It was dream Geraldine Anderson didn’t think she’d live to see come true.
As a child, Geraldine dreamed of travelling to Canada’s Arctic to see polar bears in person. As an 86-year-old resident of Misericordia Place personal care home in Winnipeg, it was starting to feel as if time had run out.
But this feisty senior’s lifelong dream of getting up close and personal with Manitoba’s famous, fearsome and furry northern residents is about to become a reality because two local firms were determined to deliver a happy ending amid the heart-breaking gloom of the pandemic.
It all began because Geraldine was one of 100 residents at the care home who wandered the globe virtually as part of Misericordia Health Centre Foundation’s Around The World in 80 Days campaign to raise funds for therapy and recreation equipment.
The residents were asked to pick a dream destination and then spend 80 days — from March 2 to May 20 — walking, pedalling, wheeling and taking part in exercise therapy to rack up kilometres — and donations — on their virtual around-the-world adventures.
The goal was to raise $1,000 for each of the campaign’s 80 days — and donors helped the seniors reach their virtual destinations by contributing $80,368.
Not surprisingly, as described in a Free Press story in April, Geraldine’s trip of a lifetime involved journeying up north to see her beloved bears, at least virtually. The highlight was a FaceTime chat with Star, one of the polar bears at Assiniboine Park Zoo, and her human keeper.
The story could have ended there, but when Jessa Earle, vice-president of human resources and marketing for Calm Air, heard about Geraldine’s story she was moved by the senior’s love for polar bears and her determination to raise funds to buy equipment for the care home.
Which prompted Earle to reach out to her friend Tara Stefansson, vice-president of sales and marketing for Lazy Bear Expeditions, which arranges polar bear adventures, and together they decided this simple dream had to come true.
In late May, the two firms presented the care home resident with a giant novelty cheque stating: "Pay to the order of Geraldine Anderson: Round-trip airfare and Lazy Bear Expeditions Ultimate Polar Bear Adventure for two people."
In the fall, when travel restriction are expected to ease, they’ll fly Geraldine and a nurse from the care home to Churchill, where they’ll stay at the Lazy Bear Lodge for three nights, and climb aboard an Arctic Crawler tundra vehicle to check out the community’s famous polar bears.
"I’m not back down to Earth yet," an ecstatic Geraldine gushed to this columnist in a phone conversation Monday. "It was a surprise with a capital S. I lost my breath and I started to cry. I was just like a kid on Christmas morning.
"I am so grateful to Calm Air and Lazy Bear. There aren’t words that can express my feelings, except ‘thank you.’ If I think about it, I cry. I never expected this. Dreams do come true!"
It would be an understatement to say Geraldine’s room is a shrine to the massive creatures — festooned with photos, stuffed toys, coffee mugs, blankets, magnets, and all things polar bear. The senior is famous for dressing up in polar bear sweatshirts and polar bear earrings.
"They (polar bears) are a gift from God first of all," she proudly declared. "Secondly, they are just an incredible creature that deserves our respect. I’ve loved them ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My mother read me a book about a polar bear that lost his mom and then the mother found him.
"We have to take good care of the polar bears or 25 years from now we won’t have any. They are a symbol of life."
Geraldine stressed she won’t be going alone on this ursine adventure. "I was going to go a few years ago, but unfortunately my best friend passed away from leukemia so I couldn’t go. But she’s going with me in my heart," she confided.
Calm Air’s Earle said the two companies decided fulfilling Geraldine’s dream was a better option than just cutting a cheque to the foundation.
"We just felt like in the middle of COVID-19, in the middle of this pandemic, no one has had anything fun to look forward to," she said. "Geraldine was sharing her story, sharing her dream to raise money for the foundation, so what a great way to reward someone who is already giving back.
"It’s something really special to be a part of. Churchill isn’t on everyone’s bucket list, but Geraldine is so positive we thought — why not make it happen for her. I’m really looking forward to her coming back and sharing her stories. Everyone needs these warm and fuzzy feelings right now."
Heidi Klaschka, Misericordia’s director of communications, said the bear-loving senior wasn’t the only one in the care home to get misty-eyed. "It’s one of those brings-tears-to-your-eyes stories," she said. "The staff are just so excited for her. There were lots of tears when we told her. Who doesn’t love a happy ending?"
During the virtual campaign, Geraldine racked up kilometres towards her dream with a special form of exercise — every morning since the pandemic began, she uses her walker to deliver copies of the Free Press to other residents on her floor.
"I just finished delivering today," she boasted Monday. "I had my pay — a glass of peach juice. I get one glass Monday to Friday and on Saturday I get a glass of juice and a yogurt, because the paper is bigger."
She has no fears about being nibbled by a polar bear — "I won’t even put my hand out of the tundra buggy because you don’t know when they’re in a bad mood" — but there is one thing weighing on her mind.
She needs to find someone to take over her paper route when she’s away visiting the bears.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.