By ROY WOOD
As her 16-year run as a school trustee, including six as board chair, draws to a close, Marieze Tarr is thankful for the experience and excited about the next phase in her life’s adventure.
Tarr was appointed in January as Executive Director of the Desert Sun Counselling and Resource Centre serves the southern Valley from Okanagan Falls to Osoyoos and from Keremeos to Midway.
In a broad-ranging interview with ODN this week, Tarr enthused about the programs offered by Desert Sun, reflected sadly on the shoddy treatment she received during the Osoyoos high school closing crisis and offered the view that community leaders in Osoyoos and Oliver should be “working together as two communities to do great things,” not nursing petty, historic grievances.
“If you had asked six months ago would if I missed the school board, I would have said yes,” said Tarr. “I love education and kids and I have really strong connections (in the school district).
“But with this job I can keep all of that. I will still do work on the ground with kids in schools. I love this work. (It’s) a lot more hands on. I love helping people and working with people. The work I’m doing fits my personality.”
Tarr and her nine full-time and 9 part-time staffers, along with a hardy crew of volunteers from the community, provide an astounding pallet of programs covering women’s and men’s counselling services, affordable housing, educational support, effective parenting, seniors’ support services, literacy enhancement and socialization program for elderly single men.
What follows is a partial list.
With the help of BC Housing, Desert Sun recently purchased Sandalwood Court in on Main Street in Oliver and will run it as an affordable housing facility.
The 18 one and two-bedroom apartments and one house on the property are all currently occupied. Tarr says Desert Sun hopes there will be some turnover to help address the waiting list that is 20 names long and growing.
Desert Sun runs the Stop the Violence program for the provincial justice ministry. It’s aimed at helping women fleeing from abusive relationships and to help those stuck in such situations to navigate their way out. The contract includes a program to counsel children who have witnessed violence in the home.
The Women’s Circle is open to women who are facing stress in their lives from any number of causes, including divorce, children leaving home, financial strain, or whatever. The program runs once a week in Oliver and Osoyoos and usually includes 14 women.
The Community Kitchen occurs every Thursday at the Lutheran Church in Osoyoos. It’s aimed mainly at moms, but is open to anyone. Essentially, the program leader and the clients cook a meal in the kitchen and then eat it together. There are leftovers, which clients take home to provide another meal. There is a child minder available and a support worker to provide parenting advice for anyone who needs it.
Solitary older men
The Men’s Shed is based on a similar program in Kelowna. It will offer a meeting place for single, older men for a couple of hours a day starting in the fall. Social workers have told Desert Sun that many solitary seniors can become isolated and depressed, particularly in winter.
Men’s Shed will run at the large shop at Sandalwood in Oliver, but will be aimed at the Osoyoos as well. Clients will be encouraged to socialize and pursue hobbies. And there will be computer training.
There will also be cooking lessons. “Social workers have made us aware that many lone, elderly are not eating well,” said Tarr. “They were used to their wives cooking for them, but once the wives have died, the don’t cook for themselves.”
She expects that once the word gets around Oliver and Osoyoos, Men’s Shed could serve as many as 20 clients.
Roots of Empathy is a program in which Tarr coordinated at the school district and has taken with her to Desert Sun. Kids from kindergarten to grade eight learn empathy and emotional intelligence through interaction with a volunteer mother and baby. The program originated in Toronto, but has grown to the point where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funder and it’s in schools throughout North America, Europe and Australia.
Fearlessly Facing Forward was a camp run by Desert Sun this summer aimed at helping children dealing with anxiety. While most of the spots were paid for, a few were sponsored. The camp attracted youngsters from as far away as Keremeos and Midway.
Desert Sun is the host agency for Literacy Now, a school-based program that involves one-on-one literacy training in the Penticton and Okanagan-Similkameen school districts. The program takes a broad view of literacy and also provides “health literacy” for people navigating through the health care system and helps vulnerable women preparing resumes.
While a lot of organizations concentrate on just women’s and children’s issues, particularly around domestic violence, says Tarr. “But that’s just fixing half the problem. If you don’t address the men, I don’t think you fix anything,” she said.
