Video and story: Heart of Our City, Josie Mackey, A volunteer for the living and dead

Volunteers are the glue in this community but there are some lesser known ways that people contribute their time.

Josie Mackey is the manager for the Red Cross equipment loan at the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital on Thursdays and she also keeps a record of graves to help people from around the world trace their family tree.




Volunteers are the glue in this community but there are some lesser known ways that people contribute their time.

Josie Mackey manages the health equipment loan program for the Red Cross, she indexes graves, documents them for Find-A-Grave.com and helps people reconnect with their genealogy through stories of the dead.

The 73-year-old spitfire has a bad back but that doesn’t stop her from showing up at the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital on Thursdays to organize and clean the equipment Red Cross loans to patients in need.

“It’s important simply because we want to give back to the community. I’ve borrowed equipment too, my husband and I. We know the difficulties faced with elderly, aging, plus surgeries. Winter ice, broken ankles, and you need something to get around,” she said.

Her husband also volunteers as a mechanic for the returned equipment.

The room is full of walking canes, wheelchairs and crutches. All of the volunteers are between the ages of 70 and 84 years. There is more than 200 pieces of equipment, and Mackey works hard to make sure the three-month loans are returned for another patient to use.

This is Mackey’s retirement. She’s been doing the work for the Red Cross since 2003 and she was also in charge of the Teas and Bazaars program at the Seniors’ Centre until this year when she passed the torch to someone else to arrange a spring and fall tea for seniors in the community.

Prince Rupert wasn’t supposed to be a long-term stay. Mackey moved from Pinawa, Manitoba, to the North Coast in 1978 when her husband got a job at the Skeena Cellulose pulp mill. Originally, the couple came from the Lower Mainland but as Mackey said her husband liked to move around, “You know, a rolling stone gathers no moss.”

When they moved to Prince Rupert their two boys were 8 and 10-years-old. “I said we’re not moving until the boys graduate. Well, we never moved. We’re still here,” she said as her bespectacled eyes widened.

Mackey has always kept herself busy. At first, she worked as a psychiatric nurse in the Lower Mainland, and then when she had her boys she was a stay-at-home mom for years, but still volunteered and did home daycare. After moving to the north she found a job at the Achievement Centre working with mentally challenged adults.

She switched careers for a while and sold home and car insurance after taking a business course. Then in 1984, she administrated home support for aging and injured clients.

“That was in the hey day in the nineties when the government did splash their money around and we could help these people. Today, totally different. But we did everything. We did house work, bathing, personal care, took them to doctor’s appointment and did their grocery shopping,” she said.

In 1992, she also picked up a new hobby and joined the Genealogy Club. While everyone has their club duties, Mackey likes to do the cemetery index every month. She finds out what sections the fresh graves are in, and takes a photo, then looks to find the corresponding obituary in the newspaper. The details get entered in Find-A-Grave.com.

“It’s a little tedious but I find it interesting,” she said.

She’s discovered some of her own family history along the way as well. Her paternal grandfather was from Ireland and due to the potato famine he came to Canada to work as a farmer. She also had an uncle in England who was a Japanese prisoner-of-war in World War II and survived building the deadly Burma railway.

Mackey said the club gets requests from all over the world from people searching out their own family history. She pointed out that many requests are from people in Norway and Finland wanting to find out about their fisherman relative who moved to the North Coast.

Because of the work that Mackey and the Genealogy Club do, there are more than 7,000 graves indexed with 5,000 photographed at the Fairview Cemetery.

To put that in perspective, Nanaimo only has 5,930 graves indexed and 10 per cent of those have been photographed.

The work being done by Mackey to preserve Prince Rupert’s eclectic history and to maintain the Red Cross equipment loan program is important but it is also “aging in place” as Mackey said.

For the Red Cross, she’s looking for shift workers or newly retirees with sturdy backs to volunteer for two hours at the hospital on Thursdays. The Genealogy Club is also looking for curious minds who want to delve into their own family tree.