The Stinsons: Former teachers giving back – across Canada

Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

The late cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead would have loved Ivan and Margaret Stinson, as do all those who meet them. It is not merely because they are kind people with a contagious enthusiasm and boundless energy for life. It is more than that. The Stinsons embody a commitment and spirit of volunteers who see a need in their communities and decide to do something to make it better.

“It can’t be done,” is probably a sentence they have never repeated – much less tolerated – and the country is better because of it.

“I take a look at a situation and I know that some are unable to volunteer, some for health reasons, some it’s just not their cup of tea, but I see a great opportunity in volunteering,” said Margaret Stinson, who has turned volunteering into a rewarding post-career career. “And the opportunity has many facets to it. One is, you never stop learning when you volunteer. And I’m also very concerned about improving the quality of life for all. Volunteering gives you an opportunity to make new friends and to provide perhaps for people who are in need. And that’s just a start.”

Their home, now located in Guelph, is a shrine of mementos from the organizations they have helped along the way. Yet those photos and certificates are not hung up to service their egos; quite the opposite. The Stinson home is a celebration of their love for the work and the friends they have met along the way. Being recognized for their efforts merely proves that the work of volunteers has merit. That is good enough for them.

Many readers will better know the two as Mr. and Mrs. Stinson, respected former teachers at Centre Wellington District High School. While teaching and raising a family of their own, their calling to volunteerism was an important value in the midst of their already busy life.

“I found that when we were teaching, we did a lot of volunteering within the school confines,” said Ivan. “The teaching was more than what went on in the formal classroom.”

He was a coach and student council representative at CWDHS. He was an Upper Grand District School Board trustee, too.

Outside of the school, they were both involved in their neighbourhood community, present day Centre Wellington. Taking part in the Grand River Conservation Authority, when needed, Ivan Stinson is also past president of the Elora Lions, and actively involved in the local Sports leagues, coaching minors. Margaret and Ivan supported their church community, and belonged to the Elora Horticultural Society.

They also participated in the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games and various other community gatherings. 

In 1989, the Stinsons retired to a simpler life in the quiet village of Maitland, Nova Scotia, to be closer to their growing family. If retirement was to be a slowing down in their lives, the Stinsons did not get that memo. After years of professional and volunteer connections, they were now “come from away” people. Little did the people of Maitland know they were about to inherit two experienced, active volunteers with boundless energy and ideas to make things happen.

Anyone who has the pleasure of driving the Glooscap Trail in Nova Scotia through Maitland will see the legacy of the Stinsons at every turn. Perhaps the most dramatic is the heritage restoration site, Burncoat Head Park, in the hamlet of Noel, where a reconstructed lighthouse overlooks the spectacular view of the Bay of Fundy. Ivan became the co-coordinator in the development of the Burncoat Head Park, raising money and awareness to transform the property into a tourist destination. With Margaret on the committee and a crew of dedicated volunteers willing and able, the site was restored with integrity, receiving a heritage designation and Go for Green award, in the province.

Other initiatives would follow, including walking maps of Maitland, cemetery inventories, and the coordination of the Maitland Launch Day Festival. Their work helped Maitland to be designated as Nova Scotia’s First Heritage Conservation District.

“Tourism is extremely important because in small communities it is the only industry and it creates other businesses,” explained Margaret. “In Maitland, there was the old General Store, the two churches, heritage cemeteries, and the William Lawrence House museum, but tourism created a need for bed and breakfasts, craft shops, art galleries, that whole gamut. And they have the natural amenities with the Bay of Fundy, with the tidals twice a day. You have to make it a destination, so tourists are doing more than just driving through.”

Actively involved in the tourism of Nova Scotia, Margaret and Ivan became super hosts, the opportunity of a lifetime to explore and welcome people to their adoptive home.

In 1995, a magazine article caught Margaret’s attention. It was about a new program called Communities in Bloom. The seed was planted. She had found a volunteer organization that combined her love of tourism, horticulture, and community.

“We got the information from the municipality and right away I called a meeting, I gathered together the people I knew were movers and shakers, and would be positive about it – and we were in.”

This decision would blossom into the opportunity of a lifetime for both of them, and would forever put Maitland on the map. A year later, they entered the village in Communities in Bloom, and decided to create a promotional tool to help aid their efforts. The Stinsons were now the operators of the Communities in Bloom merchandise responsible for the national distribution. Their passion for this project grew to see Ivan serving as vice-chairman and chair of the judging committee, while Margaret acted as chairman of communication. Each of them became judges on the provincial, national, and international levels. Their work helped improve communities of all sizes from coast to coast.

The biggest impact on them, though, was the connections they made across Canada.

“It’s a wonderful, diverse country, but I really appreciate what every part of the country has to offer,” said Ivan. “We know the national historical events of our country, but when you go to these smaller communities and you learn their personal histories, peculiar stories that are unique to them, it’s spectacular.”

True to their volunteering philosophy, the real goal is to help make life better for others. Through Communities in Bloom, their efforts are rewarded in simplest ways. Issues such as youth involvement, accessibility to all, culture, and the environment are important to the Stinsons.

“There is a self-satisfaction in doing these things,” said Ivan. “When we visit some of the communities where we judged, I feel very flattered when they say to me, ‘Remember when you judged here, you mentioned something that we might try to improve upon? Well, we did – and it worked out great.’ I feel like if I’ve had a little bit of a part in helping improving the quality of life in some other community.”

Accolades have followed them.

For his environmental work, Ivan has received the Governor General’s award. A tree now stands in Victoria Park, in Halifax, dedicated to the Stinsons for 16 years of volunteering in Nova Scotia. Most recently, they were honorary hosts at the 2010 Winter Lights National Symposium and Awards in Charlottetown, and friendship ambassadors for the 2010 Communities in Bloom National Symposium and Awards.

Last year ended with a highlight. The Stinsons were awarded the Crystal award of excellence for sustainable tourism for their volunteerism, by the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia.

“I would prize all of them, but I suppose the greatest surprise was this last one because you had to have been a volunteer for more than a decade,” said Ivan. “But it involved much more than tourism. It involved almost every aspect of volunteering.”

By working to improve communities coast to coast, from their days in Wellington County to their retirement in Nova Scotia, the Stinsons have learned a most valuable lesson: it is better to give than receive.  For all their unpaid time and effort, one could ask why they do so much, but they’d find that question a bit odd.

“We’re fortunate to live in this country and we sometimes complain about things, but I feel that people owe our country something,” Ivan said. “I believe that in volunteering; it’s a way of returning something to our country and improving the quality of life for others. As Marg mentioned, it’s a tremendous educational process also. You gain a great respect for the country too. Geographically the country is very different, but every community has something to offer, and I just praise so much the work of volunteers and what they’re doing.”

Margaret agreed. “ There is a magnetism to it. Volunteer people are drawn to projects and the groups become friends who have shared values of improving the quality of life for people, make it a better place to work, life and play.”

At home in Guelph, it is fair to say the Stinsons left their mark on Nova Scotia. And anyone who thinks they are ready to sit still, think again. There is their theatre group, a social committee, church, and horticultural groups, to name a few. They are still working to make life better for their neighbours.

“As long as we’re blessed with good health, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing,”  Margaret said. “Volunteers always have more to give.”

Margaret Mead would approve that sentiment.