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A helping hand for 35 years

Woolwich Community Services is an agency with deep roots in this community; on June 15, it will celebrate its 35th anniversary. It’s also a milestone for executive director Don Harloff, who has been with the organization for 20 years.

Woolwich Community Services started life as the Woolwich Community Information Centre, operated out of the back of Linda Snyder’s home by a group of local women.

As Woolwich Community Services celebrates 35 years in the community, executive director Don Harloff is marking 20 years with the agency.
As Woolwich Community Services celebrates 35 years in the community, executive director Don Harloff is marking 20 years with the agency.

Snyder explained that in 1974, they were stay-at-home moms with an interest in contributing to the community. They got a $100 grant from the Canadian Mental Health Association to put in a phone and buy some supplies.

The newly-formed agency was open three mornings and one evening a week. For each shift, one mother took care of the children while two others answered questions about various government programs and helped people who dropped in with forms to complete or problems to sort through.

“It was a good time for us. Several of us were fairly new to the community and it helped us to become part of the community while enjoying being involved in social services,” Snyder wrote in an email.”

A little over a year later, the township council offered them space in the township office. It was the first expansion of many over the next 34 years.

Today, WCS delivers programs to assist people from birth, when it offers interpretation services through the St. Jacobs Family Support Centre, right up to the senior years, with mobility devices and help with tax preparation. The agency also runs a food hamper program, the youth centre, the Kids and I resource centre, the family violence prevention program, a thrift store and an employment resource centre, among others. Harloff estimates that one in four people in Woolwich and northern Wellesley Township will use one of those programs in a given year.

Since Harloff started working at WCS in 1990, the agency’s budget has tripled. Less than 50 per cent of its costs are covered by government funding. The St. Jacobs Family Support Centre, for example, receives some government funding but the level has stayed the same since 2000. Harloff noted that his job has evolved from coordinating programs and services to finding the money to pay for them.

It’s a job that is made easier by the community, which pours in time, donations and goodwill. Last year volunteers put in more than 7,500 hours – the equivalent of four full-time staff. When the agency is experiencing a shortfall, it has only to appeal to the community, and donations come flooding in.

“It’s that kind of quick response that you get from the community when we’re facing a tough time that’s quite remarkable,” Harloff said. “I can’t believe how helpful this community is.”

Over his 30-year career in social services, Harloff has seen a number of trends and approaches come and go. He’s a firm believer in the advantages of the “one-stop shop” model that WCS offers. Because all of its programs are delivered under one roof, it’s easy to connect people to different programs.

“You may come for one reason and leave with three different answers,” he said.

Attitudes toward social services have also shifted over that time, but Harloff is cautious about saying they’ve changed completely. People can still be quick to blame others for their circumstances or leap to conclusions about their situation. He reminds them that many people are still living paycheque to paycheque.

“What if you lost your job? You’re only a couple of cheques away from needing a food hamper or needing Ontario Works.”

Although WCS is approaching the limits of what it can do with its resources, Harloff believes it could still be doing more. The agency recently hired a new staff person – the first addition to the staff in 10 years – to work on those areas, reaching further into a community it has assisted for 35 years.

Woolwich Community Services is marking its 35 years during its annual general meeting June 15 at the Elmira Legion from 7 to 9 p.m. The community is invited to come to the meeting and hear Katherine Piggott of the Region of Waterloo Public Health and Peter Katona, executive director at Foodlink, speak about local food.

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