Practicing Social Activism


Shirley has continued to support the Citizens' Service League and Town House. Initially, she relished the challenge of building up a complex organization that would give practical help to a struggling community. Today, the CSL has come a long way, mainly through the high public profile of Town House.

Many people don't even know the Citizens' Service League but most people know Town House. It's because our offices are there and we have a very small complement of workers and an executive director, office manager, director of nursery schools, and we have an outreach of four or five workers who are paid. The rest is all done by volunteers.

The Citizens' Service League (CSL)

The ABC's of volunteering are these: Always be concerned, always be caring, and always be compassionate.

As the social needs of the community change, so must the CSL response. For instance, over the last decade or so, with the closure of the steel mill and coalmines, young people are leaving to seek work elsewhere in Canada.

The scope of CSL's provision since the early 1970s has been considerable, including Meals on Wheels (using volunteer church groups as cooks and drivers), a regular foot clinic, the clothing depot, nursery schools and a day care, two high school scholarships, courses in nursing, training for parents and baby-sitting skills, transporting stroke patients, "Each one, teach one" literacy programs, loans of Red Cross equipment for the sick or disabled, summer day camps (with paid student help), and the home repairs program called "Warm, safe and dry". For many years, a popular activity was knitting and crochet classes taught by elder women, but Shirley recognized that the real value was in "the social interaction between the person who was there with them and the people who were sitting there for the afternoon and having a cup of tea".

Citizens' Service League Daycare

Shirley has a gift for assessing people and opportunities, for instance when Sharon Irwin came to Cape Breton with her husband, she met with Shirley to outline her ideas about day care. After a few minutes, Shirley made a decision: "Sharon's brilliant, and she was just talking way over my head, and I said, 'You know what? You're hired. We'd like to start a day care and I don't know the first thing about it'." The CSL Day Care began with six children in its own building and grew from there. Shirley's support and friendship with the Irwins helped to forge the development of what is now a national organization called SpeciaLink: The National Centre for Child Care Inclusion [].


As with all organizations embedded in local-regional economics and social dynamics, the Citizens' Service League has worked through its share of challenges. Today, as a member of the Board, Shirley identifies several major ones that are linked to wider issues in what is now the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Glace Bay lost its town status in 1995 in a wide amalgamation of the city of Sydney and five other towns.

Funding is a challenge that requires the CSL to engage in skilled fundraising and grant writing in order to maintain two buildings and their operations. Because government funding levels no longer reflect cost-of-living and provision of services, work must be jockeyed between volunteers and paid staff. "We generally have five paid staff and 150-200 volunteers," Shirley said. "Staff have a critical role here, but we are unable to pay them adequately but government doesn't see this role as critical enough to act upon." Precious resources must therefore go into fundraising that could otherwise be used for provision of community services.

Volunteer numbers have emerged recently as another challenge. Because more family members work outside the home and the demands of careers and families absorb all available time and energy, it is that much harder to recruit non-retired volunteers than it once was.

A third current challenge is to strengthen public awareness about CSL and its Town House services, because both client and volunteer bases will dwindle without getting the word out further. Some services have been dropped over the years as other agencies took them over, for instance the Homemaker Association of Nova Scotia has taken on services once provided by CSL, and the hospital declared that there's no need for the Books on Wheels program that was delivered for nearly 40 years by volunteers.

People management

It's not the solo performance of one person but the symphony of staff, volunteers, and Board of directors.

Ever alert to possible negative dynamics that affect a group's effectiveness, especially when a few are paid and many are not, Shirley has taken pains to promote respectful interactions between everyone involved in Town House activities so that economic status did not get in the way. Just as importantly, she has always modelled giving respect to staff and volunteers.

I was firm in what I thought should be done but I was also in touch with the staff a lot, not to give my opinion but to hear what they had to say. I made it a point to get to know the volunteers. I really think that's the success of having volunteers, because our organization is built on volunteers. If the government had an office here and did all these programs it would cost them 50 times more than what they give us.


After 30 years of acting as Chair of the Board for CSL, Shirley could say that they had no "insurmountable crises" while maintaining a scant staff of four or five -- "nothing for an organization that runs all these programs".


Volunteers are the "heartbeat" of an organization

I learned how to like people, not judge them.

Shirley is uncompromising in her recognition of the citizens who support the CSL as volunteers. At the peak of CSL, there was a volunteer board, five paid staff, 300 volunteers and over 20 programs. For Shirley, volunteers are professionals who do their work as if they are paid. She tells them:

There is no doubt in my mind and there should not be any doubt in your mind that you are a professional and should be treated as such and feel you are. It has to come from within you, too, in order to get the feedback from whatever it is you're doing.

Of her steadfast insistence on this point, Shirley says, "If I haven't learned something in 83 years, what's my life all about?"


Shirley has tried to step down from chairing the CSL Board, understanding the need to share the job and develop new ideas and skills, but it has proven difficult. She sees significant generation-based changes in attitudes towards the workplace, for instance:

I had to come to the realization that society is changing and everything can't go on the same as it was. I had to be a little more tolerant of the younger people who were coming in because I was young once, too, and if no one had given me a chance, I wouldn't have reached this point in my life. And I had to learn that, which I did through the Citizens' Service League about halfway through my years of being Chair.

But Shirley herself was changing, too. Skills were being honed, and there was increasing respect for what an integrated group of citizens could accomplish in spite of some differences in culture and outlook.

The Citizens' Service League taught me to accept and understand the cultural and religious difference of people living in Glace Bay, in my town, and this respect for all peoples developed my skills in leadership and performance. I guess it gave me the confidence as well—not that I had so much faith in myself but I had faith in the organization and the people who made it.


She learned the concept of leadership, what was required in terms of visible skills such as public speaking and Board meeting management, and less visible skills like analyzing the broader landscapes of politics and principles that informed internal structuring of the Board and relationships with government agencies.

I respected them and they also respected me as a person—and isn't that what life is all about? Isn't that what you do things for? You don't do it for the thanks or the wealth—I didn't get paid one cent all these years.