Sara Jenkins (née Barber) died on October 22nd in Ottawa from complications related to Alzhiemer’s disease with her daughter Margie at her side. She was 79. Sara led an extraordinary life, one defined by deep and authentic relationships, outreach that transformed lives and gave people hope, and a kindness that people often felt the moment they began chatting with her. Although she rarely spoke about it, and did not personally view it as particularly important, Sara was also a two time Olympian in swimming. In 1956 at the age of 15, she was one of Canada’s youngest Olympians of all time, and she broke the world record in 100m backstroke in 1959. What took more determination and commitment though, in her view, because it received less praise, was to care and love well, and she brought the same Olympic spirit to those endeavours throughout her life and valued them more highly.
Sara on left, British Empire Games, 1956
Sara was born January 25, 1941 in Brantford, Ontario, the daughter of Katherine Barber (né Duncombe), a nurse, and Dr. Stuart Barber. Her father served as a surgeon during WWII, so she recalled first meeting him after the war when he brought her a doll he had hand-sewn. Her parents spent much of the 1960’s and early 70’s as medical missionaries with the Baptist church delivering health services in India and founding a hospital in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Sara too had an unwavering commitment to Christianity, even though she was constantly reevaluating, and questioning what exactly that meant and involved. After retiring from teaching, she became a lay minister with the United Church of Canada and enjoyed delivering sermons (or what she liked to call “reflections”) in churches in Orillia and the surrounding area on topics such as peace and the power of forgiveness.
Sara came from a family that valued ideas, education and self-discipline. Her mother, Kay, who Sara described as loving, and with a “gentle and noble soul” played hockey at university in the late 1920s. Sara’s mother, as well as aunts on both sides of her family were (unusually for the time) all university graduates. Sara’s father was also one of her most dedicated (self-taught) swim coaches; they spent countless hours together at the pool and at competitions. Although he rarely showed his emotions, she felt she understood him, and described them as close. Sara spent many hours with her paternal grandfather, George Barber, who lived next door to Sara throughout her childhood. Sara loved her grandfather dearly, when his eyesight started to fail, she used to read the newspaper to him after school or swim practices. Dr. George Barber never graduated from high school, and became a farmer. But after being disheartened by the lack of doctors available to rural families, he visited the local high school and asked if he could borrow the textbooks so that he could prepare for the entrance exams to medical school (he passed and went on to become a busy doctor). Sara’s maternal ancestors include Dr. Charles Duncombe who led the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion and was an outspoken social reformer.
Sara was passionate about ideas, especially concerning ethics and religion (she admired all religions, and strongly believed in inter-faith dialogue) and was always ready to dive deep into discussion. Any book she read she copiously underlined, writing her reflections along the margins. She also loved being “lost” as she would describe it, in music. She played piano and sang in choirs throughout her life, and pictures of her on Canada’s Olympic team often show her cradling a ukulele. She achieved grade 9 piano with the Royal Conservatory of Music, which she used, like most of her talents, to bring happiness to others—she played piano in recent years in Ottawa, at her care home while others sang along. “Sometimes I feel like I need her more than she needs me,” the Director of a former care home told her daughter once after Sara had given her a big hug. “She always seems to just know when I’ve had a difficult day.” Indeed, Sara was famous for her hugs. When she was given an award recognizing her work with Orillia Telecare in 2017, one of many leadership and service awards she received over the years, Mayor of Orillia Steve Clarke attended to honour her and joked “I came largely because I need my usual Sara-hug!” Alzheimer’s presented challenge after challenge, but it never took away Sara’s warm smile, her determination, her desire to live fully, and her capacity to love and care for others. She also continued to swim off and on, and fast; even after moving to Ottawa in 2017, and living in a care home due to dementia, she routinely had to shift to the fast lane during her weekly swims with her daughter. Sara’s famous stroke remained graceful and strong, and she couldn’t stay behind anyone for very long.
Although Sara’s name is inscribed in several athletic halls of fame and she was invited to many fancy events in her honour, Sara was most at home in church basements and in outreach programs where the coffee maker would be on until late, the to-do list would be long, budget small and ambitions large. From her early days doing what she referred to as “countless laps” in the Brantford YMCA pool, she loved the Y. She believed it was important to have places where young people could go and play, be safe and interact positively with adults and their community. In 2008, she received the YMCA Peacemaker Award for her commitment to social service. As a high school teacher, she actively sought out the students who were struggling (academically and personally), and later in her career, as an adult education teacher, she especially enjoyed working with refugees and immigrants. She had boundless energy for a good cause, and if something wasn’t being done, she would often quietly start it, whether it was an organization to support children facing the loss of a parent or divorce (Rainbows), or the Orillia chapter of Grandmothers to Grandmothers. People having a tough time knew they had an ally in Sara Jenkins, and she genuinely saw the best in people who were accustomed to being cast off by society. She did this so often that as teenagers, her children used to joke about it. "Mom met another violent drug addict today, she just loved him and has invited him over for dinner!” She spent hours on the phone at Orillia Telecare, talking people through their darkest times and giving comfort to those who were lonely.
