‘Debt of gratitude’: Oak Bay woman back on the beach, 20 years later

'Debt of gratitude': Oak Bay woman back on the beach, 20 years later

Sandra Birrell can’t shake the sand from her soul.

It’s a beautiful, sunny day at Willows Beach, so she’s not taking it for granted. Because for her, this has been 20 years in the making.

“You can’t beat it,” exclaimed Birrell, pointing to the shore that’s popular with many, including those reading a good book or taking a stroll.

“Can’t beat the views and the birds here. You’re really in touch with nature here, and of course, you’ll have seals going by and just the sailboats…” she said.

But she didn’t experience the views, the birds, the nature like normal — like now — for decades. With her disease, the one that stopped her legs from working like normal, she was stuck on the sidewalk, stripped from the sand.

“Of course, walking in deep sand is everyone’s worst nightmare when you have a bit of a balance disorder,” Birrell told CHEK News.

She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis about 44 years ago. Her nervous system was failing her, and by 2006 her symptoms escalated — limiting her access to the beach, a place she loves, her stomping grounds.

“The world gets smaller and smaller as your walking is affected, so that’s primarily my issue,” she said. “That’s the one I deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

But for Birrell, the world got bigger again because stories like hers catch the community’s attention.

“In conjunction with Oak Bay Parks and Rec, we came up with the idea of a ‘Mobi-Mat,’ which is what you see behind me,” said Leslie Johnson, president of the Kiwanis Club of Oak Bay.

The seasonal mat was rolled out this past August. It’s located off Bowker Avenue and cost $14,000, according to Johnson, with funding from the Oak Bay Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.

But it’s all worth it, especially for Birrell. 

“We’ve got two granddaughters, I’ll be able to watch them build sandcastles, we’ll be able to take a fish and chip dinner down there,” she said.

“That is the entire sole purpose of the mat. But it’s also for the community as well,” added Johnson. “We have people coming down with kayaks.”

Elsewhere on Vancouver Island, Mobi-Mat walkways for those with wheels, including wheelchairs, strollers, wagons and kayak trailers, have also been installed in Nanaimo.

“It makes it that much easier to access the beach,” said Johnson.

For next season, Birrell’s even offering a suggestion: “Ideally, it would have more of a turning circle at the end,” she said.

“That sounds like a marvellous idea. To have a turnaround, yeah, might be something we can look into,” said Johnson.

Still, Birrell’s back at her happy place, saying she owes “a huge debt of gratitude” to the two clubs.

“This beach was integral to our lives, and now with our grandchildren, it would be nice to recapture some of those memories,” she added.

As she basks in the sun, her husband by her side, and beneath her only the sand.

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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