After a decades-long career helping young families, seniors and low-income earners reclaim their health and social autonomy, Bernice Marmel’s profound commitment to community only deepened as she championed the well-being of neighbours.
On April 28, 2021, the longtime Winnipeg resident, advocate, mother, friend and Order of Manitoba recipient died at 94, at the Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre.
Lynda Metcalfe recalled working with her friend at the Nor’West Co-op Health and Social Services Centre in the Gilbert Park neighbourhood in the mid-1970s, as the pair shared notes and concerns from community members, many of whom were young parents, single moms, minimum-wage earners, settling into city life after moving from a reserve, and pensioners.
In her role as a health educator, Marmel was responsible for creating programs and partnerships to support residents with nutrition, finances, social and community recreation, fitness, mental health, and more.
"As a nurse practitioner, I would see quite a few young moms in the area with children at home and being very stressed," Metcalfe recalled. "And I remember going down the hall from my office to her office, and saying, ‘Bernice I’m seeing a lot of moms who are isolated and having challenging times.’
"Before I’d even got the words out, she’d organized for a mom-and-tots group at Shaughnessy Park School."
Marmel swiftly booked an auditorium for parents and children to attend, guest speakers and collected donated toys for the kids.
"She just made wonderful things happen. She would see a need that many of us would miss and then create unique solutions."
For three decades, Marmel worked at the health centre in the heart of the social housing development in northwest Winnipeg. Her programs were lauded by colleagues, including University of Manitoba Prof. Dexter Harvey, who was co-ordinator of health education studies in 1980.
A letter penned by Harvey to Marmel in December of that year described her programs as being at the "forefront in contemporary health education thinking" and as the "ideal example toward which most of us are striving."
Marmel received her master’s degree in education from the U of M in 1986. Following graduation, she continued to contribute to academic discussions on health promotion and gerontology, with numerous papers and conference presentations in her name.
Her volunteer contributions to various boards and committees were also numerous, as she took on roles with the Manitoba Council on Aging, Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, North End Women’s Centre, Winnipeg Public Library, Carriage House, and Mount Carmel Clinic.
Her efforts led to the founding of two senior centres just off of north Main Street: Bleak House and McBeth House.
Despite her open and welcoming personality, curiosity and penchant for conversation, friends say Marmel seldom discussed her career motivation.
"She chose to be a health educator because she wanted to help people," said Julie Blouin. "It couldn’t have been a better job for her. She was able to, in her line of work, meet so many needs."
Blouin met Marmel while volunteering for the Manitoba Council on Aging about 10 years ago, and the two became fast friends.
"It’s just a self-continuing legacy: you just love what you do, and you keep doing it and it keeps affecting more and more people," Blouin said. "She has a good heart. She was very kind."
However, Blouin said Marmel’s childhood was defined by her time in the Winnipeg Jewish Orphanage, which friends also agreed likely influenced her career and volunteer pursuits.
Marmel was born to Sam Machlin and Rose Hechter-Machlin in the rural village of Arran, Sask., about 10 kilometres west of the Manitoba border, on June 13, 1927.
While the exact circumstances of Marmel’s arrival at the city orphanage are unclear, family members say she was one of many Jewish children whose parents either couldn’t afford to care for them or wanted them to have a Jewish education.
By all accounts, Marmel made lasting friendships at the home on Matheson Avenue, which also operated as a boarding school, and excelled in the environment.
In her teenage years, Marmel lived with an aunt and uncle in the River Heights area.
"She experienced the benefit and love of other people trying to make her life better," Blouin said of Marmel’s time at the orphanage. "I think that must have touched her deeply because her life was all about devotion to others, really and truly."
Friend and colleague Pete Sanderson said seniors housing was also of great importance to Marmel over their years working together in the Lord Selkirk and Gilbert Park communities, and throughout retirement.
Sanderson was managing the nearby Willow Park Housing Co-operative at the same time Marmel was working for Nor’West.
"I can tell you without hesitation, anything that I might have done or leaned towards that she wasn’t comfortable with, she was very quick to let me know, and she was usually right," he said.
"I absolutely knew she was sincere in everything she did and consistent in promoting health and wellness for everyone, but particularly seniors — and I knew any issue that I wanted to raise with her I could, and I’d get a frank answer."
Sanderson said he was encouraged by Marmel to think of how housing can improve health and welfare, and to create environments that encourage independence as opposed to dependence through small changes such as levers instead of door knobs and by fostering community support systems.
In her retirement, Marmel also served on the boards of three housing complexes, Sanderson said, and was instrumental in the development of Widlake Properties, a not-for-profit, 95-unit, 55-plus affordable housing project.
"She was out to serve the community, she was an example of how to do it," he said.
Marmel was exceptionally proud of her family, including her two children, Lawrence and Rosalind, and their father Max Marmel, grandchildren Shane and Allison, as well as being a devoted sister to her three brothers, Metcalfe said.
To friends, she will be remembered as a woman who made time to visit over a meal at the Salisbury House on Main Street, radiated happiness with her "megawatt" smile, enjoyed simple pleasures, and always saw her glass as half-full.
"Her friendship was really a gift to me," Metcalfe said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.