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HELPERS: Sanity cornerstone of local volunteer’s life’s work

Lorna Tomlinson continues to volunteer at the organization she helped build from the ground up to give her life structure, and because charities and thriving communities rely on volunteers to make it all work

Dedicated volunteer Lorna Tomlinson retired about seven years ago.

But with her busy schedule, you might not know it.

“It keeps me busy,” she says, offering a common refrain from the community of retirees that devote their time to volunteering.

Not only does she volunteer at Wendat Community Programs, and help with their bingo night, she also works with the Huronia Community Foundation.

At Wendat Community Programs, a local organization providing supports for adults living with, she was the first staff member more than 30 years ago.

“When I left, there were 70 employees, and today I think there’s something like 85,” says Tomlinson of the success of the organization she helped build.

Wendat Community Programs started out as a community mental health support focusing on adults living with serious mental health issues.

Tomlinson says the idea came from a few social workers at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care who saw the need because a lot of people would be discharged into the community with nowhere to go.

She laughs recalling that she was surprised she was hired. Originally, the organization wanted to start a group home, which Tomlinson doesn’t support.

“If people could stay at the group home endlessly, that would be great,” she explains, saying the structure is wonderful, but when residents move out on their own, they don’t function well without the structure, built-in friends and supports.

Tomlinson believed it was better to get people into long-term housing and bring in the supports they needed, so the organization moved towards that goal under her leadership.

The organization expanded from opening a social club program to providing behavioural nurses for long-term care homes and mobile services for seniors.

As the crowning achievement for Tomlinson’s 30-year career, she undertook a project to open a seniors residence for low-income, physically frail seniors.

The initial funding came from a generous donor who provided $1.3 million with land donated by the Town of Penetanguishene.

Tomlinson oversaw construction of the building that now bears her name.

For the tireless volunteer, the number one reason she gives her time to an organization she devoted her career to is not just because it keeps her busy, but because volunteers make it all work.

“It’s payback. I know how they struggled to get dedicated volunteers,” she says. “It makes you feel good to be able to give back.”

She laughs as she recounts a story that perfectly explains why she continues on in her work now as a volunteer.

Part of the work at Wendat Community Programs was also creating jobs for people living with a serious mental illness.

One employee had spent 10 years living at Waypoint. He moved to a supported living situation, and eventually came to work as a recreation support person.

He came to Tomlinson’s office every couple of months saying he had to quit because he was afraid he would give someone food poisoning while preparing food.

“I would always say, ‘Your supervisor says you’re doing a good job’. It would calm him down. Then, he would come back again in another couple of months. So I asked him, ‘why is this job important to you?’

‘It keeps me sane’, he said, and he was dead serious. It gave him order and structure, which his mind didn’t have.”

Reflecting on that story, the retiree adds that her own volunteer work gives her structure.

“The structure is important for everybody,” laughs Tomlinson.

At the same time, she says she needs the human contact. She believes more in the work she devoted her life to because coming full circle to work as a volunteer offers a sense of consistency that is grounding.

“And, it’s the right thing to do. I want to live in a healthy, thriving community, and charities are supported by dedicated volunteers,” she adds.

“Volunteers are a huge part of creating a healthy, thriving community. –We have to make sure we can give back in any way we can.”

To that end, Tomlinson adds, “if everybody did something, the world would be such a better place. It doesn’t have to be big, it can be small.”

At the end of every month, Tomlinson takes whatever is left in her chequing account after her monthly expenses are paid and she writes a cheque to a local charity.

 If you’re interested in giving what you can, visit Wendat Community Programs or Huronia Community Foundation to learn more about their work.