String of Pearls

By Kelly Greene

We know where to volunteer—opportunities abound. And why—fun and fulfillment, etc. And even how. But who? Who are the individuals themselves, the pearls in our society who give of themselves—their experience, their talent, their time—to add lustre to someone else’s day?

I believe in God-incidence. How else to explain in my quest to find a ‘pearl’—a visit to the James Bay Community Centre and not finding my quarry in his office but noticing an attractive middle-aged woman enquiring about volunteer opportunities. Our chance meeting became a delightful hour over coffee. My first impression of Joyce (Joy) Penner was that here was someone who took a cheerful interest in an unexpected encounter. She had readily agreed to a chat about her very first foray into volunteering and what led up to that choice. I asked about her experience at the counter. “Susie was great”, she said, and waved some paper at me. “I have some administrative work to do—criminal records check, you know, and a chit to get in touch with “support the reader” program—that interests me because I love reading—and my contact information is on record now for being available to assist music teachers.”

Because that, essentially, is who Joy is—an impassioned, highly trained and experienced teacher of music. And from three weeks ago, a resident of the community of James Bay

As a child raised in a strict Mennonite home in a Manitoba farming community, Joy remembers how thrilled as a student with only accreditation for Grade nine piano from Western Board to be chosen to attend Brandon University for further study. This led to her degree (ARTC) from the Toronto Conservatory and a career in teaching music in the Winnipeg elementary school system. “Those years were wonderful.”

But in 2001 a personal crisis precipitated a desperate desire for change. Joy remembers, “I was standing in my living room, hands clenched, and suddenly, very clearly, words dropped into my mind, ‘overseas teaching.’ Never a thought before that afternoon. In those days you had to dial up the internet. My first screen announced ‘Joy Jobs’. She laughed, “That seemed an affirmation.” My first posting was Istanbul for two years, and when they could no longer support my specialism at their International School I applied for Doha (capital of Qatar on the Persian Gulf) and was there for twelve years with an intervening year in Cambodia. In addition to classroom teaching for the schools I took private students, nearly fifty at one point. I am still in touch with three families to Doha and teach using Skype.”

During her sojourn overseas Joy returned to Canada in the summer to see her son who had been twenty-one when she had first left. Two years ago she came back to stay and applied to the Victoria Conservatory of Music. They were unresponsive–Joy ruefully allows “there are a lot of music teachers in this city”. Because she needed to earn a living, for a time she worked for a cleaning agency. As the weeks passed her son, with whom she is close, realized his mother was suffering a kind of culture shock. “There were dark times,” Joy admits, “but when Garth told me I needed to start thinking like a Canadian again, I knew how much I was missing my former life. In Winnipeg my class choir (and that was for every child who thought he could sing or not) was on the road often. I took them to hospitals, seniors homes, festivals, and competitions—even an airport (that was interesting). The year I left for overseas, we scooped three trophies in the Winnipeg city-wide choir competition including the best all-around. And my students…music joins you heart to heart.” She added slowly, “I thought maybe I could volunteer—to become connected again.”

Joy submitted the paper work for her application as a volunteer the day after we met. Her education and experience are a matter of record. But a new chapter in her life may have as much to do with her spirit of adventure (“Turkey really rocked me”), her sustained love of music (“yes, even MoTown”), and her continued desire to teach (“especially the little ones”). A pearl.

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