By Laura Nichol, Community Outreach & Volunteer Coordinator
When Mitchell Wilyman attended a friend’s wedding at Fort Edmonton Park, he didn’t think he was about to discover a new community that would change his life. After a great time at the wedding, he joked with the staff about coming down to drive the train, and they immediately encouraged him to volunteer. Mitch thought it might be fun and now, a decade later, he’s a regular fixture at the Park, along with his beautiful step-daughter Olivia. “I was volunteering down here all the time as a costumed interpreter and at Halloween and Christmas,” Mitch recalls, “and Olivia kept asking me what I was doing. She loves crafting and finally demanded to be included”. Even at the age of 5, Olivia was a natural at customer service – as she demonstrated from her very first shift as a craft leader at Christmas Reflections. After a great time sharing stories and activities with other children, she was sold. The following summer, she joined Mitch in costume in the Fur trade Fort – now Mitch couldn’t imagine the experience without her: “It makes my head spin how much she loves this…now she collects American Girl dolls and is a self-proclaimed history nerd!”
Mitch takes great pride in seeing how much Olivia has grown through the experience of volunteering and appreciates how much opportunity has permitted her to challenge herself. He glows describing Olivia, “She jumps in with any activity, and she’s treated as an equal. I tell anyone: as much as you like the Park, the people are just as good.” Mitch appreciates the dedicated and caring community where he feels a part of a bigger family. In his professional life, Mitch is a plumber, running the family business his father began, and a lot of his work is independent. Volunteering with his ˜fur trade co-workers’ has become an important part of his social network: “It’s so nice to be surrounded by other volunteers and staff, who know your name and are excited to see you when you arrive.” Olivia has also been quick to make new friends with other volunteers, and these days she’ll be the first to offer up help with performing a vignette or running an activity.
Mitch especially values that Olivia gets to work with great female role models who demonstrate that she can be anything and that the history she’s learning reinforces the great value women bring to society. “We talk about how in the time period of the Fort, women couldn’t vote, but look how important women’s roles were to the community,” Mitch say, ” She’s learned about suffrage and how historic women made these important changes¦. There are so many great women to be examples for her at the Park, both historically and the staff and other volunteers. It’s so important because I want her to grow up knowing that the only limitations you have are those that you put upon yourself.”
The sky’s the limit for Mitch and Olivia in the adventures they have at Fort Edmonton Park. He recalls a special bonding experience when the pair were peeling bark to make tipi poles, which unexpectedly turned their hands orange. “An interpreter said it was fairly common and not to worry, but the orange stayed for more than a week! Olivia was worried about what the other girls at softball would think, but it ended up being another opportunity to share a historic – and funny – story!” Mitch and Olivia have volunteered for most events at the park: Halloween Spooktacular, Christmas Reflections, Easter, Celtic Gathering, Free Admission Day…the list goes on and on! They’ve also appeared in assorted parades, recruitment fairs, TV spots and outreach ventures. And the opportunity for new experiences never seem to cease: “Where else can a 12-year-old get on a York boat… where else can a guy like me get on!” Mitch laughs.
Mitch is quick to encourage anyone who’s passionate about history to get involved. When he started, Mitch was worried the fun of the Park might be lost by seeing the inner workings, “We love Disney, but I don’t want to know how Disney works: it’s like a magic trick, I just want to be entertained. Here, I don’t ever want to go back to the other side of the rope.” He’s never regretted his decision to get involved and their volunteer journey continues this month at our Christmas Reflections event. This past weekend as Olivia twirled around at her fitting for her new Edwardian dress, both Mitch and Costume Coordinator Meg could see her positively vibrating with excitement to be back at the Park for Christmas.
Ultimately, Mitch sees value in his volunteering because of the impact he can make on the public, especially at Christmas. Even before Olivia got involved, Mitch loved Christmas Reflections. He recalls an evening tending a bonfire at one of his first Christmas Reflections events: “A very grumpy man came up to the fire complaining about being out in the cold at the event. His family had brought him down to spend time and he clearly wasn’t having it,” he recalls. Mitch went about selling the experience to the man, sharing why the event was a favourite for him: “it’s easy going, reminds us of yester year and what Christmas is really about: It’s not about toy shopping, it’s being together and doing these things that happen in Christmas movies, those core values of Christmas”. At the end of the evening, the fellow came back and found Mitch: “He said, remember me? I was so grumpy at the start of the night but that was one of the best experiences of my life. This was the perfect way to spend Christmas with my family.”
This is a special time of year for both Mitch and Olivia in part because they have so many memories of the event together. They look forward to making more great experiences at the Park for Christmas Reflections in just a few weeks. They’ll be helping dip candles and sharing stories alongside some long-time volunteer friends. Don’t miss out on your chance to experience a relaxing Christmas past; join Mitch and Olivia at Christmas Reflections.