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Volunteer experience in Guyana inspires Penetanguishene woman to write

Nicolette Smith wrote “Hopeful Steps” about her experiences living and volunteering in Guyana. (Jenni Dunning photo)

Reproduced from Simcoe.com via Midland Mirror
by Jenni Dunning

PENETANGUISHENE, Simcoe County, Ontario, Canada – After decades of volunteerism and harbouring a dream close to her heart, Penetanguishene’s Nicolette Smith finally made it to Guyana.

The retired physiotherapist has now turned her experiences volunteering with disabled children in the South American country into a book of essays.

“I think I was born to be a volunteer,” she said. “When a door opens, I go find out what’s behind it.”

Smith had dreamed of helping people in Guyana since her early 20s.

Growing up in England, she and her husband, Martin Smith, immigrated to Canada in the 1970s and lived in different parts of Ontario while raising three children. The couple moved to Penetanguishene in 2009.

As a physiotherapist, Smith spent most of her career working in geriatric and palliative care, but later switched to pediatrics.

“Switching in my 50s to pediatrics was like a whole new career for me. Just amazing stuff,” she said.

After retiring, she signed up with British-based Voluntary Service Overseas for a two-year stint working for Hopeful Steps, a community-based rehabilitation program in Guyana.

Smith’s book of essays, “Hopeful Steps,” is named after the group for which she gave lectures on topics such as the importance of parents playing with their children.

One mother, she said, thanked her for helping her feel less guilty for playing with her child when she could have been doing chores.

Changing the attitude of even a few mothers made the whole experience worth it, said Smith, who also trained nurses to identify and implement treatment for disabled children.

“Accessibility for children with disabilities is a huge problem (in Guyana),” she said, noting there are few main roads and not all people who need special mobility equipment have what they need to get around.

Smith’s husband, who accompanied her just for the experience, wound up helping with this. An aeronautics engineer by trade, he helped fix equipment at the children’s rehabilitation hospital and built specialized furniture for those who needed it.

Her book, the beginnings of which she developed in Askennonia Seniors Centre’s “Let’s Write” class, also explores being a minority in Guyana as a Caucasian woman, the pleasures and pitfalls of riding a bicycle through a country plagued by thefts, and some of the inspiring people she met along the way.

“It’s far more rewarding to volunteer than to not volunteer. You get so much out of it,” she said.

The official launch of “Hopeful Steps” is Sept. 9 at the Penetanguishene Public Library from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Smith is selling her book for $18. It can be bought at the book launch, on Amazon or from her directly (705-427-4914).