Years of urban effort acknowledged

By Debora Steel, March 1, 2011

Wally Samuel, wife Donna and son Richard. The family chips in to ensure that tournaments are run smoothly.

Port Alberni — 

For those who attended the under 22 men’s and women’s basketball tournament at Maht Mahs on Feb. 18 to Feb. 20, you may not have realized it, but you were witnessing the end of a long run.

Organizer Wally Samuel is hanging up his cap, as far as putting on basketball tournaments. It’s been 30 years and more since he first started arranging sporting events for the young First Nations urban population.

“I think someone else can take over,” the 64-year-old told Ha-Shilth-Sa.

Wife Donna, who labors by Wally’s side at his tournaments, said it all started when he was the program director of the Port Alberni Friendship Centre in the early 1980s. They had five children at the time, and all of them grew up involved in sports.

Wally said he was involved not only with basketball, but softball and the Indian Games. Seven hours a day would turn into 16 hours and then it just wasn’t about the money anymore.

He arranged these activities for the young people to keep them off the streets and occupied in a healthy way, no matter what their home circumstances were. Wally said it was difficult to see the young people hanging out around the bars on Argylle St. with nothing to do but seek out trouble. So there were often community dances attached to the sporting events. They gave young people an alternative to street life.

Many of the young people came from single parents or broken homes. Wally said he didn’t want to see them fall through the cracks.

Daughter Robyn can hardly remember a time when her father wasn’t helping young people.

“We always had youth with us,” she said. “He was always driving youth to tournaments.” And there was always youth in the care of Wally and Donna. The Samuel home took in foster children for 20 years or more, and they often got the tougher kids placed with them.

“I understood them,” Wally said. He grew up in a single parent home, and he never wanted to see any young person left alone.

Robyn said many of these children she now considers her siblings. Her dad has taught her a sense of compassion for people and their circumstances.

Wally said he hoped that he relayed to the many children in his life the importance of treating everyone with respect, regardless of their place in society.

“It’s sad to say that many communities only look at their stars and are out only to win. I’m about participation,” he says of his personal philosophy.

Wally would tell his players that as long as they showed discipline to the sport and reliably showed up for practices and games he would vouch for them if someone asked his opinion of them.  Wally taught them about their public appearance, and speaking publicly, about courtesy and about being prepared.

For Wally, participation in sports is about discipline. To Robyn, Wally’s involvement in coaching and organizing tournaments goes far beyond that, however. She says it’s important that people realize what he has done for the urban youth, keeping them healthy and active over these many years.

Tammy Webster was born and raised in Port Alberni and met Wally at the Friendship Centre when she was just a young teen.

“He was our coach,” she said.

He was also a mentor, a positive role model and a father figure in her life, she said.

“And he kept us busy.”

Webster said there was a lot of pain in her life and she lost people around her to alcoholism and suicide. Wally Samuel, she said, helped many urban youth in the community from going down the wrong path.

“It sort of broke my heart,” Webster said when she heard that Wally was giving up the game.

“It’s going to be missed,” she said of the events he organizes. She wanted Wally to know that his work will be missed, and that she loves him very much and is grateful for what he has taught her in life.

“And for just being there for the athletes that he has taught.

Robyn says she tries not to get emotional when thinking about the commitment her dad and mom have made to youth over the years. She was surprised when he said this basketball tournament would be his last in this sport.

 “I think he’ll miss it,” Robyn said. But he’ll share his knowledge and support anyone wishing to take up the work.

Con Charleson has known Wally for all of his life and considers him a gentle, kind person who is well-respected in in the community. His first memories of Wally date back to their time at the day school at Hot Springs Cove. Charleson said Wally is known widely for his sports events, and people gladly help out when they know Wally is involved because the events are always well-organized.

“I’d like to thank him for all his time that he put in for the youth,” said Charleson.

Wally laughs when asked about his organizational skills in regards to tournaments.

He said it took him a while to learn, and there was always lots of help available to him, right from the beginning. The trick he said is delegation.

“People say ‘You never work, Wally’,” he chuckled, though he admits to doing some mopping and cleaning up from time to time.

While Wally may be known for his sporting events, he’s also widely known for his sense of humor.

“At parties he’ll make the craziest comments,” said Kathleen Ambrose, 18.

Kathleen played on the Ahousaht Blazers side in Wally’s last tournament. She is Wally and Donna’s granddaughter from Ruby and Lance Ambrose.

“I wish he would have more,” Kathleen said when asked about her grandfather’s last tournament. He organized it so his older grandchildren could have some place to play. There’s a lot of tournaments for the under 17s, but once you age out of that set there is very little around for the young adults in the crowd.

“That’s when they start wandering off,” said Wally of the danger of having senior level players riding a bench, or left out of the game completely.

Kathleen said she gets to spend a lot of time with her grandparents because they are involved in sports as a family.

“It’s definitely kept me out of trouble,” she said, adding her mindset is on better things. When she attends the games all day you go home tired and that’s a good thing as a young adult.

Kathleen said her grandfather is both coach and second dad. He gives tips on how to play and work as a team, and he’s always been there for her whenever she needs him. She especially likes all the trips she gets to go on with her grandparents to sporting events around the island and the province.

“He just likes to spoil us,” Kathleen said.

So what’s Wally going to do with all his spare time? His wife Donna has a few ideas, and top of her list is having the time to spend together to travel.

There are plans in the works to head out to the Canadian Native Fastball Championships this year. Wally likes ball, though he’s more of a coach and organizer. But last year he was called in as a player. It was the first time Donna had seen him at bat, she said. At the age of 64 he’s still playing the game and intends on devoting some time to organizing local baseball tournaments.

But for basketball, that’s for others to take over now, he said.

“I hope our family does continue with it,” said son Edd. He said though his father’s contribution will be missed, Edd appreciates all that Wally has done over these many years.

“The key thing is family. All of his work has really been for family.

“He’s been the most influential and inspiring person in my life,” said Edd. And he’s glad that he’s been able to have him in his life all these years. At one time in 1977 there was a fear that wasn’t going to be the case.

When Edd was 12 Wally had a heart attack. But not only did Wally survive the attack on his life, he recommitted to role modeling a healthy lifestyle to his children, grandchildren and other youth over the years.

Wally thanks all the people that have helped to make that work possible. Without those people, he said he wouldn’t have had the success that he has had.

“My family, my wife, they are there for me.”