Donalda Whaites was the toy lady to more than one generation of Langley children, having been part of the Langley Christmas Bureau for many, many years.
Her husband of 54 years, Barry, said he can’t pin down just how many years she was involved, but he could see how much joy it brought her.
“She enjoyed helping people. She enjoyed doing good stuff,” he said.
Donalda died Tuesday morning at 75, in the arms of her daughter, Nikki, and with Barry and their other daughter, Kim, by her side, at the Langley Hospice’s Maple Cottage after having pancreatic cancer.
The Langley family has received an outpouring of support since Donalda was diagnosed about seven months ago and since her death Tuesday.
“She’s touched a whole lot of lives, and I don’t think she really knew that,” Barry said.
Jean Schaffer met Donalda several years ago when they were both volunteers at the Christmas bureau.
“Our hearts were pretty heavy when we heard about [her death],” she said.
Schaffer said her friend had non-stop energy, also helping out at the Sources Langley Food Bank, the bureau’s Christmas Wish Breakfast and more.
“She gave of herself freely,” Schaffer said. “And energy like you wouldn’t believe.”
Schaffer recalls how Donalda would work to tailor the gifts to the child, such as the little boy who when asked what he wanted said he had lots of LEGO but no way to store them. While not typically what a child would want for Christmas, he received a shelving unit to be able to display his creations.
She made sure families that received bikes also received helmets appropriate to the age of the children.
Donalda’s terminal diagnosis came at what should have been a new beginning for the Whaites.
“The same day we moved [into a new home] was the same day we got her diagnosis,” he explained.
Many in the community knew Donalda through the Christmas bureau but may not have known she was the one who stepped up to handle the grown-ups who were not in the festive spirit.
“She had a naughty list of clients that came in and were really annoying,” Barry said with a chuckle.
Donalda knew her inventory and worked to ensure the right toy got to the right child.
“She was the quintessential toy lady, because she knew what she was doing,” he said.
Before becoming the toy lady, Donalda spent her working life improving the lives of children. Both she and Barry were educators for many decades.
They retired from the Surrey school system and had lived in Langley since 1985.
Their teaching careers started out very differently.
They were both studying for their masters degrees and teaching full time in the American South, working in Tennessee from 1968 to 1970 and the next two years in North Carolina. This was a time when racial integration was happening.
“It was a real eye opener,” Barry said. “We discovered lots of injustices.”
Soon upon arriving in the South, they went to a laundromat that said ‘whites only’ and assumed was instructions on what clothing could be washed there. They would soon discover, in a community with signs saying it was [Ku Klux] Klan country and comments from many people they encountered, that racism was on open display.
Donalda’s specialty was teaching special needs children.
“She would get threatening phone calls about teaching” Black children, Barry explained.
The Whaites were in the South because the post-secondary school they attended paid for their education. They returned to Canada where Surrey’s district hired them to teach. Barry jokes that because they wanted Donalda so much, “they took me.”
She retired in 2005.
Over the years, the family travelled the world. Barry and Donalda backpacked from Europe to India on less than $5 per day as a young couple, and the family (Barry, Donalda, and daughters Kim and Nikki) travelled by camper around Europe for two summers.
“The second year we did it was the year the Berlin Wall came down,” Barry noted. “We drove out there and camped in Berlin.”
They paid a local resident five German Marks to use a chisel to break off a piece of the Berlin Wall as a keepsake.
Donalda was a workhorse at whatever she tackled but shied from the spotlight.
“She didn’t even want an obituary,” her husband said.
When they spoke about her coming death, she simply said “I’m heading for a different light.”
From her cancer care to her time in hospice, Barry said he was impressed with the medical staff whom they encountered.
“I have nothing but good to say about our medical system,” he commented, noting Donalda died surrounded by her family.
Her family will have the ‘toy lady’ cremated with her ashes going to her church, St. Andrew’s Anglican, where she was active. Barry said down the road, when the pandemic is over, they will decide whether to have some kind of service or memorial.
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