‘There’s Just Something Volunteering Does to You’: Nellie Befus’ Story

Nellie Befus has volunteered with Calgary Public Library for 44 consecutive years. At age 90, she holds the distinction of being the Library’s oldest volunteer, and one of the Library’s longest-serving volunteers.

Her dedication to the Library was sparked on a warm fall day in 1974, when Nellie bumped into her brother-in-law on a downtown street. “How are things with you?” he asked.

Nellie was feeling bored; with her four children now grown, she found herself with a lot of free time. Her brother-in-law had an idea. The oil and gas company where he worked had recently received a letter from the Library, recruiting volunteers for a new program.

The program, called Homebound Readers, would see volunteers deliver Library items to people who could not visit the Library because of mobility or health concerns. Nellie was intrigued. She had never volunteered before, but something about the letter caught her eye.

“I read the letter, then I marched right down to the Library,” she remembers. “I went straight up to the fifth floor and I went to somebody and I said, ‘I would like to be a volunteer.’”

‘An Amazing Volunteer’

Nearly a half-century later, Nellie continues to volunteer with Calgary Public Library.

“Nellie is an amazing volunteer,” says Azmin Poonja, Manager, Volunteer Resources. “She is one of those volunteers that every organization dreams about. She is reliable, committed, and most importantly, she cares about people and has a passion for literacy. Nellie is a perfect fit for the Library, and her dedication to volunteering is exceptional.”

Nellie, however, is quick to shrug off any praise. She’s matter-of-fact about why she has volunteered for decades: “There’s just something it does to you when you can do something for somebody else, you know?”

Books by Bus and Bicycle

Nellie started volunteering with the Homebound Readers program at its outset. She took city buses — and occasionally rode her bicycle — to deliver books to readers. She travelled across the city, between libraries and various residences. “These people needed reading, and they couldn’t get out,” she says. “Yes, some of the books were heavy, but I wasn’t an old lady then.”

Along the way, Nellie, who had never been much of a reader, started to spend her bus rides reading.

Nellie has warm memories of the people she befriended through Homebound Readers and the moments they shared: the stories eagerly told over tea, the “melt in your mouth” shortbread cookies she ate (and got the recipe for), the pet bird who could say “pretty Nellie.”

Nellie continued to volunteer with the program into her 80s. When carrying books on the bus became challenging, she started helping with Libraries in Residence. Program volunteers display mini libraries of items, selected by Library staff, in seniors’ residences or continuing care facilities.

 ‘A Very Good Idea’

Today, Nellie proudly runs the Library in Residence at the retirement home where she lives, helping fellow residents sign out books. She stays in close touch with Library staff, who deliver fresh titles to the residence every few months.

“Nellie goes to great lengths to ensure that the program is running smoothly and to promote the program to new residents,” says Luke Gray, who oversees the Libraries in Residence program in his role with the Library’s Special Services department.

“Nellie’s commitment to volunteering is unwavering. I really appreciate her no-nonsense demeanor, her genuine sense of humour, and her passion for literacy. Nellie sincerely recognizes the importance of the Library in the community.”

In her seniors’ home and throughout Calgary Public Library, Nellie has become well-known for her optimistic attitude and cheerfulness. “Be nice. See what happens,” she says.

Now a great-grandma, Nellie enjoys playing “silly games” on her iPad and working on jigsaw puzzles. She likes to read and lists Catherine Cookson and Mary Higgins Clark as her favourite authors.

Looking back, Nellie says joining the Library as a volunteer in the ’70s was “a very good idea.” She plans to continue volunteering for as long as she can. And when she’s no longer able to get her own books, Nellie hopes there will be a Library volunteer to bring books to her.

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