Storytellers – Hope Happens from Timbuktu to Kathmandu – and places in between

Catherine DeVrye

Catherine has addressed audiences in 31 countries and travelled to over 130 countries. Catherine was an executive with IBM for a decade where she held numerous leadership roles. Despite being expelled from English in high school, she’s written 9 books including 3 best-sellers, translated into over a dozen languages that include: Hope Happens and ‘Hot Lemon and Honey’. The late Sir Edmund Hillary said … “information in this book can lead you on the road to success”.

It must work because Catherine is a past winner of the Australian Executive Woman of the Year Award … She’s an active surf lifesaver and has completed marathons, bungee jumped, swam with sharks, cycled over the Andes. And trekked to Timbuktu and beyond Everest Base Camp … quite crazy! Yet… she believes the BIGGEST challenge she’s ever faced is coping with change daily basis.

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Catherine’s theme for the evening was “Hope Happens from Timbuktu to Kathmandu – and places in between” and accompanied her story with a wonderful selection of her own photographs and motivational quotes. Catherine is certainly a seasoned storyteller and began by giving us some of her early background. Though born in Canada she is a dinky-di Aussie now! She told us all that in fact this was the second time that she had spoken to the BBC, however, previously it was with the British Broadcasting Corporation!! Tonight, she shared with our BBC some of her personal stories and some new material on travel. She used, appropriately for the BBC, the ocean as an analogy for ‘change’. It sometimes ripples and then again, it’s sometimes like a tsunami.

Catherine grew up in the prairies on the so-called wrong side of the tracks and learnt early in life that we can’t control change but can control our attitudes. She was raised and educated in Calgary graduating as a teacher. It was then that her own tsunami hit her. That same year both her parents died of cancer. She was an only child and had no family whatsoever. She decided to back-pack to Australia with $200 and a one-way ticket. The intention was for a three-month working holiday. She decided to stay and be in the present and look towards the future. It’s strange how that the biggest dramas and grief can so often present opportunities. She is heartened that we now talk about mental health as she undoubtedly had bottled up her emotions and didn’t take help when offered when her parents died. Don’t be too proud.

Catherine fondly recalled when she was thirteen and her Principal Mr Darrah writing in her autograph book “Smiles are passports through deserts and visas to all alien countries”. She didn’t know then what a passport was or a visa. Her dad was labelled a ‘DP’ or displaced person as he was Dutch. All Catherine wanted was to be the same as everyone else, certainly not different.

Once in Australia she worked initially as a teacher in Melbourne which lasted six months. She then became involved in the establishment of the award-winning “Life. Be In It” fitness campaign. Following that success Catherine worked for IBM which gave her a wonderful corporate career around the world. Catherine is well aware that travel teaches tolerance, and quoted Mark Twain “Travel is fatal to prejudices, bigotry and narrow mindedness”.

After being posted to Japan for two years, IBM wanted to post her further afield to New York, but Catherine was determined to stay in her new home Australia.

For the last twenty-three years her mission statement has been “try to make a living and make a difference”, and to recognise the need to recharge oneself. We do this for mobile phones & laptops but most importantly we need it ourselves. The beach and water is where she does her recharging.

Never having celebrated her 21st birthday as it was the year her parents died, Catherine decided to do something unique for her 40th. So why not climb Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa? Every now & then step outside our comfort zone and into our courage zone. The climb was very much three steps forward and two steps back … isn’t that like life? Always keep an eye on the summit .. where you want to be .. not where your parents or others want to be.

On one occasion Catherine had the opportunity to lunch with Sir Edmund Hillary and spoke to him about Everest. He explained that he had a goal. He wasn’t just tramping around. He didn’t know if he would make it. He said “What’s the point of having a goal if you know that you’ll make it. Where is the challenge there? Cath, its not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”. As Catherine said how often we make mountains out of mole hills in our everyday lives.

Another story Catherine remembers was being in Japan and being very ill. There were doctors and nurses walking around with clipboards asking questions such as next of kin, did she have any hereditary diseases? What do you mean? She didn’t know. This was a shock to her system and a reality check as she had never told anyone previously that she was adopted at birth. There was a stigma about being illegitimate. Upon recovering she decided she wanted to meet her biological parents. As it happens, she met them at the closing ceremony of the 1998 Calgary Winter Olympics. Her father asked her what she was doing for work? She said she was working for IBM. He said, “What’s that?” Catherine asked, “What do you do?”. “I’m a cowboy”. In fact, he was eight times Canadian Rodeo Cowboy Champion and had been looking for her since she was six months old. He was bow legged, wore a ten-gallon hat, broad shoulders, big buckle and talked real slooow … she didn’t inherit that! Suddenly Catherine went from no family whatsoever to one of ninety-six grandchildren & great grandchildren. As she explained we have fifty plus BBC storytellers in the room tonight. Whilst we can’t change the chapters of the past, we can change what we do in the future.

Catherine then spoke of her next book currently with a subtitle of ‘Timbuktu to Kathmandu’. Its aimed at encouraging kindness around the world. She’d never previously spoken about a book before she’d actually written it, but gave it a go as she was interested in the BBC feedback. She wants to shatter some of the stereotypes in the media about people who are different. She travelled to some137 countries, to places in the middle east, conflict zones, and water-based locations, mostly off the normal travel path. Combined with a guessing game of ‘where was this photo taken?’ Catherine told an array of travel tales. Some were light like that of Mr Happy Maker whilst some dark as she told of children in PNG and their prayer roster – Monday – Please Lord help me …, Tuesday – Please Lord help me … , Friday – Please Lord, don’t let dad beat mum.

Catherine finished with a story about accompanying the Australian Olympic team to Barcelona. She has a poor sense of direction and came out of the train station wearing the green and gold. Lost, she spotted two little Spanish guys. “’scuse me ‘scuse me. How do I get to the Olympics?” They turned around and said “Senora – with practice!” They could easily have said perseverance that’s what is need in life.

The evening finished off with listening to Jerome Kern’s famous song ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again’.

It was very evident that Catherine would be in constant demand as a Keynote Speaker, so we’re indebted to our own Denis Elder for managing to persuade Catherine to join us and help make another memorable Storytelling evening.