For those with talents, or who were privileged, including, in her view, her own children, she was unconditionally loving, but at the same time, she had little tolerance for a lack of kindness, laziness, or a sense of entitlement. Those who can, she believed, should work hard, contribute, and get a great deal done. By far though, she expected the most from herself, and she rarely lived up to her own expectations. Her humility came, in no small part, from a sense that she should and could always be doing more.
Still, this depiction does not quite capture her for she laughed often and loved a good time. If things didn’t go quite right or if someone had had a tough day, often her solution was to pack everyone up in the car and head out for ice cream.
She married Don Jenkins in 1965 in Brantford’s First Baptist Church on a cold December night by candlelight, a man who shared many of her qualities and commitments, but was also known for his jokes and his fun. The Jenkins home was one of debate and discussion, but also constant laughter and teasing.
December 27, 1965
Sara with David, Rob and Margie on a family holiday, 1974. Sara and Don raised their three children in Oro and Orillia.
Don and Sara met at a party in London, Ontario where Don was attending law school at the University of Western Ontario. Sara was visiting from McMaster. Even though gregarious Don was hosting the party, after he met Sara, he left, and the two of them walked the streets of London until dawn. They both loved the expression, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and shared the hope that their marriage would be a launching pad from which they could do great things, especially for their communities and the world. Their 47 year marriage ended with Don’s death from cancer in 2012 at the age of 70, a sudden loss that was widely felt in Orillia (Don was a popular lawyer in town, a patron of local arts and history, and an active Orillia councilmember at the time of his death). They were both very connected to St. Paul’s church which they attended for decades, both singing in the choir. They also travelled the world together, often visiting their children and grandchildren in far-flung places such as Uganda, India and Vietnam. On these trips, the family joke and hope was always that Don, with his outspoken political views, wouldn’t end up in jail. Both Sara and Don wrote countless articles for newspapers, were in frequent touch with their MPs and MPPs about local and international justice issues, and even dressed their children accordingly. They designed and distributed anti-apartheid t-shirts in the 1980s, as well as bright red shirts in 2007 in support of the Saffron Revolution in Burma. Sara also volunteered at a refugee camp in Thailand, trained teachers in Guyana and (along with Don) spent weeks in a rural Nicaraguan village building a local school.
Sara in Thailand, near the border with Myanmar.
This of course happened in parallel to Sara’s active involvement in her children’s and grandchildren’s lives (Sara remarked once that being a good parent was “the most important job one can do”) and her leadership and service to many community organizations. For this reason, she became attached to a big black day planner that was so overstuffed with extra notes and to-do lists that she had to put an elastic band around it. At the same time, all of this would all be put aside if she ran into someone who needed to connect or was going through a difficult time. (After spending time with them, she would write “call so-and-so in a few days to see how they are doing” on a note and tuck it into her day planner). At night, after a swim in Lake Couchiching as the sun was setting, or a walk on a snowy trail (she loved the winter), she would make a cup of tea, or sit with a glass of white wine and large piece of extra sharp Cheddar cheese, and would go over all her notes, or read last week’s paper because she never had enough time to read the paper in real-time but didn’t want to miss any of the news.
Sara appreciated nice things, but was never attached to anything material. (Don never got over Sara donating his beloved UWO school jacket to a local charity!) She kept a lovely and loving home, and many of their children’s friends considered it their second address. She could make the best apple pie, chili and lasagna around, and as many in Orillia know, enough pancakes for a crowd. But Sara was, by her own description, not focused on her home; the only physical place she was really attached to was Georgian Bay, where she spent summers as a child in a rustic cabin that her grandfather and father built on the rocky shoreline near Honey Harbour. In general, she didn’t like to cook, preferring instead to be engaged in experiences, discussion, or in causes in Orillia and abroad. If anyone needed her, or if there was adventure to be had, she was happy to just get on the road (or to jump in her kayak). There was nothing she took more seriously and wanted more than to be close to her family. She went to great lengths to see them, routinely travelling to Oakville and heading off on her own at the age of 71 to drive to Washington DC and Manhattan (Manhattan was facing evacuation orders at the time due to Hurricane Sandy but that was not enough to stop Sara from driving in!) In 2016, when she was 75, she flew to Budapest, Hungary to visit Margie who was working as a professor at Central European University, and then travelled on to Amman, Jordan to spend time with Rob who was working for UNICEF. Being part of her grandchildren’s lives especially brought her immense joy.
Sara with grandchildren, Leo and Ruthie, 2014
By 2017, globetrotting was becoming more of a challenge and the difficult decision was made for Sara to leave Orillia and join Margie and family in Ottawa, where they had recently relocated. There have been many wonderful times since. Sara leaves behind her children, David (Lynne), Rob (Jackie) and Margie (Alexis Diamond), her grandchildren Matthew, Chris and Olivia, Meghan and Charlie, and Eden, Ruthie and Leo, her brother Graeme Barber (Denyse), sister Candy Stirling (Dave), as well as many nieces and nephews. She will be deeply missed.
A private graveside ceremony will be held with the immediate family, and a celebration of life will be scheduled to honour Sara when it is safe for everyone to get together. In lieu of flowers, if so inclined, the family would suggest supporting a community cause of one's choice or making a donation to the Alzheimer Society in Sara's memory.
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