Aileen Hewett, founder and honorary life member of the Cariboo Chilcotin Child Development Centre is this year’s recipient of the Woman of Heart Award, sponsored by the Women’s Contact Society.
Society executive director Irene Willsie and CDC intake manager Coleen Onofrechuk presented the award to Hewett during the International Women’s Day dinner event held at Thompson Rivers University, March 8.
“Tonight, I would like to acknowledge the commitment and dedication of a Williams Lake’s citizen, Aileen Hewett,” Onofrechuk said in reading out the story behind why Hewett was chosen for the award.
For the past 40 years, Onofrechuk said Hewett has contributed endless time and effort to support Williams Lake children with special needs.
It started when Hewett worked as a receptionist for paediatrician, Dr. Jan Riegl. In early 1973 Hewett was approached by parents of children with disabilities who were concerned about having to take their children to Prince George or Vancouver to receive therapy they needed to achieve basic life skills.
Hewett started her quest for a local centre by talking with Dr. Riegl, who she knew had been connected with the Surrey Centre, Onofrechuk said. She also sought information and help from the local mental health association and others.
“The Mental Health Association agreed that something needed to be done and joined Hewett to make it happen,” Onofrechuk said.
In April of 1974, Hewett contacted Ann Marten, executive director of the Prince George Centre. As a result of that meeting the Williams Lake group found the Provincial Association for Cerebral Palsy and signed their charter on Sept. 20, 1974 to become an independent local group.
Hewett served as the association’s first president. In March 1975 the society started operation in a room in the old skating rink, then on Third Avenue with three staff members serving six children.
Most of the equipment and furnishings were donated by community organizations.
More staff was added as more children arrived at the centre looking for help.
In early 1975, with Hewett’s hard work, the centre moved to a 2,000 square foot space in the Merrill and Wagner office then located on Mackenzie Avenue.
The dilemma, however, was that BC Railway was on one side of the building. The playground was also too small so to play outside the children had to cross busy Mackenzie Avenue to the nearest school playground.
Because of these circumstances, Onofrechuk says Hewett hoped and planned to move into a larger location on Second Avenue that could provide a reception area, offices for staff, a preschool, activity hall, physiotherapy and speech therapy, a staff room, and a safe outdoor play area.
The cost of the new centre was estimated at $250,000. Of that total, the community had to provide one third, approximately $80,000 and the remaining funds would be provided through provincial government grants.
In 1977, with Hewett leading the way, the new Child Development Centre building campaign officially began.
This is when the world’s largest pink piggy bank was built. The piggy bank stood six feet high and was located in front of Boitanio Mall.
On May 19, 1979, after years of community support and donations, the Child Development Centre moved into its present location on Second Avenue.
Hewett and then MLA Alex Fraser cut the ribbon to open the centre on Sept. 15, 1979.
In 2003, in tribute of Hewett efforts, the CDC building was officially named the Aileen Hewett building.
Because of Hewett is great efforts, today the families in Williams Lake do not have to travel out of the community to receive services for their children.
Within the first three years of operation the Child Development centre provided services to 100 children. It now annually provides services to more than one 1,000 children, Onofrechuk says.
“For over four decades Aileen has been an inspiration to many people. We greatly admire her vision and determination.
“It is my great privilege to present the Woman with Heart Award to the Cariboo Chilcotin Child Development Centre’s Honorary Life Member Aileen Hewett.”
In her acceptance speech, Hewett said there was pressure early on to keep the centre strictly for children with disabilities but it was always her feeling that children with disabilities should not be separated from other children, which is why the CDC has always had integrated programs and pre-school.
“Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to keep it going,” Hewett said.