Published in the North Island Eagle, March 2017
By Trish Weatherall
At age 70, this four-foot-eleven-and-a-half-inch lady with a big hearty laugh has more energy than most people half her age. Em Essau is a traditional volunteer, giving her time to the Port Alice Recycling Station, the thrift store, and the food bank, but it is all the extra things she does that make her extra-special in the community’s eyes.
She walks dogs, looks after children, house sits, dog sits, teaches teenagers to drive, and is a friend and confidante to anyone in need.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” said Essau. “I don’t even think about it. If someone needs a hand, you get off your butt and do something. I was brought up that way – you help your neighbours.”
Her tell-it-like-it-is demeanor and unqualified acceptance has made her popular with local teenagers.
Sixteen-year-old Anna Kernachan considers her a second grandmother and a true friend.
“I’ve known her my whole life. She’s an amazing role model, always so positive, and really funny,” said Kernachan, who works part-time at the recycling station where Essau volunteers. “She makes me want to be a better person. If I’m having a bad day, I talk to her and she makes me feel so much better.”
“Kids need to know there is a safe place if they need to talk,” said Essau. “What is said at my kitchen table, stays at my kitchen table.”
And she is always available for a hug. “Sometimes you don’t know exactly what someone needs,” she said. “But everyone can use a hug.”
A friend to every dog she meets, she gives out treats and love, and accepts paws on her shoulders and slobbery kisses.
She also provides driving lessons. “We’d go out to the lake when I had my L permit, and she would let me drive back,” said Kernachan. “It helped build my confidence.”
Essau has also been a big part of sixteen-year-old Spencer Smith’s life.
“Emmy has been there for me since I was born,” said Smith. “She talks to me, and listens, she gave me rides, taught me to cook, to drive, and about saving money. She’s always on the go, helping people, and making them laugh. She makes the town a better place.”
And to Jordyn and Brooklyn Smith, ages eleven and seven, she is like a second grandmother, helping out with child care, rides, meals, occasional scolding, and lots of hugs.
Friend Collette Young said, “She was one of the first people I met when I came to Port Alice three years ago. I had nothing and she helped me get set up with everything I needed. Since then she is always there when I need her.”
“She’s also amazingly strong. I’ve seen her lift two 40-pound bags of kitty litter like it was nothing!”
Essau came to the North Island in 1984, working in a coffee shop in the Mahatta River logging camp for four years before settling in Port Alice in 1988. She grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan where she learned the value of hard work and helping your neighbour.
“My motto is basically live and let live,” said Essau. “But if you can make someone’s day a little easier or a little bit better, do it.”