Catherine Mary Aitken contributed much to the Comox Valley during her lifetime. And she will continue to do so in perpetuity.
Affectionately known as “Mamie,” Aitken passed away in January 2015 and left a legacy of $6 million to be shared among four organizations.
Money in the Aitken Fund will be invested and each year the income allotted in equal parts to the Comox Valley Community Foundation, North Island College, St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation and the Comox Valley Hospice Society.
“This generous gift is a game changer for the foundation and the Comox Valley,” says CVCF president Dr. Norman Carruthers. “It will have a profound impact on the Valley, and keep on giving to the community for generations to come.”
The CVCF was established in 1996 and currently has endowment funds in excess of $5 million. The foundation has distributed over $1.5 million to the community since inception, including a record $200,000 this year.
The gift of the Aitken Fund increased the endowment fund holding to more than $11 million.
“The Community Foundation through its grants program can currently address the needs of only one-third of the charitable organizations applying for support.
“Once the Aitken gift begins generating income, we could see both the number of successful applicants and the average size of the grants increase,” Carruthers notes.
Like the other three organizations sharing in the fund, Carruthers said the donation was a complete surprise.
“We know the two sisters (Mamie and Cherry) had a strong interest in the education of young women as this is a key objective of the Soroptimist Club of which they were both very active members,” Carruthers said.
“As the last surviving member of her family, Catherine’s gift is in part a gift from the entire family who were very close-knit and who loved the community that had been home for just over 100 years,” Carruthers added.
He noted Aitken’s father passed away in 1964 and her mother in about 1966 (and her sister in 2007).
Mamie was born July 16, 1922 in Comox. In her early years, she worked at CIBC and then CFB Comox in the Civilian Personnel Department, from where she retired.
During her lifetime, Aitken loved sewing, cooking, golfing, skiing and dancing.
Remarkably, she won first prize 14 years in a row for her jelly roll recipe in the Comox Valley Fall Fair.
Her love of dancing was a highlight of her social activities, along with her membership in the Soroptimist Club with her sister Cherry.
Another testament to her community spirit was that at her celebration of life in February, she requested that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the SPCA.
Carruthers says the CVCF has received gifts through their estates from a variety of people who wanted to leave a lasting legacy and to strengthen the community far into the future.
“Harold Christie ($200,000), Gwendoline Willing ($99,000) and Bud Colbow ($85,000) come to mind, but nothing of this size of gift before.
“We also have some regular donors who have given and continue to give during their lifetimes, but these are the four biggest estate gifts we have been given to steward for the long term benefit of the community.”
While the will will not be finalized for some time yet, and the annual earnings will depend on investment returns, Carruthers says the legacy of this gift will be felt in many different ways.
“The annual income dedicated to student education at NIC could mean for example that 15-20 students could have their tuition fully paid – or 30-40 students have their tuition cut in half,” Carruthers said.
“The details haven’t been worked out yet but this will be a huge help for many students in achieving their educational dreams.”
Expanding on that, NIC development officer Erin Petersen said the donation is huge in that it will allow up to 25 students to attend the college tuition-free every year from now on.
“This is a total game changer. We’re very excited,” she said, noting a recent high school grad or young mother looking to return to school will not have to worry about financial concerns.
“Ms. Aitken’s foresight and deep love for her community are so obvious by her choices (in her donations). They cover the entire life cycle,” Petersen added.
“The real winners are the many Comox Valley residents who will be better served by these amazing charitable organizations that enrich all of our lives through the work they do,” Carruthers said.
“Strengthening our education, health and community services in the Comox Valley with an on-going gift of this size is fabulous and a wonderful statement of the love Catherine Aitken and her family felt for this community,” Carruthers added.
Lynn Dashkewytch, executive director of St. Joseph’s General Hospital Foundation, said Aitken has been making annual or bi-annual donations to support many areas of care over the last 20 years.
“This very generous donation will provide the opportunity to address the needs of both care and comfort for the frail and elderly living at The Views at St. Joseph’s,” Dashkewytch said.
“The Views is home to 117 residents and many of these residents spend a number of years in residential care. This very generous and thoughtful donation will provide the opportunity to upgrade the physical space in the rooms, the respite room and the common areas.
“The renovations would include new paint, window coverings and furniture. The goal would be to create an environment that feels more like a home setting. These upgrades will help enhance the comfort and quality of life for the residents that live at The Views at St. Joseph’s,” Dashkewytch added.
Terri Odeneal, executive director of the Comox Valley Hospice Society, described the legacy as “absolutely, incredibly good news.” And it comes at a great time as the society is realizing a 40-year dream this year when a new four-bed hospice space opens at The Views residential care facility at St. Joe’s.
Odeneal said that while several people on the CVHS board knew Aitken, the announcement of the legacy was “very much a surprise. It was quite the gift – one of those that takes your breath away,” said Odeneal.