Skip to content

Building belonging – field notes from the heart

In 1992, I walked into the Whyte Museum to meet with Bernadette, Educational Programs Officer.

In 1992, I walked into the Whyte Museum to meet with Bernadette, Educational Programs Officer.

I set up the appointment, intending to explore volunteer opportunities beyond my usual stints at the church, sorting rummage, or as mother-of-the day in kindergarten or as playschool board member.

I dragged a comb through my hair, put on a clean pair of pants and dusted each shoulder for stray hairs and baby spit. With four children between the ages of one and eight years, a husband, two restaurants and a dog wanting to be walked, I was hurrying. I wanted to make a good first impression and struggled to arrive on time.

The small office was draped with plastic. We introduced ourselves, shouting above the din of jackhammers and construction. Bernadette apologized for the noise, told me that the museum’s new addition would open in June and that a big capital campaign was just ending.

I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t there to make a donation of dollars, but I was willing to pay a babysitter for a couple of hours. I was curious to learn if my values and talents might benefit the museum’s upcoming programs.

I was looking for a creative outlet, wanted to meet new people and learn about this cultural institution.

Locally, there are over 100 registered charities as well as numerous societies which may or may not be registered, offering employment both paid and unpaid. According to the Government of Alberta’s website, “approximately 176,000 Albertans are employed in the sector, and 1.4 million Albertans volunteer across cultural sectors. The non-profit/voluntary sector contributes $9.6 billion in revenues to the Alberta economy.”

I chose to volunteer at the Whyte, partly because I was curious about its activities, but I was also inspired by the woman who had left such a significant legacy.

Born Catharine Robb in Concord Massachusetts in 1906, she and her artist husband Peter, founder of the Peter and Catharine Whyte Foundation as well as the Whyte Museum.

“Her life is marked by great generosity to the Banff community – she donated money to build the Margaret Greenham Theatre at the Banff Centre and she paid a significant amount towards the original Banff Recreation Centre,” wrote historian Chic Scott. “In the early ’60s, she donated a building for the Banff Public Library and later the land on which the present library stands. Her support for the Stoney people from Morley is legendary ...”

Wealth and privilege may be a starting point to this story of philanthropy, but when combined with passion, purpose and concern for others, Catharine Whyte’s legacy inspired a more vibrant and culturally sophisticated hometown for raising my family.

My favourite definition of philanthropy reads “a practical kindness that works to actively help humanity.”

From meals on wheels, to digging soil in the community garden, to baking pies for the church, we see philanthropy in action. From a benefit concert, to a GoFundMe campaign, to communications about bear awareness or plastics, we can act on our responsibility to others.

Making a significant contribution to an endowment fund or giving a charitable gift that is personally meaningful, are other ways to actively help humanity.

No matter what you call it – the civil sector, the public service sector, the non-profit/voluntary sector, or the term I prefer, the philanthropic sector – actively finding ways to get involved and give back, also brings joy.

I left my interview at The Whyte Museum almost 30 years ago, feeling a glow of “Yes. I can help.”

My shyness and concerns about the lack of change in my pocket had been eased. The more important change was now in my mind.

In the summer of 1976, Lorraine Widmer-Carson found her first Banff job as a chambermaid, then a waitress. Between 1980 and 2017, she has worked for Parks Canada, the Whyte Museum, the Friends of BNP, the Banff Centre, and most recently as executive director at the Banff Canmore Community Foundation. In future issues, she will share personal views on philanthropy and community. She can be reached at: