Cowichan says goodbye to food bank icon

Betty Anne Devitt, one of the original founders of the Cowichan Valley Basket Society for more than 20 years died Wednesday, Sept. 9.

The Cowichan Valley is grieving a woman with a seemingly boundless desire to help others.

Betty Anne Devitt, one of the original founders, and the acting face of the Cowichan Valley Basket Society for more than 20 years died Wednesday, Sept. 9 at age 83.

Renowned for hating to be in the spotlight, Devitt nevertheless fought fiercely for years to establish a safe place where those with nothing could go, share some fellowship and have at least one decent meal a day and find a warm welcome.

The Basket Society, located on Garden Street in Duncan, also offered a place where the working poor, single parents and the elderly could get a food hamper to help supplement meagre incomes through the month.

According to her daughter, Christine Parlee, Devitt “started this when I was a teenager, when everyone you talked to said, ‘There is no such thing as homeless in Duncan!’”

Parlee is proud of her mom’s accomplishments.

“She stood up to council members, the mayor and the priest of her church to get this idea up and going. She did it was because it was the right thing to do. She spent months reading everything she could find on the subject of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness, because she knew that she couldn’t help them if she didn’t understand why they were there in the first place,” she said.

Those around her recognized Devitt’s efforts.

In her lifetime she received the Duncan-Cowichan Chamber of Commerce Black Tie award for volunteering (2004), the City of Duncan’s Scroll of Honour (2006), and Governor General David Johnston’s Caring Canadian Award, and was nominated by both MP Jean Crowder and MLA Bill Routley to be honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal (2012).

Devitt was also honoured at the Legislature in Victoria and was given the grand tour and honoured in Parliament in Ottawa.

“They even treated her to lunch, which according to her was the highlight of that trip,” Parlee said in her tribute to her mother.

But illness forced the energetic woman to curtail her activities.

“In 2010 we noticed that we were losing her, little pieces every day, and she was forced to retire from the one thing she really cared about,” Parlee said, remembering her mom as “this wonderful woman who thought about everyone but herself.”

Parlee asked anyone who remembers Betty Anne Devitt to honour her by making a donation to the Basket Society in her memory.

Colleen Fuller, the Basket Society’s current manager, said this week, “It is a tremendous loss and the folks here are really grieving. She just touched so many people in so many ways. It’s just a tragedy. Betty Anne is one of those people who makes a difference wherever she goes, whether it’s church or the food bank, she was always giving extra, extra, extra. It was great to have an example like that.

“We were able to work together for a couple of weeks before she left. She knew everybody and everything. I always said to her: ‘You’re a far better carer than I am.’ She just had a huge heart,” she said.

No firm plans have been made yet for any celebration of her life at the food bank, Fuller said.

“Right now, we’re going to hold off on it because she didn’t want a funeral or anything like that. But I said: we’ll phone in a month or two about possibly holding a luncheon or something because there are folks here who need to honour her.”

Duncan recognized Devitt with its Scroll of Honour in 2006, and Mayor Phil Kent also praised Devitt’s contribution to the overall community, including the many hidden poor, who soldier on with little income.

“I know the effort she put into it. She inspired a lot of people,” he said.