Mary Ellen Clark: an integral part of the Neepawa Natives


By: Lanny Stewart

It was a few years ago but Mary Ellen Clark remembers her one of many life experiences like it was yesterday.

"I was there in the hospital when his baby was born," said Clark with a smile. "He's like a son to me."

Zak Tully is one of the many young hockey players who have had their lives touched in a positive way by Clark, the current billet coordinator for the MJHL's Neepawa Natives. During the 2008-2009 season, Tully, who spent the entire season living with Clark, found himself in a situation that needed some attention and Clark -- like she has her entire life -- came to the rescue.

Clark received word that Tully's girlfriend was pregnant and that he would soon become a father. Clark says when she was notified of the news, she reached out to him and made sure to let him know that he's got a shoulder to lean on.

"The night he found out (that he was going to be a father), we sat down and talked through that whole process, which included the nine months of pregnancy with his girlfriend and him still playing hockey.

"I was with him the entire way and I know he (Tully) appreciated that," she continued.

For Clark, it was just one example of what is a long list of selfless deeds. At 69 years of age, the Springhill resident -- who has won several awards in her community over the years -- has dedicated her life to helping people who are in need.

Born in Selkirk, Clark's family moved to Arden when she was six years old. She would later commute to Neepawa during her high school years and after graduation, she began a career as a banker in Neepawa. She says ever since she was young, she was taught to give back to the community that she grew up in.

"It was always kind of instilled in us to give back. To be responsible I guess and to give back to a community where you lived."

Clark would later get married and have two children and it was at that time, she opted to become a stay-at-home mother. However, her community involvement didn't stop. She taught Sunday school when her children were young, was involved with the Neepawa Figure Skating Club during the years in which her daughter Donna Mae was a member and was a chairperson of the board which oversees the running of the Yellowhead Centre -- the current home rink of the Natives hockey club. She would also find herself back in the banking industry years later.

During this time, the Clark family was introduced to Michael Procter, a child who played hockey with his son David. Over the course of one winter, Procter's parents separated, leaving the 10-year-old in an unenviable position.

"Nobody really wanted Michael (Procter) at that time," said Clark. "Nobody could really take care of him, so the father called to see if we'd be interested in raising him.

"We took him in and he stayed with us until he was 18," she continued.

In 1995, Clark's life took a dramatic turn. She received word from her doctor that she had breast cancer. The longtime community volunteer realized her life had changed forever.

"I remember saying, very vividly when I was first diagnosed, I don't have time for this.

"How was I going to do this? My first reaction was I'll just do my surgery and I'll just have my radiation and I'll be done with it. Then of course, it was aggressive, so I had to do chemo(therapy). So then, I figured I'll get this done and then I'll go back to work.

"Well, it didn't work that way," she continued. "I was very sick. At that time, they didn't have the same drugs like they do today. So it took its toll on me."

After being notified from doctors that she was cancer free, Clark did what she knew best -- she gave back to the community once again. In 1997, Clark developed a volunteer program for cancer patients.

"I felt that if I could go and sit with other patients when they were getting chemotherapy and make a difference, that I would do that," she said. "At that time, the whole palliative care movement was starting and so, as a result of that, we formed a committee to see what we could do as volunteers to make a difference in their lives."

She says all the volunteers were trained with a special course, which was offered by Palliative Care Manitoba.  

"That's how the whole movement started in the area," she continued.

In 1998, Clark, with the help of several others, formed the official palliative care program.

"I am the volunteer coordinator and am very involved in the local and provincial cancer community which provides support to all women who have cancer."

In 2005, Clark's fight with cancer reared its ugly head yet again. This time, however, her longtime husband Elwood passed away due to a brain tumour.

This created a void in Clark's life. She no longer had her best friend to support and care for her. So when her son -- who at the time was involved with the Natives hockey club -- came to her for a favour, she opted to accept.

"When David approached me and asked if I would even consider becoming a billet (for the MJHL's Natives), I said no at first. He told me to try it for a week and if I didn't like it, then they'll do something else to accommodate the kids.

"He knew that if he ever got the kids through our front door -- I'd take care of them," said Clark with a smile.

Since 2005, Clark has billeted three Natives players on average each hockey season. Her role with the Neepawa junior 'A' hockey club would expand a few years later as Clark -- now known as the billet coordinator -- is responsible for making sure all players who are not from the Neepawa area receive requisite room and board.

"She pretty well is the team," said Natives head coach Ken Brooks. "She means a lot to the club. The work that she does is incredible. It's not just billeting people -- she looks after the guys as if each of them are her own. You couldn't have asked for a better person who cares about the Natives."

Over the years, Clark says she has developed relationships with each and every Natives player that has been part of the billeting program.

"I once had a young lad come up to me and ask me, how do I get from the bottom rung of your ladder to the top? I said pardon -- what are you talking about? Everybody is special to me. Every boy brought something different and something special to my life. I don't have a pecking order."

She recalls her first year as a billet as one she'll never forget. She fondly remembers former Natives Brayden Kolisniak, Taylor McMullen and Justin Cote staying with her during the 2005-2006 season. That year, the three players from Edmonton had a special bond with Clark as she learned to adapt without her husband day-to-day, while the three Alberta products learned to play the game they love away from home for the first time.

Clark says she keeps in touch with several other players who have moved on from the team -- that includes Kolisniak, McMullen, Cote and the aforementioned Tully, who along with his partner Mallory, recently named their second child after her.

"They named their child 'Clark'. That was a huge honour."

Her years of dedicated service to the Natives culminated in 2010 when she, along with 13 others in Canada, were named RBC Local Hockey Leaders. Clark received $10,000 which went to the Natives hockey team and was flown to Toronto to a special ceremony where her efforts in the sport are now on permanent display at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"I was at a loss for words when I was notified. I couldn't believe it," said Clark. "The best part of it was that the 13 other people that were honoured were all just ordinary plain folk just like myself trying to make a difference."

Not only did Mary Ellen Clark make a difference in her community -- she touched people's lives, and for that, she deserves all the credit that has come her way.

In photo: Mary Ellen with four out-of-town Natives players who she has found a home for this year. From left to right: Corey Koop, Derrick Brooks, Mary Ellen Clark, Troy Hoban and Lyndon Soper. Bottom photo: Clark standing in front of a banner at the Yellowhead Centre in Neepawa, which recognizes her achievement in 2010 when she was named an RBC Local Hockey Leader. Photos by Lanny Stewart.