For just over year Maureen Straza has chaired the Williams Lake Accessibility Advisory Committee. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

OUR HOMETOWN: Maureen Straza advocating for others

Maureen Straza is working to make Williams Lake more accessible

Comparing Maureen Straza to the little engine that could is not far from the truth.

In April 2014 she was in an ATV accident near Chimney Lake and emerged as a complete paraplegic with T10-11 injuries.

Today she chairs the City’s accessibility advisory committee and advocates for others to make Williams Lake more accessible.

“It’s something I’m passionate about, we have some new members and I hope we will be able to make a difference,” Straza said.

“Our main focus is making Williams Lake more accessible and inclusive for everyone.”

During the summer the committee will host an accessibility awareness event and will rent a booth at the farmers market to share information.

“My hope is that people will come out and let us know what their challenges are because I don’t know all the challenges for people with different disabilities and neither does anyone else,” Straza said. “I think people aren’t aware. Before, I had my spinal cord injury I had no idea.”

The committee meets once a month, except in the summer months.

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It’s difficult for people to lose their independence, Straza said noting after her injury she realized firsthand people need to advocate for themselves.

“No one knows how to make changes until they actually know what the challenges are,” she added.

Straza was born in Assiniboia, Sask. and moved with her family to Fort St. John when she was turning seven years old.

She and her late husband, Bob Lee, moved to Port Hardy and had their two sons there.

The family moved to Williams Lake when the boys were starting school for Bob’s job with BC Hydro.

“We wanted to get to the main land and closer to our families and we always thought Williams Lake was a nice area.”

Straza played softball and coached her sons once they were old enough to play. She coached them until they were old enough to play in the men’s league and coached then as well.

Bob died in 2010 from congestive heart failure — they’d been married almost 37 years and she’d been with him since she was 15.

On Jan. 1, 2020, she officially retired from CIBC where she had been working for 30 years when she had her accident.

“CIBC was a great place to work and everyone was very good to me,” she recalled, adding she started out as a newbie in the ledger department. “I received good training and did compliance administration for three branches.”

Every cheque that was drawn had to have its signature verified and figures checked. At one time there were 39 people working at the bank in Williams Lake.

She was branch manager for a couple of years, but said she pleaded to let her go back to her sales position.

“I’m not a manager. I’m not too bad of a chairperson, but I’m kind of like a work horse. I like making things happen and it’s sometimes it’s hard to manage people.”

Straza met Rick Hansen when she was part of the Wheels in Motion committee for a number of years in Williams Lake.

“I actually met him through that and I know most of his family as well. After my injury he came to visit me at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver. He said, ‘it’s so nice to see you, but I’m sorry it had to be under these circumstances.”

After the ATV accident, she was operated on by Dr. Brian Kwon, an internationally recognized, award-winning, orthopaedic surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH). “I got lucky and he fixed me up.”

She stayed in VGH for two weeks and started rehab there.

“While I was there they were helping me learn how to sit up and to learn how to transfer in and out of bed.”

From there she transferred to GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre and left for home early July.

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At the time of the accident she was in a relationship with Larry Straza and they were supposed to get married that July, but she insisted they wait a couple of years.

“I wanted to make sure he was prepared for the changes. I told him right off the bat, ‘this is what I have to live with, this is not your journey if you don’t choose it.’”

They got married in 2016 and they manage. They go kayaking, they traded in her quad for a side-by-side, and it has hand controls on it if she wants to drive it.

“Larry has hand controls on his quad if I want to drive it I can. He has to help me get on and off it because it’s difficult for me to transfer up that high, but I’ve even plowed a bit of snow with it.”

There are some things that are very difficult for her to do, but with a little help from people who are willing, a lot of things can be done.

These days she isn’t mowing the lawn or plowing the driveway as she once did, however, she plants flowers and does things she can do.

“I said to my best friend Brenda Jelley after my accident, ‘oh my gosh, I’m used to being able to do everything for myself,’ and she said, ‘look at me Maureen. I’ve never plowed the driveway and I’ve never mowed the lawn so don’t feel bad.’”

Jelley passed away in January 2016 and was a very dear friend, Straza added.

“That was an awesome thing for her to say to me.”

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