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Bowen bids farewell to dedicated volunteer

When Graeme Dinsdale set foot on Bowen Island for the first time in 1982, he came to volunteer - he was feeding his friend's cats for a weekend.

When Graeme Dinsdale set foot on Bowen Island for the first time in 1982, he came to volunteer - he was feeding his friend's cats for a weekend. Little did he know that this would become a habit and that he would log countless hours for many community groups in the next 29 years.

This year, Dinsdale is moving away but not because he's had enough with the unpaid work. "I never felt burnt out," he says. "At some point, I realized that I put in so many volunteer hours that I didn't make as much money. But that didn't bother me."

Dinsdale is going to live in New Zealand to be able to help two of his sisters with their properties. He is not planning to break his life-long habit of pro bono work. "There is a good chance that I will be getting involved there. On the beach, where I will be living, is a nesting area for fairy terns. Those are sea birds and every year, volunteers patrol the beach to make sure there are no cats and dogs in the area. They identify the nests and fence off the area."

Dinsdale will be moving to Omaha which is a peninsula rather than an island but there are many similarities to Bowen. "The advantage of living in a small community is that it's easier to become involved. When I lived in Toronto, I didn't pay attention to community events. But as soon as I got to Bowen, I knew that this was the kind of community where I wanted to live. I wanted to be a part of it and I did as much as I could for the benefit of the community."

Dinsdale's list of achievements is impressive and has earned him the honour of being elected citizen of the year in 2006.

It started in 1982 with theatre and with politics. He says, "One of the first things that happened when I got here, was that I was talked into taking three different parts in a TOTI (Theatre on the Isle) production. That was the first introduction to the social life on Bowen. At the same time, there was an election for islands trustee and John Rich was running. I went to the election party and met a lot of people. I got involved in politics right off the bat.

"In the 80s, I won a wood-chopping contest with Nelson Riley and Pat Buchanan. One of us had to saw, one chopped and one did the splitting. That was me. I was also a founding member of the arts council. I helped to organize Bowfest and I was on the committee for the Millennium party at the old general store."

Dinsdale has also had a long affiliation with the Bowen Island Heritage Preservation Association, working to save Davies Orchard. "I've been with the heritage association since we got funding for the Millennium project in 2000. I stepped down a year ago, after over 10 years. We've done a lot of replanting of the apple trees, thanks to the work of John and Josephine Riley. I also worked on the cottages to restore them so they didn't leak. They're surrounded by lawns and it looks good now, like a proper heritage site. One of the groups of the Snug Cove planning task force wanted to put a parking lot there. They said, 'If we move this house or that house, we could put a road through there.' But I feel that we've made enough of a difference that the orchard will be kept as a heritage site."

When asked about his most memorable achievement, Dinsdale says, "A highlight was probably when I was the chairperson of the Islands Trust and was signing the official community plan. There was a tremendous sense of accomplishment that we had managed to create a real community plan. There were hundreds of people involved. That was the most significant work."

"The only big change on Bowen in the last 20 years is the increase in population," he adds. "People still complain about the same things. But quite a few things have actually been accomplished since the OCP has been in place."

By observing Bowen's transformation, Dinsdale arrived at a keen insight, "I've noticed something interesting. I've been involved in many non-profit groups. For most of them, we have a core of up to 50 people who participate and go to meetings. The population has tripled since I moved here but the number of people involved in community groups hasn't changed that much. It's the same number of people who are still working on the same issues. There are some reasons that people can't get more involved. Some have to commute, some are raising young families. That takes a lot of effort. The community groups always encourage new people to join. But one of the problems with rapid increase in population is that new people aren't absorbed into the community the same way."

In the past few months, Dinsdale has been travelling frequently but his interest in Bowen's future has stayed strong. "I followed the national park debate from New Zealand. As an island trustee, I've often told people that if you enjoy Bowen, you have to share it. It is better for the island if more people come and visit than if they buy and chop down trees. In my opinion, a national park is the best thing that could happen on Bowen. A lot of people are opposed to it but that is nothing new."

He has had similar experiences in the past. He said, "[Working for the community] has mostly been fun. But sometimes it was challenging to try to convince people of a good idea. A few of them have no knowledge of what is implied but they are against it because they think it will affect the way they are living."

In New Zealand, Dinsdale has gained another perspective on nature preservation. He says, "I am going to be living on Crescent Beach and they have some interesting things going on, for instance the wildlife protection. There is a regional park close by where they restored all the natural wildlife; it is a great place to watch birds. And there is a marine protected area further down the beach. You can walk out on the rocks and watch snapper about a meter long swim under your feet. And the same thing is true for the regional park. The fence across the land base keeps animals out and the native bird population has come back. Birds like kiwis otherwise have a tough time surviving because they can't fly. When you eliminate the danger from stray dogs, feral cats and stoats, the bird life can be regenerated."

"[The initiative] comes from the people. They do have government support but most of the work is done by volunteers. I feel right at home there. Volunteer work is a lot more appreciated there than here in North America. For example, there is a group for the regional park. One Sunday a month, they work in the park and they're provided lunch and free access to activities in the park. People thank you for the work you do and the local community is aware of it."

Dinsdale says, "It's the effort of the community groups that keeps the community stable and safe." And Bowen thanks him for doing more than his fair share. A farewell party is planned for Sunday, June 5, from 2:30 to 5 p.m. at the Legion.