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Former educator still helping people

Dorothy Ellis is President of Centre Hastings People Helping People, a community program that provides financial aid to low-income families enduring hardship. "Nobody chooses to be down and out," she says. "Life's dealt them a blow." Photo by Joanna Becket.

By Joanna Becket

Dorothy Ellis is a woman to be reckoned with.

At five feet two inches and a lean 122 pounds, the spirited 73-year-old former teacher from Belleville, Ont. is not afraid to speak her mind.

“You do whatever needs to be done in any situation regardless of the fallout,” she says emphatically. “Bust it apart and deal with the pieces, whatever the problem is. There’s no sense pussy-footing around it.”

“Pussy-footing” is not something Ellis is often accused of. An award-winning educator with more than 40 years of teaching experience behind her, primarily with Belleville’s Centennial Secondary School, she has spent decades advocating on behalf of students, their families and teachers.

She initiated integration programs for children with special needs and created a co-op program designed to address the individual needs of high-risk students. For a time, she was the department head for the school’s special education program.

Under her tutelage, she explains, Centennial Secondary School was the first school in the county to have students with special needs complete a four-year program to enable them to graduate from high school. (Prior to this, students with special needs received only two years of high school education.) In 1992, she received the Sir MacKenzie Bowell Award for Educator of the Year for her extraordinary efforts and leadership in the field.

Ellis’ no-nonsense approach is evident in her every action. Asked what she feels passionate about, she replies, “taking care of people,” and pulls out a list of her board and volunteer memberships with organizations covering a range of social issues from injured workers to children’s mental health.

Her current role as president of Centre Hastings People Helping People, a community program that provides financial aid to low-income families enduring hardship, is what concerns her now.

Recognizing there are people out there who “have no safety net, and fall through the cracks of the social system,” as Ellis describes it, the organization provides housing, medical care, medicine and other services to those without access to other means.

In one situation that she dealt with recently, Ellis met with a 62-year-old man who had never been on social assistance but couldn’t work because of a disability. He was out of money and now homeless. People Helping People gave him grocery money, one-month’s accommodation in a motel, and a doctor’s written confirmation of his disability that qualified him for social assistance.

“It bothers me that churches are always sending money to other countries when our own people are homeless and needy,” says Ellis with conviction. “Nobody chooses to be down and out. Life’s dealt them a blow.”

“They broke the mould the day Dorothy Ellis was born,” says her friend and neighbour Cliff Maclean.

“Whenever there’s someone in need in Hastings County, Dorothy is always the first to lend a hand.”

Dorothy Ellis has been diagnosed with cancer three times in her life including a breast cancer diagnosis four years ago at 69.

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” she says. “Time is all we’ve got and I don’t have a lot left. That’s why I can’t waste any.”

Her enthusiasm is contagious.

Married to Alvin Ellis, 75, for 52 years, Ellis credits their relationship’s longevity to giving each other plenty of space. “Alvin allows me to be whatever I want to be,” she explains. “I could never be ‘joined at the hip.’ We each need space to be ourselves and to do the things we love to do. Otherwise, we never would have lasted so long.”

Dressed in a coral sweater and cream-coloured pants, she’s clearly a woman who’s in control. “Presentation is important to me,” she’s quick to add.

Her hair is always perfectly “coiffed” thanks to Iris, her longtime stylist at Belleville’s Quattro Hair Designs. She’s even been known to go in for “touch-ups” between her regular weekly salon appointments.

No “shrinking violet,” she’s wearing red-framed glasses. “I love red,” she says. “I love vibrant colours. I’d buy a red car but I already have a red truck.”

She prefers delicate gold and diamond jewelry and wears it in multiples. She’s usually toting a Prada or Coach bag and she has a passion for shoes.

“I love shoes,” Ellis exclaims. “I have 100 pairs. And purses to go with the shoes.”

About the current fashions, she’s adamant: “I’ll never live long enough to be told that something I want to wear is too young for me. If I like it, I’ll wear it. I don’t care how damn old I am.”

Ellis says she got her sense of style from her mother who lived to be 100. “My mother never looked at a price tag,” she explains. “Whatever looked good on her, she bought, regardless of the cost. The same with hats. She loved her hats.  She was never going to get rid of them. ‘They might come back some day,’ she said.”

Both her appearance and her house reflect her need for order. She and her husband Alvin have filled their home with the things they love – crystal glasses, crocheted doilies, Royal Doulton figurines, paintings, prints, framed photographs and Tiffany-style, hand-painted glass lamps. Every item has its place, and everything reflects their very personal – and traditional – sense of home.

Born and raised near Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Ellis loved the farming life. Her father, she explains, was a “mixed” farmer, breeding beef, sheep, milk cows, and pigs and he ranched silver foxes, a thriving business at that time in the island’s history.

“I was Dad’s boy,” says Ellis, who was one of four girls.

Life was different then. They had no electricity until Ellis was 11 years old. “I read by a coal-oil lamp. And there was no saying you were bored or didn’t have anything to do. I was carrying wood and water, feeding the calves and cleaning out the pigs.”

P.E.I. is still “home” for the couple. She and Alvin, who is also from P.E.I., built a cottage on the island and she now lives there for six months of the year.

The Ellises first came to Belleville from Toronto to give their daughter a gentler childhood.

“We didn’t want a shopping mall kid,” says Ellis. “We wanted life as it was in our day. We wanted her to be able to trust her neighbours, to feel confident and safe, and to be able to get outdoors and enjoy nature.”

Their house on Boundary Road, just off Highway 37, was once their cottage property, purchased when they lived in Belleville and needed a place out of the city for their daughter Janet to keep her horses. When they were ready to live in a more rural setting, they expanded the cottage into a modern, spacious bungalow, and moved in to live there full time.

In 2002, after Ellis retired, she won $250,000 in the Lotto 6/49 Encore draw.

Winning the lottery, “gave me the opportunity to be generous with my daughter and to be freer with the money we’d set aside for retirement,” she said.

She speaks with great fondness of her daughter, Janet, 47, and son-in-law, Peter, 50, both cancer survivors, and their sons, Nicholas, 18, and Matthew, 21.  She’s passionate about her family.

She’s also passionate about her friends and is often the first at the scene at any sign of illness or hardship.

There have been sightings of Ellis behind the wheel of her white Buick Lucerne  barrelling up a country lane to the back door of one farmhouse or another to drop off one of her frequent gifts of wine, biscuits, or something involving clams, a reminder of her P.E.I. roots.

“Dorothy Ellis has enormous generosity and a big heart. She’d give you the shirt right off her back,” adds Maclean.

“I believe in the golden rule and if I can live that, that’s all I need,” she declares.

What’s important, says Ellis, is to “be responsible. Be caring. And take care of your fellow man.”

She’s relentless. “Heaven for me is doing the best I can every day and if I died tonight I could lay on my deathbed and have no regrets. To me, that’s heaven.”

Until that day, there’s “no time to waste,” says the woman who never seems to sit still, even for a moment.