Remembering Allen Olson: A community leader in child and youth health care
Julie Forster worked as a child and youth counsellor at the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health in the Ledger Building. Her and her colleagues recently lost a close friend, Allen Olson. To honour Allen’s great commitment to his work and the community, Julie wrote this letter in memory of him.
We at Children’s Health Foundation are grateful for dedicated community members like Allen, who have such an incredible impact on the lives of children, youth, and their families. We are honoured to share this on her behalf, in memory of Allen.
From Julie Forster:
I worked with Allen at Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health in the Ledger building for many years and a while ago I came upon this quote that seemed to aptly describe our colleague and friend, Al Olson:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived; this is to have succeeded.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Al started his Child and Youth Counselling (CYC) career in the late 1960s at the Bay Pavilion/Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria with Dr. Philip Ney. In the early 1970s, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry moved to the 6th floor of the Eric Martin Pavilion where Allen continued his work with Vancouver Island kids, youth, and families.
Jack Ledger House opened in 1987 on the grounds of the Queen Alexander Hospital becoming the first psychiatric, mental health and residential treatment facility for children, youth, and families on the Island and surrounding islands. Al would work in several programs within Ledger from its opening in 1987 to his retirement in 2004. His work with kids, youth, and families within the Ministry of Health and Island Health spanned 36 years and was exceptional.
Overlapping his dynamic CYC career, Allen and his family started a Pee Wee Karate Club in 1987 ‘kick starting’ 30 years of teaching martial arts and boxing to kids, youth, adults, and families in the West Shore community. Al, family, and friends would build two large multi-purpose gyms in Metchosin and Colwood to provide this longstanding service to the community.
Allen exuded extraordinary energy, drive, vision, wit, and talent in all parts of his life; he was always inventive and creative in his thinking, very personable, funny, and genius in how he worked with kids. He had his own unique, one of a kind style – an ability to talk so kids wanted to listen, a master at knowing those ‘teachable moments’, meeting kids and youth where they were at, finding just the right therapeutic moment and approach, for example, a kid named Clayton who awakened ‘Al the sleeping horse’ and had the ride of his life; his use of play, fun and humour as a bridge towards new learning.
Through the medium of relationship, ‘learning by doing’ activities, and playful fun, Allen’s goal was to help kids feel better about themselves, develop self-regulation capacity and social ability with peers and adults, and in his words, ‘to get strong inside.’ He was a natural leader, an ideas person, and very skilled health clinician. He had a sign in his gym and often talked about ‘all feelings are good, but what you do with them is what really matters.’
Al had amazing ability and performing artist talent in communicating and participating on many levels while in his CYC role and while teaching ‘physical art forms’ such as wrestling, boxing, and karate. For example, when kids and youth were engaged in activity, he would introduce talk/positive feedback/moments of reflection to do with feelings, mental health challenges and coping strategies using child and youth friendly language. It was hugely instructive and motivating for both kids and staff.
Over a 14-year period at Ledger, he was the driving force behind 15 outdoor spring, summer, and winter wilderness camps as well as the experiential therapeutic wrestling program done once or twice weekly for kids and youth ages six to 16 years. He believed the natural outdoor environment and having fun on the mats provided real opportunities for individual and group experiential and therapeutic learning and change.
The essence of his work both professionally and in the community seemed to be ‘the building of strong internal foundations in kids and youth to support healthy living in themselves and their families’. His impact and influence were like the rock thrown into the water, where concentric ripples extended outward and inward; through his words and actions and how he chose to live his life Allen changed the conversation and social condition for many.
Over nearly 50 years, Al improved the lives of hundreds of kids, youth, and their families and communities. Many lives have breathed easier because of the person he was, how he worked, and how he lived his life – with such passion, humour, purpose, discipline, and grace.
Thank you to Allen and his family, for exceptional mentorship and leadership in the workplace and community and for all the unforgettable good times, fun, and life skills achieved and enjoyed by so many.
Ledger colleague and friend
Thank you, Julie, for sharing this heartfelt letter honouring your friend and former colleague, and for your generous gift to Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island in support of Island kids, youth, and their families as a tribute to Allen’s legacy in the community.