When you build bridges, roads or skyscrapers, you can look back later and point to them with satisfaction. When one builds community, one’s skills and contributions are most often measured in terms of human relations, in people’s smiles, expressions of thanks, collaborative relationships and, sometimes, dollars raised.
Norma Shaw’s office in the Future Forward building on Franklin Avenue contains many mementoes of her 34 years as a Wood Buffalo resident as well as her 20 years with the Regional Municipality as a community builder. Her shelves not only show the significance of her family, but also that she’s the recipient of scads of "thank you" cards — like the one that reads: “Always give 100 per cent unless you’re donating blood.” And Shaw has the reputation for doing just that, at home, on the job and in her neighbourhood.
Originally from Cape Breton, she began her career in Community Services on a temporary basis in May 1995, which was a perfect fit for a young mom with a growing family. However, within a year’s time, she was a full-time, permanent employee.
Over her two decades of employment, Shaw took advantage of staff training opportunities and on her shelves are a Certificate of Achievement in Applied Leadership as well as a Certificate of Participation in the Human Resources Management Program, both from SAIT.
Shaw has specialized in shepherding new program initiatives until they are fully developed and functioning. For example, she has led a number of programs designed to build capacity in the areas of housing and homelessness. She worked on the early development of Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation (WBHDC), the agency coined by the municipality and mandated to provide affordable, low-cost housing.
She recalls that Wood Buffalo in 1999-2000 was the first municipality in Alberta to submit a request for federal funding. One of the outcomes was a $6.5 million grant earmarked for a 130-unit affordable housing complex in Fort McMurray in 2003. A number of grants have been issued since and Heading Home, the current municipal initiative to eliminate homelessness, just celebrated its sixth year of operation.
Stepping Stones, a housing program for homeless youth, is another project close to Shaw’s heart. Initially, she worked closely with homeless youth and the committee representing business and residential interests with respect to homelessness. The result was the Stepping Stones group home in Dickinsfield.
Youth and the young were the focus of two other endeavors over the years: the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Youth (MACOY) and Roots of Empathy. MACOY, for young people from 12 to 18, gives youth a voice in their community. In fact, it was a member of MACOY who made the recommendation that bus shelters in Wood Buffalo be protected, heated and decorated. Today, they are. Many of the youth she mentored are now adults who are skilled influencers and initiators when it comes to community building projects.
Roots of Empathy, a program Shaw coordinated for years, is designed to raise emotional competence and increase empathy among elementary school children. This is accomplished by introducing a mother and young child to a classroom when a Roots of Empathy-training facilitator raises questions and provides information about the baby and mom volunteers who visit the classroom on a regular basis over the year. Today, the Roots of Empathy program thrives in the region’s rural communities and the bright green flannel blanket used by the instructors during the sessions in elementary school classrooms is draped over Shaw’s office chair.
Last year, the new challenge for Shaw was stepping into her role as Supervisor of Recreation and Events with the Community Strategies branch.
“You go in, you work with the community, you fill gaps, it gets going and you step back and move on, always maintaining one’s role as a municipal resource so they can come back to you at any time," Shaw says. "I always loved what I did, but I always knew when it was time to move on to the next challenge. I’ve had the best of both worlds: Working with an amazing team and making a huge difference in the community.”
One of the most unusual mementoes on Shaw’s shelves is the hand-written note a clear water glass that reads: “Thank you for all the money I’ve been given throughout my life.” Underneath the note is a worn and weathered five-dollar bill, perhaps the first one she found while walking one of Fort McMurray’s trails.
“Positive thoughts equal positive results,” Shaw says about the note. “It’s to remind me of how thankful I am.”
She recalls the day she found a $20 bill that didn’t even have a wrinkle on it as she walked by a bus shelter in her neighbourhood. She pocketed it, delighted with her find. She held on to it until she noticed a young man who was picking up garbage and putting it where it belonged — not just once, but twice.
“I realized he was the guy I was to give the $20 to,” she says with a smile. “I asked him to pass it forward one day when the timing was right.”
She made an up-close-and-personal difference that day, just as she has as a volunteer for initiatives like the United Way. On the board of directors of the Fort McMurray United Way for 13 years, she’s proud and grateful for Fort McMurray’s record as the most generous municipality in Canada.
Shaw hasn’t built roads or skyscrapers, but she has reaped her full share of smiles, expressions of thanks, dollars raised ... and $20 bills passed forward.