“People say we’re the best-kept secret in Nanaimo,” says Gerry Herkel, Bethlehem Centre’s Volunteer Board Chair, who calls in by Zoom from his Qualicum Beach home. He’s not referring to the volunteer board, but to the Centre itself, and one of the upcoming priorities for the board in 2021 is simple: get the secret out.

“We offer a calm, sacred space for individuals or small groups to relax and reflect, and our Centre is available for bookings,” says the friendly retiree, becoming animated as he talks about the treasure that is this sprawling, scenic retreat on the shore of Westwood Lake. “What is less commonly known about us is that we’re very community-driven and proud to be an inclusive employer.”

Gerry says they work with community partners including Food Share Nanaimo, Vancouver Island Rehabilitation Services and more, and hire people of varying abilities. The Centre is inter-faith, welcoming people of all paths (including those of none). He’s especially keen to spread the word about the volunteer opportunities available at the Centre, and the opportunity to join the board.

“Those of us on the board aren’t getting younger,” he says, in good nature. “So we would like to find more young professionals and especially those local to Nanaimo.”

In the background behind Gerry are rows of academic books that reference his long career as a Hospital Administrator, which has taken him through hospitals in Coquitlam, Edmonton, Burnaby, Vancouver, and Victoria. On the wall behind him is a simple wooden cross, a symbol of his own personal spirituality that is as much a part of his life as his hospital books. He’s been an integral part of the Centres growth and change, first getting involved when the last owners of the Centre were looking to sell.

Bethlehem Centre has been open since 1987, and was run by the Benedictine Sisters from Salem, Oregon. Then in April of 2001 the Sisters bought the Centre. By 2013, however, running and maintaining the space had become a burden of time and money.

It was at this time that Bishop Remi DeRoo asked Gerry to help the Sisters develop a business plan to determine whether or not the Center was viable of not. He accepted the task, and together with the Sisters submitted the completed plan to accountants in Nanaimo. The answer came that it was not viable. So the Sisters decided to sell the property.

Bishop DeRoo then approached Gerry again, asking, “What can you do to save this place?”

“I decided I’ll do what I can,” says Gerry. “I knew it was going to be a major challenge. It was difficult and complex, and we had to overcome a lot of hurdles and obstacles. But I’ve always been very positive and hopeful that we could do it.”

To start, Gerry visited the original advisory board for the Centre, and recruited five volunteers. These would develop into a society, and then eventually become the Board of Directors. By July 2015, this small volunteer group found four different buyers that formed an investors group to purchase the space and allow the Centre to continue as a non-profit centre.

What keeps Gerry involved in Bethlehem Centre now is the same sense of excitement he gets when he talks about the place. “It feels like I’m contributing to something positive and needed in our society today,” he says. “And to see the growth that is finally building here. Even with COVID we are optimistic. That has a lot to do with our talented Board of Directors, our Executive Director Donya, and our Director of Philanthropy Don. It’s very enjoyable to work with this group of people.”

While Covid-19 has brought with it a whole new set of challenges, the Centre has been able to apply for a variety of government subsidies, and received a huge and much-appreciated donation from the Sisters of St. Ann. The disruption has also challenged us to innovate.

“The future looks very bright,” says Gerry. He adds the Board has focused in on five strategic priorities over the next few years, including financial sustainability, organizational development, governance excellence, developing our programs and services and strengthening our brand.

Along with his work on the Bethlehem Volunteer Board, Gerry is also a member of the Rotary Club of Qualicum Beach Sunrise and Chair of Oceanside Health and Wellness Network. When he’s not busy volunteering his time locally, he’s been known to enjoy a good round of golf.