East Wellington Community Services (EWCS)is celebrating 30 years.
Those involved, past and present, will gather on Sept. 8 at 7pm at the Erin Legion (12 Dundas St.) for a night of remembering the past and looking to the future.
A recent interview with the agency’s marketing and fund development manager Erika Westcott provided some insight into the inner workings of the group as it transformed into the agency it is today.
“For any community agency this is a big milestone – to make it to 30 years – especially in our rural area,” said Westcott.
“When we started, it was in the basement of All Saints Anglican Church, and we were just an information centre at the time.”
Initially named the East Wellington Advisory Group for Family Services (EWAG), the organization was founded in 1984 by a group of residents concerned about the accessibility of services for children and youth in one small corner of rural Ontario.
At that time, East Wellington was a community of 10,000 people who lived in several small villages and in homes and farms in the country.
Everyone was a long-distance call from any social services and many lived up to 50km away from health, psycho-social and recreational services.
EWAG grew out of a serious concern for the welfare of children and teens, but developed to embrace the entire family.
Its vision was to provide a one-stop, community-run centre to serve the multiple and diverse needs of the whole family. The founding principle was a multi-service centre that served families and had a special focus on persons with disabilities, women, the frail elderly, and children and teens.
From the start, organizers created a centre to coordinate a variety of information, social and health, and employment services where a citizen could get all relevant information through one central telephone number.
As its first major undertaking, the group completed a community needs assessment and a one-day symposium with service providers, community leaders, local community organizations, business leaders, politicians and others in the community.
Westcott said the intent back in the early 1980s was to provide a place to access relevant information on what was happening in the community and where people could get assistance for counselling or mental health issues. “That was part of our humble beginnings and now, 30 years later, we have two office locations (Erin and Rockwood), operate four different stores – two clothing stores, a bookstore and an online bookstore,” said Westcott.
EWCS also has a location in Centre 2000 where it operates seniors’ programs.
“We’ve grown in what we are able to offer the community as the community has grown and as the needs have changed,” said Westcott.
“We’ve been able to adapt quite well to gaps in the community so we can continue to be that one place for information and community service.”
One of the features of the Sept. 8 night of celebration will be a life-sized timeline of what has happened over the years.
In addition, guest speaker Joe Roberts, a classic rags-to-riches story of success – from being a homeless skid row addict to an author, CEO and international professional speaker – will speak on the impact of local agencies such as EWCS.
“We also wanted to celebrate the impact that community service agencies make within the community,” said Westcott.
Back in 1989 Roberts was a skid row homeless drug addict living on the streets of Vancouver. Through his connections to different community service agencies and the help they were able to give him, he was able to become an author and CEO of a multi-million dollar company.
Westcott explained that it is that type of impact the services can offer – for someone at the lowest of their low – and really bring them out of that.
“That’s what all the programs here strive to do; to help and support people no matter what they are going through.”
Locally, Westcott noted EWCS has been able to help one-time food bank clients make the right connections so they no longer need the food bank. She pointed to cases of individuals who have given back to the food bank, remembering the impact it had on them.
She added people who do use the service give back by volunteering in the agency.
“It helps us and is a recognition of what we do so we can continue to provide services as they do what they can to give back,” she said.
Westcott has seen firsthand the impact agencies such as EWCS can have.
Westcott started her current position in July 2012, but her association with the group goes much further back.
“I came to know the organization when our family lost our house in March 1993,” she said, explaining she was a teenager when the family home burned to the ground. “They allowed us to come and shop in their stores after hours to get as many clothes as we needed – we had absolutely nothing,” said Westcott.
“We had temporary housing, but they assisted us with food until we could get a little more established.”
She said EWCS also put out the word in the community for items when the family was rebuilding. “They helped us with everything … when you lose everything where do you go?”
She added her family has supported EWCS ever since.
“It’s kind of neat being able to come back and work here … and be on the other side and providing the help,” she said.
Westcott stressed the 30th anniversary event next week is also “a celebration of our community.
She noted, “If we didn’t have that support and such a great working relationship with our community we wouldn’t have made it to 30 years.
“The community supports our events through donations to our stores and food bank, along with volunteering.”
Westcott noted EWCS relies on more than 120 volunteers.
“It all helps the agency fulfill its mandate – and continue to provide the services people have come to rely on.”
Today, the agency offers numerous services, reaching from children to seniors.
Westcott added that EWCS is currently looking at how to further address programming for youth.
She said unfortunately with the passing of Patrick Suessmuth and the Erin Hoops program, “It left a big gap in the availability of different youth programs and the camps which he ran.”
EWCS is conducting a survey of youths to see what programs are being sought and what type of funding is available.
The seniors program includes adult day services for frail and isolated seniors or those with different types of dementia. There is also a transportation program for seniors or adults with disabilities.
Then there are children’s programs aimed from newborns to six year olds.
Recently, EWCS has formalized its outreach program and allowed other options for people unable to get to the food bank during regular hours. It allows for people to work with clients on a one-on-one basis to provide support.
Then there are the clothing stores and the information centres. Westcott pointed out that EWCS partners with other agencies as well, which allows people to access other community services at the EWCS site.
In addition, EWCS was able to update its boardroom, which allows for rentals to small groups for a place to meet and brings money in to support the programs.
One of the customers is a driving school that offers programs on weekends, which means people do not have to travel to Orangeville or Guelph, where the driving schools are.
It’s another way of working with people to bring programs and services – and to keep them sustainable.
“The really big key here is if we’re going to do something, we need to be able to ensure it is something which can be sustained in the long term, not just for a short term,” said Westcott.
“Otherwise you get people who start to get used to – and rely on a service – and then it goes away because it can’t be sustained.”
There are all kinds of educational programs for seniors, Westcott said. There is also the 55-plus club and through that there is the Smart Exercise program – to help prevent falls.
Westcott said there is now a wide variety of seniors programs.
“We’ve been working on this celebration since April/May. What we’re really trying to achieve is to get members of the community to come out, because it’s as much a party for us as it is for them.”
She added, “they’ve helped us to become what we are and it is through them we are well supported.”
She said when the agency puts out a call because shelves are empty at the food bank, there are people in the community who go to Costco within days of the request.
“It’s amazing … our communities here in Erin and in Guelph-Eramosa,” she said.
Westcott stressed the Sept. 8 event was free, but the group is asking for an RSVP.
“We’re having light refreshments and cake and we want to make certain there is enough for everyone … We’re also contacting former staff and board members to come.”
Another key to the celebration will be a “Do You Remember?” table with photos and the very first press release issued to the community.
“It’s going to be a real celebration,” said Westcott.
For more information or to RSVP call 519-833-9696 and ask for Tammy at ext. 226.