for people with disabilities in public sites. Immediately, paved walkways were included in the garden plans.

Soon after, I discovered NOLA, the umbrella organization for people with disabilities in Samoa. That started another pathway – raising awareness and support for the marginalized in Samoa. The Dr. Art Whistler Rare Plant Memorial Garden will be the first site to provide barrier-free access, allowing all to come enjoy nature and learn about rare plants. To further enable that, we created a tranquil viewing area overlooking the waterfall where all can relax and enjoy immersion in the garden.

As I learned about Samoa, and the impact of climate change on island nations in the South Pacific, I began reading government reports about marine and coastal changes, and the effects of habitat loss. Next thing I knew, I was attending a virtual conference on Climate Change in the South Pacific and learning of the difficulties being faced by these island nations and their efforts to adapt and build resilience. Now, my awareness of Climate Change has heightened, not only for the South Pacific, but around the world.

Quite frankly, I am astonished at the changes this experience has wrought in my life, and in the lives of those in Samoa. Awareness of Samoa’s fragile biodiversity has been brought to the forefront of public thought, employment has been created, life experiences for the marginalized have been improved, and lifelong friendships have been forged. Together with the SCS and volunteers in Samoa, we have been active and instrumental in bringing this worthwhile project from dream to reality. Early in 2020, I would never have imagined this future for myself in my retirement years. I have embarked on new journeys and made invaluable connections with Samoa and its beautiful people. To them, I say fa’afetai tele lava (thank you very much) for allowing me to expand my horizons and enrich my life in ways I had never imagined. There are no longer enough hours in my day!