With her youthful appearance and straight-as-an arrow posture, 80-year-old Betty Hope Gittens exudes irresistible charm and positive energy. She could easily be strutting down a catwalk modelling fashions for stylish seniors. Instead, she celebrated turning 80 this year by going on a long walk of a different kind.
On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, she set out from Saint-Jean-de-Pied-Port in France. Walking each day for about 23 km, she arrived 36 days later at her destination: Santiago (home of the Cathedral of St. James the Apostle) in Galicia, Northern Spain.
Powered by the unshakable faith she acquired growing up in a Christian family, she walked the entire 800 km of El Camino de Santiago, (the Way of St. James in English) to raise funds for non-profit long-term care homes for senior citizens. The donations will help seniors in Ottawa, the city she’s called home for the last 60 years, and in her native Barbados.
It was a miracle of physical endurance and a fundraising feat ($205,000 at the time of this writing), that left even her admirers and supporters gasping when she first proposed the idea in fall of 2017.
“Jaws dropped to the floor,” she laughs as she recalls the meeting of Eldercare Foundation Ottawa, of which she is a Board member. “‘You are going to do what?’” they asked me. “‘Are you going crazy?’”
But Gittens was never the one to let other peoples’ doubts and misgivings deter her.
“God will be with me all the way,” she decisively said at the time.
Her journey is a metaphor for her own life journey, which has always been guided by faith, hope and love.
“God was with me all the way,” she says over coffee on a bright summer morning in June.
She is also a woman of hope. “Hope is my (maiden) name,” she says. “And Easter to me is the most important festival in the Christian calendar. I arrived in Paris on Good Friday, and then took the train to Saint Jean. It hurts me that Jesus died such a cruel death on the cross, but Easter is so full of hope.”
Her eyes glow softly as she talks about the love and devotion to her own family that inspires her to be such a passionate advocate for enhancing the lives of seniors in non-profit long-term care homes.
“If you have true faith, you respond to the needs of others,” she continues. “I saw the need (for amenities to make life more comfortable for residents) in the non-profit care homes in the Ottawa area, and in Barbados.”
Gittens’ recalls how she and her late husband, Dr. Rudy Gittens, turned their Ottawa home into a place of loving care for her aging parents and an aunt.
“We were not just the sandwich generation. We were a triple-decker sandwich,” she laughs, referring to the triple responsibilities of looking after children and parents while tending to their own professional responsibilities.
She was an entrepreneur and businesswoman. He was an orthopedic surgeon at Ottawa’s Riverside Hospital, and official physician to Canada’s national soccer teams.
The experience inspired her to do more for other seniors. For 27 years she was chairperson of Help the Aged Canada (now HelpAge Canada) a non-denominational, non-profit charity dedicated to helping impoverished older persons in Canada and the developing world.
About 10 years ago, her husband – who was born in Trinidad but immigrated with her to Canada shortly after their marriage 60 years ago – said, “Canada has been good to us, so let’s do something in return.”
At that point, Gittens met Adam Nihmey, current chairman of Eldercare Foundation, a registered charity that raises funds to enhance the lives of Ottawa’s growing population of seniors in nonprofit long-term care homes.
“And the rest is history,” Gittens says cheerfully.
The history began 80 years ago in Bridgetown, Barbados, where she was born. She has pleasant memories of growing up in a loving family that instilled the virtues of faith, obedience to God’s will, and discipline. She remembers going to church every Sunday with her parents and siblings. After church, they would sit down to a big Sunday lunch often consisting of meat, rice and home-gown vegetables. The meal was followed by hymn singing with her father at the piano.
She met her future husband in Port of Spain, Trinidad, at the celebration that marked the short-lived federation of the Caribbean islands. A year later in 1959, they married and immigrated to Canada.
To this day, her daily regimen is shaped by an unflagging discipline. Getting up at the crack of dawn, she exercises on her treadmill for an hour. Her morning ritual always includes prayer and reading the Bible, which she does seated at her kitchen table. She goes for long walks three to four times a week.
“That’s my meditation time,” she says.
Although well thought-out and meticulously organized, her Camino walk was done on a wing and a prayer. She walked the entire route without a cell phone, alarm clock, medications or painkillers.
“God was with me every step of the way,” she says with conviction. “I could feel his presence and his strength. As I climbed the Pyrenees (the mountains that separate France from Spain) I felt his power and presence propelling me.”
It was not an easy walk, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
“Going through some of these 14th century villages, we were walking with the animals. It not easy since the paths are more like narrow dirt tracks,” she says.
When other younger pilgrims she met along the way heard she was the first 80-year-old Canadian woman to walk the entire route in one go, they wanted to pose for photographs with her, she says with understandable pride.
“I see my life like walking the Camino,” she remarks. “There is only one route to get where you want to go. That’s by following the yellow arrow.” She was referring to the yellow arrows along the route that often led through mud and rocks.
“There are other, more attractive ways to go, but my life is like that yellow arrow. I am disciplined and obedient to God’s path.”
I asked her if this pilgrimage was also an act of thanksgiving to God for the many blessings she has received in life.
“You are absolutely right,” she says without missing a beat.
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