COLUMN: Memorable stories run deeper than headlines

Peace Arch News reporter Melissa Smalley bids a fond adieu to the Semiahmoo Peninsula after years documenting its residents' stories.

I’ll never forget the first time I cried during an interview.

I was meeting with a North Shore family that had tragically lost their three-year-old son to cancer. The boy’s father, a big, burly lumberjack-type man, was describing his son’s unwavering spirit in the face of such a brutal illness, when his voice began to crack and a single tear slid down his cheek.

I bit my lip hard enough to nearly draw blood, but it wasn’t enough to keep the swell of emotions contained – I burst into tears, profusely apologizing for what I thought at the time was behaviour unbecoming of a professional journalist.

I managed to regain my composure enough to finish the interview, although I cried all the way home and wept through every sentence while writing that story.

When I first considered pursuing a career as a reporter, I was drawn to the profession by the lure of hard-hitting news – racing to a crime scene, uncovering political scandal, throwing elbows in media scrums outside of courtrooms.

My years at Peace Arch News have admittedly been far less dramatic than how a newspaper reporter’s life is portrayed in movies and on television.

And while pursuing stories about knitting circles, bake-sale fundraisers and mistakenly cut-down trees may not make for the most exciting tales to share with my children one day, they are the stories that make the community of White Rock and South Surrey unique.

Stories that wouldn’t be seen on national news or become viral Internet sensations.

A group of elderly women knitting baby clothes for infants in Africa; a woman’s fundraising efforts to ease the pain of stillbirth for others; the search for justice for two South Surrey mothers, whose young sons were killed just blocks from one another.

While these may not be the adrenaline-pumping, stop-the-presses type of stories I pictured as a newbie reporter, they’re the ones that exemplify the importance of a community newspaper, especially in a time when the industry is struggling to stay afloat.

Equally as unexpected is the genuine appreciation I have received from people whose stories I’ve told, whether triumphant or heartbreaking – though, with the latter, I confess I still haven’t figured out how to hold back the tears during interviews.

Though the smaller-headlined stories have had a big impact on me, as many of our readers would agree, there is no shortage of important news stories in our community.

Just last month, I witnessed dozens of people’s lives turned upside down in a matter of minutes as the Ocean Ridge condo complex went up in flames – and the inspiring way in which those victims have persevered, supported by a community that was jumping to help before the flames were even extinguished.

As the paper’s council reporter for White Rock, I’ve gained an up-close insight into the workings of city hall, where every other Monday I’ve been almost guaranteed at least one eyebrow-raising moment, on the part of flustered city officials or overzealous residents (and, oftentimes, both).

If it sounds like I’m ruminating on my time at PAN in the past tense, it’s because I am; as I alluded to in a previous column, the city’s out-of-reach real estate prices and frenetic pace have become too much for me and my young family, and we are leaving the Lower Mainland in search of a quieter (and more affordable) life.

And while my plans for the immediate future don’t include work in the journalism field, I’m confident the lessons this job taught me about the importance of community will serve me well as we adjust to our new lives in a brand-new community of our own.

Melissa Smalley, until yesterday, was a Peace Arch News reporter.

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