The Beauty Within
The Strathcona Place Senior’s Center has created a writing competition for seniors to honour a cherished volunteer
Monday, Apr 06, 2015 06:00 am
When John W. Bilsland retired from a long career teaching English at the University of Alberta, he continued to volunteer at the Strathcona Place Seniors Center. Bilsland has taught creative writing at the centre for 23 years. Now, at the age of 93, he has decided it’s time to retire. The creative writing classes are a natural extension of the centre’s mission to enhance the quality and enjoyment of life for all people 55 and older in a safe, healthy, creative environment.
The centre is a vibrant hub for the area’s seniors. Educational classes, programs, recreational activities and outreach programs help keep participants active and safe. Even more importantly, Bilsland’s gentle manner changed the lives of his students. Linda De Beer, who has taken Bilsland’s class for about 12 years, says she dreamed about being a writer while she was raising her family, but she didn’t know if she had what it took to succeed. After joining Bilsland’s class she says she grew as a writer by absorbing and being in the atmosphere that Bilsland created in his class. “I lost my timidity and fear and became more confident with a belief in myself and I will forever miss having Jack as our instructor,” she says. “How do you replace an irreplaceable person?” While the classes are fun for all involved, many participants have published their work. During Bilsland’s time at the centre, more than 20 pieces of writing have been published.
In honor of Bilsland’s years as a dedicated volunteer, the centre has created a writing award in his name. Anybody 55 years or older who lives in Metropolitan Edmonton is eligible to submit a previously unpublished piece to the panel by April 24, 2015 at noon. A John W. Bilsland Award of Literary Excellence for Senior Writers prize of $500 will be awarded in each of three categories: poetry, short fiction and short-non-fiction. While the centre currently sponsors the award, they would like to expand it and hope to find community sponsors. The awards will be handed out at a gala that is open to the public. Linda Ensley, Executive Director of the Strathcona Place Seniors Centre, says Bilsland is “Mr. Roger’s with a literary degree and the kindest man I have ever known.” His Friday class regularly held 45-70 people and he normally spent 6-7 hours a week reading submissions and providing feedback to his students. “He has the ability to look past some of the structural flaws and get to the real heart of what the writer is saying,” says Ensley, “and to help the writer recognize the beauty within.”