Acts of service
Inside Sylvia O’Connell’s (née Winstanley) closet at Parkwood Institute hangs her battle dress uniform from the Second World War. The jacket’s green wool and precise stitching have remained in pristine condition since she served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, stationed in England.
It’s the jacket she wore during numerous air raids, hiding under her desk at Canada House in London’s Trafalgar Square – the headquarters for Canada’s armed services during the war. It’s also the jacket she was wearing on VE Day in 1945, celebrating the Allied victory and cheering on British troops from a third-floor balcony.
O’Connell, 98, is one of nearly 100 Veterans who receive care at Parkwood through St. Joseph’s Health Care London’s Veterans Care Program.
Born in Lancashire, England, Sylvia moved to Canada with her family at age four, settling in Kirkland Lake in Northern Ontario. The family moved back to England during the Depression for better job opportunities. There, O’Connell completed high school and trained as a stenographer at Clark’s College in Bristol.
When enlisting with the Canadian Army, Sylvia changed her birthdate to appear older to ensure her little sister, Iris, could also enlist. “We both wanted to contribute,” she says. “It being wartime, we wanted to get on with things and do what needed to be done.”
After the war, Sylvia’s family returned to Canada. She continued her career at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in Hamilton, where she met her husband, Jack, and started a family.
At Parkwood, she enjoys many of the enriching activities available to Veterans, including curling, therapy dogs, flower arranging, arts and crafts, and baking. She also appreciates the property’s gardens and vast outdoor spaces.
One of Sylvia’s favourite activities is game night, including ‘Name That Tune’ with music from the 40s, 50s and 60s. “We like to have fun around here,” she says.
This year, more than $350,000 from community donors is supporting Veterans like Sylvia, helping cover room and wardrobe upgrades, dining room upgrades and festive events.
The Smibert family is a long-time donor to the Veterans Care Program. Their contributions have helped the Program in many ways, including the purchase of an ultrasound machine, installation of accessible showers and dedicated transportation for residents.
“We’re proud to support Veterans’ well-being and quality of life,” says John Smibert. “Bottom line, we wouldn’t have what we have without their courageous commitment and sacrifice.”
John’s father missed eligibility to enlist during the Second World War by one year, but he had close friends who served, several of whom died overseas. “Our family has always held Canada’s Veterans in the highest esteem,” says John.
After losing the family farm in the Depression, John’s grandparents and father worked hard to save enough money to purchase land in London and open North Star Ice Ltd, the family business for more than 65 years. These humble beginnings are important to the Smiberts, inspiring their approach to philanthropy.
“We worked hard every day to build a successful business and we feel it’s important to pay it forward, to take care of people.”