Patti Shales Lefkos
For The Morning Star
From her early years of helping her parents with church fundraisers to her first formal volunteer work as a 14-year-old Candy Striper at St Joseph’s Hospital in Comox, Kalamalka Rotarian of the Year Carmen Heather Larsen was encouraged to give back to the community.
Her Rotarian dad, Don, a hardware store manager, and her mom, Judy, a retail worker, have been her greatest inspiration for involvement in Rotary.
“Dad was the one in his club in charge of logistics, very organized, knew how to get things done and knew the right people for the job,” says Larsen.
“My mom was his right hand. She would be there to support him, help with anything she could because she also believed in the ideals of Rotary.”
Rounding out the Rotary family tree is her brother Allen, a member of the Parksville Rotary Club.
Larsen spent her high school years in Courtenay, then went on to McGill to pursue a BA in Asian Studies and History. During that time she worked at a sexual assault crisis line.
“It opened my eyes to so many different lifestyles and points of view with the other volunteers and the women who needed assistance,” she says.
Later while completing her MEd in educational psychology and special education at UBC, Larsen spent six years as a Big Sister with Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland.
“This was the volunteer work that had the biggest effect on me,” says Larsen.
“The first little sister was in foster care as her mother had HIV and was affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. The second girl was a recent immigrant from Vietnam whose mother wanted her to have a Canadian female role model. I learned so much about poverty, addictions and class from these experiences.”
After completing her MD at Dalhousie and post-graduate work in family medicine at the University of Alberta, Larsen and her husband, local otolaryngologist Jacek Szudek, relocated to Vernon with their three daughters, Mira, Leni and Esme.
“I always wanted to join Rotary once I settled in one place. I looked for a lunchtime club that had active women members in leadership roles and had a strong community focus,” says Larsen, who became a member of Kalamalka Rotary in 2014.
But what keeps Larsen motivated to continue her involvement?
“The world is an unequal place. By luck of the draw I was born into a white, middle class family in Canada. I have been able to pursue all my interests and goals and wish only that more people were so fortunate. That motivates me to share my skills, talents, and interests to invest in others.”
As Kalamalka Rotary Community Projects chair, Larsen facilitates short projects such as cleaning up graffiti on downtown buildings and installing playgrounds at places like the Allan brooks Nature Centre.
Larsen’s current favourite long-term project is the Starfish Pack Program.
“I know each weekend 67 kids in Vernon have some extra food in their tummy because of individuals and businesses in Vernon who have donated to this project. I also know many more children need these meals. We are limited by the amount of money donated. This year we want to expand our donor base, including multi-year commitments to ensure funding stability.”
So how does she fit Rotary into her busy schedule as a mom, wife and doctor?
“I prioritize Thursday from 12 to 1:30 p.m. as me-time. My husband and kids know how much it means to me. Rotary lunch is my oasis of fellowship, laughter and belonging. I always feel good leaving the meetings replenished with the knowledge that every day, around the world, other Rotarians like me are also trying to make the world a better, more equitable place for all.”
Kalamalka Rotary past president Brian Reid said Larsen was a natural choice for Rotarian of the Year.
“As you can clearly see by the everyday involvement in making other people’s lives better, from a professional standpoint to her volunteer hours, Carmen demonstrates a true caring for those less fortunate and strives to make a difference in their lives,” says Reid.
“Bringing to life the story behind the origin of the Starfish Backpack program that she has championed, by saving just one starfish by throwing it back into the sea, she is a true example of Service Above Self.”
As current president nominee, Larsen will serve as president of Kalamalka Rotary in the 2019-2020 Rotary year.