Keeping Dreams Alive at the Heritage Centre Gala

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Wilma Derksen signing books at the Heritage Centre Gala Brenda Sawatzky

The twelfth annual Heritage Centre gala rolled in on November 4, keeping healthcare at the forefront of their vision. The black-tie affair was graced with a full house of about 300 guests, with a final tally of $68,000 raised to continue support for the Open Health medical clinic in Niverville.

“Beginning with the 2015 gala, our plan was to dedicate the proceeds of five galas towards the completion of the interior finishing for the new 5,000-square-foot medical clinic,” says Steve Neufeld, chief executive officer of the Heritage Centre. “The galas provide our community with an opportunity to tangibly get involved. To date, no public funds or taxpayer dollars have been committed to the development of Santé Ouverte-Open Health Niverville.” 

The event kicked off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the doors to the new clinic, with dignitaries from Southern Health Santé Sud and the provincial government on hand. Celebrations continued in the Heritage Centre atrium under a canopy of lights, casting the illusion of a starry sky. Guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and wine in a theme called Keeping Dreams Alive. Dreamcatchers hung from the ceiling, and under each one rested handsomely displayed testimonials from residents, spouses, or children of residents who’ve found their dream in the Heritage Centre’s aging-in-place complex.

A three-course dinner in the ballroom was followed by addresses from Niverville mayor Myron Dyck, Morris MLA Shannon Martin, and Open Health’s Dr. Chris Burnett. Burnett shared his optimism for Niverville’s present and future standing in the fields of medicine and wellness. Though Open Health is considered a place for the treatment of illnesses, his goal is to create an arena for wellness also. 

“Wellness is a team sport,” said Burnett. “It takes a lot of different [practitioners]. I’d love to see this town become known as a place for wellness. It’s a vision I can’t own, but it’s a vision we can all aspire to.”

Wilma Derksen Delivers Keynote
The evening’s keynote speaker was author Wilma Derksen, accompanied by her husband Cliff. Derksen is the recipient of nine awards for her influence in the lives of victims, offenders, and the community at large. She has facilitated support groups for survivors of homicide and dialogues between victims and inmates. She has conducted training seminars and lectures, made numerous presentations to the justice system, and addressed victims’ needs at restorative justice conferences throughout Canada and the United States.

What qualifies her for this impressive array of credentials is the tragic trajectory her life took when, 33 years ago, her 13-year-old daughter Candace disappeared one day while walking home from school. Her body was later found in an industrial storage shed not far from their home, bound at the wrists and ankles and frozen to death. 

Derksen spoke openly about the grief, anguish, and revenge fantasies she harboured in the years following. 

“Grief is very lonely,” says Derksen. “It’s a one-person job. Everybody has their own story. I think Cliff and I realized we had to live our story openly. We had to talk about it. Sometimes it would have been so easy just to conceal it. I’ve got this image of this mother duck [leading her young]. I have to live my life openly so that others can follow me, which gives me a huge responsibility.”

Derksen also talked of the gripping fear she faced as a parent of two other children and how she learned to let them go back out into the world.

“Fear is a big one,” she says. “It’s almost bigger than rage. Because what I wanted to do with the other kids is just put them under the bed and keep them there. I didn’t really think about the offender; I just wanted my kids to be safe. [Fear] can absorb us. Anxiety, panic attacks, and all of that.”

As a mother, she also needed to help her remaining children live beyond their own fear and learn the differences between a stranger and a neighbour. They all needed to learn how to trust again.

“Continue to be vulnerable rather than to build walls,” Derksen advises those who are paralysed by fear. “You need some walls, but you always have to have doors in those walls. We want to build defences and not let anyone into our house ever again. And then you say, no, there’s angels that want to come in here, too. There’s devils, but there’s angels. It’s better to live and get hurt than to be safe and not live.”

In her address, Derksen spoke of the many angels who came into their lives in the form of caring human beings, and her unyielding faith in God that led her to a place of forgiveness and moving forward. 

The Derksens learned to channel their grief through different mediums. Wilma has since written five books dealing with loss, forgiveness, and letting go. Cliff is an artist and has poured his heart into magnificent sculptures, many of them becoming moving visual aids of the emotion he has battled over the years.

The couple helped found Candace House in Winnipeg, located just minutes from the Law Courts Building. Candace House is a refuge for victims and survivors of crime who are navigating the courts and criminal justice system. The organization provides resources, referrals, and support to victims. 

Wilma was also instrumental in opening the Manitoba chapter of Child Find just months after Candace’s death. Through avenues such as these, the Derksens recognize that Candace’s legacy lives on even today.

“[The volunteers at] Candace House and Child Find talk about Candace’s pixie dust,” Derksen says. “That’s kind of like when everything goes bad and you think it’s all over, but you just don’t give up. You continue and that’s when miracles happen. There’s a miracle in her pixie dust. And it’s about being loving and kind and making everything evil into something good.”

But Derksen realizes that their journey to forgiveness and healing is not yet over. In 2007, 23 years after Candace’s death, Mark Edward Grant was arrested and convicted of second-degree murder based on evidence that matched his DNA to that found on the twine which bound Candace. He spent ten years in prison until his retrial in November of this year. The presiding judge agreed with Grant’s defence that the evidence presented in the case against him was “fundamentally flawed.” 

“If he lives with having learned something, then this has already been worth it,” Derksen told CBC News the day of Grant’s acquittal. “We believe in miracles and I am going to continue to believe in them.”

Derksen confessed in her address that forgiveness is not something you simply achieve with enough effort. It must be put into daily practice. “Lifestyle forgiveness,” she calls it. And her formula for forgiveness is this: love first, justice second.

Derksen’s address was met with a standing ovation.

The evening concluded with a book signing of Derksen’s new release, The Way of Letting Go.

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