A new book detailing the 50-year history of Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) has been written by the man who started it all.
It Takes Raindrops to Fill a Lake by Walter Paetkau was released at a launch party on Saturday at The Reach Gallery Museum and is now available to the public.
Paetkau started the agency in the late 1960s from a two-room office above the former James Fraser TV store on Essendene Avenue and has watched it flourish over the years to 90 programs operated by 450 staff and 1,000 volunteers, with a permanent building on Montrose Avenue.
Paetkau was at the helm of ACS as executive director until 2000, when he retired. He then volunteered with the Circle F Horse Rescue Society.
He retired from Circle F after 15 years so that he could devote his time to writing the book.
It was a momentous project, encompassing combing through about a dozen scrapbooks of old newspaper articles, as well as old minutes and annual reports.
Paetkau also met with dozens of staff members to get a feel for how things have changed since he was last directly involved.
In the beginning, he said there was never any “master plan” of what ACS would become, only that it would bring service projects together under one roof.
Among Paetkau’s early influences was the U.S. civil rights movement. He was a student in the early 1960s at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana, and was accepted as an exchange student at an African American seminary in Atlanta, Georgia.
At the time, he was the only white student there. On one occasion, a group of students held a march in protest against a 1,500-member church that was allowing only white people to join.
“We went up the stairs to talk to the deacons and, of course, we used scripture to say why we think (everyone) should all be worshipping together, and they used scripture to say no, the black race was different and shouldn’t be together with the whites, and the priest came and ushered us out,” Paetkau recalls.
Moments like this inspired him to change his focus from education to social development, eventually leading to his being placed in Abbotsford with the General Conference Mennonite Church, to develop service projects in Oregon, Washington, Alberta and B.C.
“My role was to get people involved in service through the church, but there weren’t places to put them,” Paetkau said.
He began meeting with service clubs and church groups to see what was needed, and this resulted in the formation of a Christmas Bureau in Abbotsford in 1968. Until then, individual groups had been providing food hampers to people in need, but they were all working independently. The official formation of ACS followed a year later.
The Christmas Bureau brought them together, and that program still exists today – operated through the ACS Food Bank – with services that now include gift and toy distribution, and an adopt-a-family program.
Paetkau recalls that another one of the first programs that ran in the James Fraser TV building was a drop-in youth group called Generation Ungap. The group took over one of the offices and painted the room purple with strobe lights. Instead of chairs, participants sat on cushions.
Paetkau said the group often attracted up to 100 people at a time.
He said programs and services in the early years continued on that “very informal” basis, but they became more structured over time, especially as government funding became available.
Paetkau said some of ACS’s biggest successes over the years have been the establishment of children and youth services, the recycling program, the food bank, seniors’ programs and multicultural services.
He said other agencies across the nation began to look at ACS to see what they were doing right.
Paetkau said a PhD student who was doing some research on the agency summed it up nicely when Paetkau sat down to speak to her after she had been there for about two weeks.
“She said, ‘Walter, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but what you’ve got going on here with your staff is soul in the workplace. People are committed and dedicated. They work hard and they’re energized. They are client-oriented,’ ” Paetkau said.
“She caught what was there in terms of culture and values, and that’s still there today.”
However, he does acknowledge that ACS had a couple of gaffes over the years.
One was what he refers to as the “lottery loss.” ACS held a lottery, in conjunction with Alexandra Neighbourhood House in Vancouver in 1990, featuring a top prize of $250,000 and other prizes such as luxury vehicles.
ACS expected to net a $500,000 profit from ticket sales, but the BC Gaming Commission had also granted a licence to St. Paul’s Hospital for a lottery at the same time and indicated that the ACS could only sell its tickets from Langley east.
As a result, not enough tickets were sold, and ACS and Alexander House each lost about $100,000.
Paetkau said ACS’s other big loss was a restaurant called the Pasta Gallery, which opened in the ACS building in 1998 but had to shut down the following year after incurring $69,000 in losses.
He said this was due to not receiving expected government training money and paying too-high staff salaries that were set a service levels, rather than restaurant levels.
Paetkau said that although these losses were embarrassing, ACS was upfront about them, and the public continued to support the agency.
He said he is proud of what ACS – now headed by executive director Rod Santiago – has accomplished over the years.
“We have a place in this community in which, to the very best we can, we ensure that the public and the citizens all get supported,” Paetkau said.
It Takes a Raindrop to Fill a Lake sells for $35 (including tax) and is available at the main desk of ACS at 2420 Montrose Ave. Visit abbotsfordcommunityservices.com/book for an up-to-date list of book sellers and other book information.