Anyone who knows will tell you that if you ever meet Jim Bennett, you’ll definitely know you’ve met Jim Bennett.
Sharp-witted, outspoken and super passionate about helping people, the 61-year-old Fleetwood resident has been a vital element of Surrey’s social conscience for more than 30 years. This is probably why he’s received Surrey’s 2020 Good Citizen Award.
“I started out here when I was 30. I came out here like a firecracker,” Bennett starts. “I can tell you one thing – there wasn’t many executive directors at 30 wandering around telling everybody what they should be doing all the time. I was the young smart-ass kid, but I kept hitting the nails on the head. There’s people who think I’m really great and there’s people who think I’m an asshole, and I don’t really care. But I get things done and I rub people the wrong way, and that’s just been what I’ve done, Type A personality but I’m always trying to do the best thing I can.”
Bennett was hired on as a family and street youth worker with the Surrey Reconnect program when the murder of a 12-year-old boy, Shawn Tirone, was gripping the nation.
In October 1990, media from across North America descended on Whalley to cover the murder trial. Tirone had been reported missing in July 1989 and his skeletal remains were found in Bolivar Park, off 115th Street in Bridgeview, eight months later. Authorities found the boy had been struck twice on the head with a rock, and charged a 14-year-old Surrey boy with murder.
The case made international headlines after it was revealed that while the boy’s father had been frantically looking for him, pinning posters throughout the community, as many as 20 youths had heard about the slaying but kept it from authorities for fear of being labelled a “rat.” Some youths had actually tried to locate his body shortly after he was reported missing. In the end, the accused 14-year-old was convicted and got the maximum sentence under the Young Offenders Act: three years.
It was suspected Tirone had been living on the streets of Whalley, when all the while his body lay at the bottom of a hill in the park.
Given his line of work, Bennett was bombarded by media requests for interviews and appeared on a popular crime investigation show of the day called Inside Edition. “I was literally on the international news dealing with that murder, the code of silence, all those kids,” he said. “That put me on the map, and that was right off the bat. I hit this community running.”
Bennett was born into a “protective, lily, upper middle class” family in Tsawwassen, his experience bearing “no relevance” to the reality of the Whalley community he ended up working with. “I ended up on Granville Street for a little while myself once I got out of school,” he recalled. “As a young guy, I ended up on the wrong side of the tracks for a very small period of time.”
Long enough, anyway, to get him into the field of counselling and youth work. In 1990 he founded and was executive director of South Fraser Community Services, establishing the Front Room 24-hour drop in centre for the homeless on 135A Street, as well as the Surrey Needle Exchange – the third in B.C.
There was a big public push-back against the exchange by people who didn’t want East Vancouver drug addicts flooding into Surrey, “as opposed to the reality was that we were bringing services into a community that needed them, and we had over 3,000 people who registered in that tiny little needle exchange within the first 30 days. We didn’t get 3,000 people moved here in the first month, that was for sure, but we had 3,000 people that were already here that registered.” In fact, when SkyTrain was expanded to Whalley, he famously said “It’s like a pipeline into a bonfire.”
The outfit ran in conjunction with Surrey HIV/AIDS Centre Society Bennett founded in 2002. He was also executive director and senior counsellor of Zebedeo Society in 2008.
“All of those things that came along, those weren’t programs that we got that we applied for funding, we had to go out and advocate to get things started,” he said. “It was a much different scrap, to go out there. I never once applied for money; I never once went out and put in a request for money out of a pile of grant stuff. I used to go out and say, ‘Here’s the void – fill it,’ and they used to say ‘How much do you need and what are you going to do.’ I go out there and yell and scream until somebody said, yeah, you can open a drop-in centre. I fought for the programs, I never applied for money.”
Bennett points out that he was “long gone” before the so-called “tent city” sprung up on 135A Street. “That happened very quickly after I left, and I left because I disagreed, profoundly, with what BC Housing’s image was and what services they wanted, and how they wanted to run stuff.”
“It spiralled very, very quickly,” he recalled. “If I walked out on my front street, as the manager of the drop-in shelter and drop in centre used to do, I said when I come down the street in the morning I don’t want to see anybody on it. I want you to walk out to the edge of the driveway, look left and look right. Nobody should be on our street – if they want to respect our services, who we are and what we’re doing in the community, then I don’t need you camping on my street where everybody then comes down and says to our organization, ‘Look at the mess you’ve created.’”
Over the years, Bennett has received plenty of awards and accolades for his philanthropy and work in the social services sector, the latest being Surrey’s Good Citizen Award. He’s also served on the boards of numerous community service organizations – Surrey Public Library, Port Mann Landfill Closure Committee, Surrey Social Planning Committee, the Surrey Crime Reduction Strategy, you name it – as well as a mayor’s task force on youth violence that was struck under former Surrey mayor Bob Bose’s watch in the 1992-93. The report that came out of that one, he recalled, went world-wide. “It actually got a second printing because we were getting requests from around the world of the study and what we did and our recommendations.”
What has kept him going? “Knowing that what I was doing was the right thing,” he says. David versus Goliath kind of stuff. Despite having a “sailor’s mouth, or trucker’s mouth or whatever,” he explains, “I’m a devout practising Catholic.
“It just continually reminds me,” he said, that’s he’s been blessed in life. “I’ve got a skill set to advocate on behalf of those who don’t or can’t, and I take that, it’s just a passion that drives me.”
A big feather in his cap is convincing former mayor Dianne Watts to give the okay to opening a sobering centre in North Surrey. “Dianne Watts slammed down the gavel and said this is going to change, and it is going to change now. Nobody hesitated, fast forward we had the sobering centre. Phoenix Society ran the sobering centre, which is still there across the street from the hospital. I know in my heart of hearts I got that program going,” Bennett said. “So that’s one fire that I started that was one of the most successful things.”
“One person, one meeting, one day, brought a sobering centre to Surrey,” Bennett recalled. “I know I was a huge factor in that happening and half of Surrey probably doesn’t even know that. I think in my mind that’s one of the greatest accomplishments I ever did and I had nothing to do with the funding, the development, where’s it going to go, who’s going to run it, whatever. I didn’t give a shit. I wanted one of those up and running. There was nothing in it for me and there was everything in it for the community, and I had one meeting.”
Today, what Bennett calls retirement is being the Canadian coordinator of Astronomers Without Borders as well as running the Jim Bennett Trust Fund. “I did a $50,000 scholarship to SFU and a $50,000 scholarship to Saint Michael’s, it’s the Catholic college on UBC’s grounds.”
Last year, he gave the Surrey Crime Prevention Society $25,000 as part of a five-year sponsorship for a youth program. “So last year I gave away about $125,000.”
He’s also spent a lot of money in supporting church activities around the world and has travelled to other countries on mission work himself. “I started a micro-company in a village, funded it and started that, in a small community with a bunch of women and sewing machines. I helped establish a meal program that can carry on itself in Third World countries also.”
What has Bennett learned over the years?
“Don’t burn the bridge when you’ve still standing on it,” he laughs. And here’s another one: “Don’t keep pulling them out of the river, you go upstream and find out how they’re falling in.”
As for receiving Surrey’s 2020 Good Citizen Award , Bennett says it’s “kind of humbling, it’s a little bit shocking too because they start to go back and list off what you do, and you look around and you say, ‘Well who is that guy, he’s go to be old, or boy was he ever busy.’”
“I’ve never felt busy, I felt energized to go out and say ‘What are we going to try to get accomplished today?’ Volunteering to me was just like a hobby. I mean there’s people that spend hours in the garden, or hours at a train set.
“I just can’t believe how fast the time has gone.”