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‘It gives me purpose,’ Sarnia man, 90, finds new life with volunteer gig

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Tara Jeffrey

When Henry VanArkel was shopping at the Habitat for Humanity Restore with his son a couple of years ago, it was a sign seeking new volunteers that caught his eye.

He was 87 and recently widowed. The Sarnia man had cared for his wife for eight years while she battled dementia, until her death in 2011.

He was looking for something to do.

“I hate to stay home,” said VanArkel. “I don’t just want to sit and stare out the window.”

So he signed up to volunteer at the London Line store – which sells new and gently used donated items to the public, to help offset costs of Habitat Sarnia-Lambton.

It started out as just a Saturday morning gig. But before long, the retired maintenance foreman from CF Industries (formerly CIL, Terra) was hooked. He was in charge of cleaning, refurbishing and troubleshooting all of the ReStore’s appliances, joining a team of some 45 to 50 volunteers on hand every week, who have since become a second family.

“Now he’s here 40 hours a week, five days a week, rain or shine,” said assistant manager Scott Ireland. “When he’s not here, everyone has to pick up their game.

“Honestly, we’d be lost without him.”

VanArkel turned 90 this month and just about everyone who works there gathered in the lunchroom, along with family members, for a surprise birthday cake.

His daughter, Anne Marie Dalton, recalled her dad was hesitant to volunteer at first.

“After my mom died, I said to him, ‘dad, you still have so much to give,’” she said. “So, it started off as just a couple of hours. Now, you can’t tear him away from this place.”

VanArkel cut his birthday cake and told the group, “I like you guys. I just have a good time here, you know?

“This gives me purpose.”

 

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