As Chantel Waite packs her bags and bundles up her two-year-old granddaughter Charlie Ellison at the end of Babytime at the Mission Library, she can’t help but fight back tears.
For the past 35 years Elspeth Bowers has channeled a lifelong passion for literacy into her career at the library. She is as recognizable figure at the library as the thousands of books that line the shelves.
But like any great novel, it must come to an end. For Elspeth, Friday, Feb. 15 will mark the end of the chapter of her career at the Mission Library. Three-and-a-half decades of sharing her passion for the written word will be punctuated with a retirement tea and social Friday afternoon from 2 to 4 p.m. at the library.
For Waite, the idea of not seeing Elspeth’s face and hearing her voice once a week leaves her chocked with emotion.
“She’s such an amazing person,” she said. “She’s an anchor for our week. She provides such a rich environment for parents and kids. She’s enriched so many lives in the community. It’s so sad to know she’s leaving.”
Nicole Milne and her six-moth-old daughter Talia wave goodbye for one of the last times. The young mother also laments the community’s loss.
“She has such a passion and love for our children that’s not seen very often,” noted Milne.
For Elspeth, the time to say goodbye is proving to be hard. As she reflects on her work over the years, she recalls fondly the countless encounters she’s had with those who have come to her and told her what a difference she’s made in her life. With a smile, she says it’s that recognition that’s been her driving force.
“Living in the community where I work has really been a rich and wonderful experience,” she explains. “There’s these all teenagers and adults that all have this warm, fuzzy memories of me as the story lady. I can walk by a group of teens, doing their teen things, and one of them will inevitably say, ‘hey, you tell the greatest stories.’ That’s what’s satisfying to me. Knowing I’ve made a difference.”
Elspeth says it’s amazing to reflect on her years, remember vividly reading to a child and now recognize that same face, all grown up, come through the library doors bringing their own children to story time.
When she started her career, she did so because of her love children and their endless potential. The vital role that literacy plays in their lives meant so much to her, she notes. And as time passed, it was this fuel that flamed her desire to continue to pass on the critical skills she has honed.
“As the years have gone by and I kept on doing it, I realized that what I am offering these kids and their families is hugely important. Giving the gift of language, and words and stories, is way up there with food and love and shelter and all those basic things we give our children.”
As she sets to retire, she says it’s the young faces she will miss most. But her retirement is one which she chose. She’s not being forced out the door, but rather leaving on her own terms. She says she wouldn’t want to be one of those people who stayed at her job too long, that her love for her work had been extinguished. So she looks forward to being able to focus on the other joys in her life. Her small farm and greenhouse house will garner more of her attention, but her work within the community will continue to grow.
For Mission Library manager Teresa MacLeod, saying goodbye will prove to be difficult, but knowing Elspeth won’t be far away is comforting.
“I have been witness to her dedication to libraries and literacy. Her story times weave an incredible magic with children and their families and her stellar reputation for story time is widespread throughout the community,” says MacLeod.
She said Elspeth’s dedication was rewarded with the B.C. Community Achievement Award in 2006. But what stands out most for MacLeod is not the awards or her ability to weave a compelling story, but rather it was that intimate knowledge of literature and recognizing the importance it plays in the lives of the children and teens she so passionately worked with.
While patrons of the Mission library may be able to lean on the web to track down lists of great children and teen books, it’s Elspeth’s opinion that mattered most, said MacLeod. Children, parents, and teachers made sure they would consult with the self-described book junkie for what should be at the top of their list.
“She constantly reads for her own pleasure, and as a result is able to advise library patrons of the latest and the best that literature has to offer to young people,” noted MacLeod. “She’s someone they trust.”
Elspeth’s love of her work extends far beyond the Mission Library walls. She says she will continue to be an advocate for literacy in the community working with the literacy fair, the Riot of Reading in Mission.
MacLeod says it’s a program that may not have survived without Elspeth’s dedication and drive to organize the many volunteers and agencies involved.
She will continue her dedication to the popular parent-child Mother Goose programs, as well as the Mission Literacy in Motion and Early Childhood Development programs.
MacLeod says the Mission Library and the community as a whole will forever be a richer place because of her work. While she’s a little sad to see her go, she’s grateful for the contributions she’s made to the generations of people who’ve come to know and love her work.
“Without fear of contradiction, I can say that Elspeth Bowers is a champion in the Mission area for her knowledge of books, her dedication, her love of story, her desire to connect kids with books, her advocacy for the library, and her fervent belief in literacy.”
For Elspeth, her retirement is another chapter she looks forward to writing.
“The community has given back to me in such a huge way, and for that I will forever be grateful. But I’m still going to be out there. I may be retiring from the library, but my work in the community is far from over.”