A man who spent nearly 15 years dedicated to Agassiz, to youth and to anyone who needed a hand or a smile passed away at 66 years old in Victoria Nov. 8.
Ernest Middleton literally wore his heart on his sleeve. The lifetime youth worker had a heart tattoo on the upper side of his forearm and while his son, Christopher Middleton, never asked its meaning, he has a pretty good idea.
“He helped people everywhere he went,” Christopher says. “I thought it was just Agassiz but it was Victoria as well. It was insane, the amount of people that he touched in his life.”
Christopher has a black folder full with pages of certificates, letters and thank you’s from Middleton’s youth work around the Lower Mainland.
He says it was his father’s past that led him to pursue youth work. “My father experienced the foster systems first hand and he had so much sadness in life,” says Christopher. “He found his pride in helping youth.”
Middleton worked in Agassiz from 1992 to 2006 as a child care worker, youth outreach and advocate and family support provider. He helped people struggling with abuse and addiction. When it came to helping the people of Agassiz, Middleton was a jack of all trades.
“He treated everybody the same,” recalls Christopher. “He went above and beyond.”
Middleton started the Agassiz Youth Centre and supervised it for five years, bringing a huge variety of programs to youth in the community. “Nights Alive” was a particular favourite for Agassiz teens, who enjoyed late-night hockey games and sock hop dances.
“He would always make sure there was something for the youth,” says Christopher, adding that it was he and his dad who raised the money to put in Agassiz’s skate park.
Melissa Leslie spent her teen years in Agassiz and went to to the youth centre often. She says it was a place where she and her friends, who often felt misread or out place in the community, could go to relax and feel safe.
“Ernest was a very big in giving the youth somewhere to go and getting them off of the streets,” she says. “We could speak freely and be ourselves.”
Leslie says Middleton was caring and approachable, someone to talk to for kids who needed some adult guidance.
“He was always somebody I felt like I could talk to my problems about,” she recalls. “It was very non-judgmental. Whatever it was we needed help with, he would do whatever he could to help us.”
“He was a wonderful man,” Leslie adds. “He’s going to be missed by a lot of people and he sure did a lot for us as kids. And without Ernest, there wouldn’t have been a youth [centre].”
Along with outreach work, Middleton assisted the RCMP with crisis support, helping youths and families facing adversity. “With a youth that was in distress, if [they] needed someone to talk to or someone to be there by [their] side, to talk to a judge, my dad would be that person,” says Christopher.
It was Middleton’s ability to communicate and empathize with young people that led the Agassiz RCMP to request his attendance on scene at an incident in May, 1998.
Middleton talked an armed youth out of self-harm.
A letter addressed to Middleton from the Agassiz detachment reads: “As a result of your presence and communication skills, and by your being able to relate to this person, he surrendered peacefully and without incident.”
With plans to return to Agassiz for retirement, one of Middleton’s final Facebook posts reads: “The happiest time of my life lasted [sic] fifteen years watching and supporting a whole generation of children grow into [the] finest loving adults in a community I will never forget…”
While he no doubt changed the course of many Agassiz lives, Christopher says his father really just wanted to bring joy to the people around him. “He just wanted everyone to smile and be happy.”