“We don’t get any funding for men’s counselling, but we do have a men’s counselling program. All the money comes from fundraising.” There’s a waiting list of eight, down from 15 at the beginning of the year.
Desert Sun recently took a short-term contract to run a Parenting Skills program for inmates at the Okanagan Correctional Centre near Oliver. Tarr describe the experience as “exhausting, but good.” She said that one of her takeaways was the huge proportion of inmates who spent much of their youths in foster care. “The foster system is broken. We’re failing our kids. There’s a lot of sadness in that institution.”
Better at Home takes the view that seniors are often better off in their own homes than in institutions and tries to offer supports to make life at home possible. Supports include yard care and snow removal as well as transporting seniors to appointments and on errands. “We’re always looking for volunteers, particularly in winter,” said Tarr.
The Computer Tutor program is designed to help seniors learn the basics of using a computer or tablet. It runs at the Oliver and Osoyoos libraries.
One of the first things Tarr did as executive director was to insist that Desert Sun have a strategic plan. The board agreed and brought in School District #53 superintendent Bev Young to lead the process.
The mission statement that emerged reads: “Facilitate supportive programs to empower people of all ages to experience an enhanced quality of life in their homes, schools and communities.”
Asked to reflect on the high points of her 16 years on the school board, Tarr prefers to talk about the positive trends in education that have occurred during her tenure, including an increased awareness of the importance of mental health for kids, the development of a sense of belonging among students and a stressing of individual learning. “We’re really at a good place right now.”
Asked if she has any interest in seeking one of the available seats at the Osoyoos town council table, Tarr was unequivocal: “I don’t think politics is a good fit for me, because you’re going to be called all kinds of things all the time and it doesn’t matter what you do.”
She speaks, of course, from bitter personal experience.
During the winter and spring of 2016, the school district faced a funding crunch due to declining enrolments and explored options for dealing with the problem.
“As a trustee, your mandate is to provide the best possible education for students in the district,” said Tarr. “At that stage we didn’t have appropriate funding and I thought we, as a board, we had to explore what was best moving forward; how could we provide every student in the district with the best possible opportunities.”
The board voted four-to-two that the best of several unfortunate options was to close Osoyoos Secondary School (OSS). Following tradition, Tarr abstained since her vote would have made no difference.
The outraged reaction to the decision to close OSS was immediate, loud and angry. And much of it was aimed directly at Tarr, who received vicious and personal calls, emails and one-on-one confrontations.
“All this horrible-ness toward me as a person, and calling me terrible names and things, it was all just very nasty. But I have totally moved on from that,” said Tarr.
Much of the anger seemed rooted in decades-old grievances clung to by some long-time Osoyoos residents, including Oliver getting the regional hospital, the first liquor store and government offices and, of course, memories of having to ride the bus to high school in Oliver.
As recently as last week, a one-time socially and politically prominent resident was quoted in a local publication: “We just don’t like each other. That’s been going on forever. … It’s not going to change.”
Says Tarr in retrospect: “I don’t think I ever realized how deep the division between Osoyoos and Oliver is. And to me that is a real pity.”
“I’m all about how can we work together as two communities to do great things. To do what’s best for kids,” she said. “As leaders in the towns, we should set the example to do great things for both of our communities. … Just because something (happened) 50 years ago, are we still holding grudges? To me that’s horrible.”
As for OSS, the provincial education ministry rode to the rescue at the last possible moment in June 2016, saving the school and possibly the seat of local Liberal MLA Linda Larson.
However, the new and modern Southern Okanagan Secondary School sits in Oliver with 250 unfilled seats. And OSS, 40 years old and in need of extensive repairs, has not much more than 220 students rattling around in a facility built for 325.
Whatever the future of OSS, it will unfold without Tarr, who announced in July 2016 that she would not seek re-election to the board this fall. (The new board chair is Rob Zandee of Oliver, who consistently voted for the closure of OSS, even after the province announced the rescue funding.)
Tarr will be leading Desert Sun with its vision to be a “Leading edge, dedicated, professional organization providing responsive programs to meet the diverse needs of our communities.”
Photos and story by Roy Wood