Tai chi, playing the flute, and the Kitimat Food Bank are just some of the things that Robin and Bill Willis are involved with. (Clare Rayment)

Tai chi, playing the flute, and the Kitimat Food Bank are just some of the things that Robin and Bill Willis are involved with. (Clare Rayment)

In Our Valley – Bill and Robin Willis

From food for the stomach to food for the soul, the Willis’ make sure everyone gets their fill

Whether it’s feeding a body or feeding a mind, Bill and Robin Willis always have something to give.

They’ve been volunteering with the Kitimat Food Bank since 2002, shortly after Bill retired from Alcan, and Bill’s been the Vice President of the Food Bank for about 15 years.

They remember when it used to be at Nechako Centre, before it moved to the City Centre Mall.

“It was in a really awful place,” Bill said. “There was no heat. We had lights, no water. Terrible. Floods a couple times. But we worked out of there fine.”

One December, they got a call from Marjorie Phelps, president of the Food Bank, in the middle of the night, after a pipe had burst and sprayed out all over the food and boxes.

“Water was spraying and pouring everywhere and it was freezing to everything,” Robin said.

“I leaned against the wall and my jacket froze to the wall,” Bill added.

But they worked through it and made sure they were still able to provide people with the food and resources they needed.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve never had to ask why somebody comes to the Food Bank,” Bill said. “We just don’t ask. If they walk through the door and they ask for food, we feed them.”

They said that the main reason for that is the generosity of Kitimatians, who never fail to keep the shelves stocked with donated goods.

“We’ve been really fortunate, and we’re really grateful, that our Food Bank is one hundred per cent supported by donations,” Bill said.

As the vice president, Bill said his responsibilities involve a lot of the day-to-day work around the Food Bank, such as stocking shelves and serving their clients, as well as planning and organizing any events, such as their annual Christmas hampers.

“I’m the only male that’s actually usually there, so I get to handle all the big boxes of stuff,” Bill said. “But Robin helps me when it’s too heavy for me.”

Along with his work at the Food Bank, Bill has also taught tai chi for members of the Kitimat Seniors’ Centre for the past 17 years.

Bill got involved with tai chi almost 35 years ago, when he started taking classes offered by a teacher in Terrace named Peter Dixon.

Dixon came down to Kitimat twice a week to teach people here, but stopped coming about 20 years ago when he semi-retired. Once Bill retired, another former student of Dixon’s asked Bill if he would start up a class for them and other former students. Bill agreed.

“I thought, maybe we’ll do it once or twice a week but she said, ‘No, every morning,’ ” Bill said.

So, for the past 17 years, five days a week, Bill has been teaching a 7 a.m. tai chi class, with anywhere from eight to 10 students every day, including Robin.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it as much if I didn’t have the people coming, expecting me to be there,” Bill said.

The class runs for an hour each morning, with 40 minutes of energy work, then 20 minutes of martial arts forms.

“I don’t teach fighting, but I teach them the forms,” Bill said. “It’s [a martial art that’s] tremendously beneficial for flexibility, strength, keeping moving.”

Robin said she enjoys it because it’s an energizing way to start the day, and it’s a form of gentle exercise that really helps keep them in shape.

“I’m going to be sixty-nine shortly. Bill’s seventy-five. And we can still do this,” Robin said, while bending down effortlessly into a squatting position and standing back up. “There’s also a memory component, because you have to remember the moves, and so it’s a good kind of mental exercise, as well.”

Another good mental exercise for Robin is her flute, which she’s been playing since Grade Eight, when her music teacher decided to start an after-school band.

“I chose flute, mainly because it was really easy to carry the mile-and-a-half to school and home everyday,” Robin said.

She played flute and piccolo, and enjoyed it so much that she actually did a general music degree at the University of British Columbia.

After they moved up to Kitimat, she played in a community band, as well as in the Terrace Symphony Orchestra. She also works with her friend Bonnie in Terrace, who plays the piano, and they often perform together at different venues and concerts around town. They were even invited to play at the Vancouver Art Gallery several years ago by one of Robin’s old classmates who is now a professional clarinetist.

“I find these rehearsals with Bonnie to to just be so energizing. We always have a wonderful time together,” Robin said.

Robin teaches sometimes, and has done a little bit of composition as well, but playing the flute is still her favourite because she enjoys getting wrapped up in the music and the challenges that playing bring about.

“Playing music is so much different than listening to it. Especially with flute music, there’s a lot of physical challenges, like with breathing and finger flexibility, and working with something until you get a difficult fingering pattern mastered. That’s very satisfying,” Robin said. “But more than that, the music speaks to me when I’m playing it. That’s kind of an out-there kind of phrase, but I just find it really calming and satisfying, but at the same time really exciting.”

While Robin was in the bands, Bill decided to learn French horn so he could play in the community band, and eventually the Terrace Symphony Orchestra with her. They also decided to start up a string quintet with three of their friends at one point, with Bill playing the viola, Robin the violin, and their friends playing the viola, violin, and cello. They got good enough to even play in public several times.

A few times throughout the years, as Robin got better at the flute, she would upgrade her instrument to help upgrade her playing. The last time she upgraded, they went to Long & McQuade in Vancouver and Robin got to try out the flutes to see which one fit best. She had about 20 flutes in the room with her, but Bill said he could see her keep going back to one, an Altus gold flute.

“I could see that we weren’t getting out of there without this flute,” Bill said. “So, I went to the woman at the desk and I said ‘How much is that golden Altus?’ And she said, ‘Do you want to sit down?’ ”

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful instrument, with a gorgeous sound,” Robin said, laughing.

The funny thing was, they don’t normally stock those flutes, it had been special ordered by a woman who played in the army reserve band. However, they pulled the funding for it at the last minute, which meant the store was stuck with it, and Robin was able to buy it.

However, it turns out that Bill and Robin had actually met the woman who was supposed to have purchased the flute. Their friend who played the violin in their quintet had moved down to Vancouver with her husband and then was diagnosed with cancer a while later. Robin was in the room with her when she passed away several years ago.

“I was down there with her, holding her hand, and this woman, who was friends with [our friends] because it’s a small world in the music circle, was in the room. And it was supposed to be her flute.”

They only found this out a couple of years ago, when the woman came up to Terrace to be one of the adjudicators at the Pacific Northwest Musical Festival. They met her, got to talking, and the whole story came together.

Robin has kept up with her playing throughout the pandemic, and Bill has kept up the tai chi classes, as well. And while it’s been a bit harder to keep things going with the Food Bank, Bill and Robin have helped Marjorie and the Food Bank persevere, and keep providing food for those hungry minds and bodies.


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