BC CRN’s team of Regional Mentors helps communities establish Community Response Networks (CRNs). Mentors provide ongoing local support in the coordination of responses to abuse, neglect, and self-neglect, and community development initiatives. Some Mentors are also community development partners who collaborate with local agencies and organizations to respond to the needs of their people.
Fiona Lewis is the Regional Mentor for the province’s coastal region that stretches a road distance of 1,000 km from Vancouver’s North Shore mountains to the valleys and wilderness of rural Bella Coola. The region is the traditional territory to several First Nations and Indigenous communities, including Tseil-Waututh, Squamish, Lil’wat, and Nuxalk First Nations.
Her last day in the role was September 29, and we wanted to take the opportunity to profile one of our best, to acknowledge her amazing contributions to the community, and showcase her talent and legacy to the provincial organization.
Thank you, Fiona, for your quiet leadership, your brilliance in connecting people, and your gentle support in building lasting CRN teams that are engaged, passionate, and involved. Congratulations on your transition to retirement!
In our interview, Fiona is thoughtful in her responses, steady and patient in her demeanor, and modest and humble in sharing her stories. A thinker and a lifelong learner, Fiona pieces her adventures together carefully, whether it’s her next garden (She knows both the Latin and English names of her favourite flowers and trees.), her next trip overseas (“We’re finally off to France and Spain for seven weeks and we have plans for Mexico in January.”), or her next road trip (“We just bought a trailer, so we’ll see what we end up seeing.”) It was no surprise that she enjoys the challenge of jigsaw puzzles. (“I like them a lot!”)
A North Shore resident for 20 years with an extensive professional background providing support services to the community’s most vulnerable people made Fiona a natural choice for the Regional Mentor role when she first joined BC CRN three years ago.
“I thought I knew all of the non-profits on the North Shore and the surrounding region,” she says. “There are many more than I thought! A big part of my role with BC CRN was connecting different groups and communities to the CRN to build the awareness and support for the work on adult abuse, neglect, and self-neglect prevention.”
And, with her region being a mix of urban and rural communities, networking became one of her top priorities. “I made it a point to introduce myself and to ask people about their current experiences with the CRN and their hopes for the future. Maintaining these connections is important as staff and volunteer turnover are quite common in government and non-profit agencies. Continuity is critical.”
Fiona came to BC CRN in response to an ad. “I saw the role and it sounded great. It was part-time and allowed me to work from home and in the community in a discipline I’m comfortable with – all these things were right up my alley and worked well for where I was in my career,” she says.
Fiona’s career has always focused on supporting vulnerable people. Born in England, she and her family came to BC when she was six years old. She grew up in Abbotsford and excelled academically. At the time, the province had only three universities – Simon Fraser University (SFU), the University of Victoria (UVIC), and the University of British Columbia (UBC). Fiona went to all three, earning degrees from all of them.
“I earned a Bachelor of Arts at SFU out of high school, and then did a Bachelor of Social Work degree at UVIC, followed by a Master’s in Social Work at UBC,” she explains. “Once I completed my Bachelor’s, I wanted to challenge myself with a master’s degree and writing a thesis, which I’d always seen as a difficult goal.”
When asked how academia became such an important part of her life, Fiona says: “From a young age, I always knew I would go to university. I don’t even remember my parents encouraging me: I just knew I would go.”
Fiona would work in community living with people living with disabilities and manage group homes before joining the Red Cross, an organization she would stay with for the next 20 years. “I loved it there,” she recalls.
She would become the manager and then the director of the Red Cross’s equipment loan program, which lends out medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, hospital beds, and other equipment, to people who need it to recover from illness or surgery. “The program served people in British Columbia and in Alberta,” Fiona says.
At the time, approximately 300 volunteers formed the engine of the program, and the client base consisted of seniors, with many living in lower-income brackets.
While at the Red Cross, she would also successfully apply to become a registered social worker. “The jobs I had didn’t require a social work background, however, it definitely helped me move through the organization in different roles and I knew it would open other doors for me in case I wanted to do a career change,” Fiona says. “While the clinical side of social work wasn’t my specialty, the social justice component fuels me. It’s the side that fights for the oppressed, speaks for the marginalized, changes the structure of society, and seeks equity.”
In 2015, Fiona’s husband passed away. “It made me revisit what I wanted to do with my life,” she shares. “I decided I wanted to work less, and consulting was calling out to me. At around that time, the posting for the BC CRN Regional Mentor for the North Shore/Sea-to-Sky/Bella Coola came out.”
In addition to BC CRN, her consulting portfolio would include gigs in planning and development, writing and editing, and facilitation and training for the community health, housing, and non-profit sectors.
Fiona’s professional experiences supporting vulnerable adults would serve her well in the role as one of BC CRN’s Regional Mentors. Personally, she would also come to understand the ins and outs of adult guardianship and trustee legislation.
“My late husband was a quadriplegic and required in-home care and support,” she explains. “We learned his care worker of eight years was stealing from him. Fortunately, we developed a relationship with Jane Osborne, who was the Regional Mentor for the North Shore at the time. She was so supportive and we were able to finally fire this person.”
Fiona would also become the committee, or guardian, for a friend who had a traumatic head injury, as well as an advocate for her mother-in-law. “For my friend, I became the person who would legally manage her finances until her death,” she adds. “And with my mother-in-law, a family member was financially abusing her.
“Abuse and neglect were only covered briefly while I was in school. We didn’t study the topic in-depth. Adult guardianship is important for social workers to understand.”
The topic is also equally important for people, in general, to understand.
Throughout her career, Fiona has always found other ways to give back as a volunteer. Continuing to gravitate towards helping and advocating for others in her community, she has volunteered for the BC Office of the Seniors’ Advocate, the BC Association of Social Workers, the College of Registered Nurses of BC, North Shore Better At Home, and the North Shore Community Garden Society.
“My big interest outside of work is gardening,” says Fiona. “I used to work close to Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, so I visited during my lunch breaks. Everything is labeled and I would play a game with myself by looking at the plant and then trying to remember its English and Latin name before reading the sign.”
Her gardening adventures have yielded a patio garden, a role on her building’s strata landscaping committee, and growing vegetables for the first time in a community garden plot she has had for four years.
“Magnolia, Dogwood, Katsura, and Beech trees are some of my favourites,” she shares. “If I had the perfect conditions, I would grow roses. I love fragrant roses, which tend to be the bigger, bushier ones. The fragrances and colours of the rose garden in Stanley Park make it a joy to visit.”
Travel is another passion for Fiona. Soon, she and her partner will embark on a seven-week trip through France and Spain. “There will be a few garden tours on this trip for sure,” she says. “The gardens will be in decline in France because of the season, but since Spain is warmer, we’ll be able to enjoy a few in that direction. There are some great gardens out there and you have to do research for this kind of travel: gardens don’t rate high on popular travel lists.”
In her transition to retirement, Fiona reflects on her time with the BC CRN. “I really enjoyed building relationships with the coordinators and meeting people who give back. They are all talented, great, and friendly. I loved learning about how people live in the regions that are new to me, how they overcome challenges and solve problems. The events were also fun: they gave everyone a chance to connect with people and to share short bursts of information.”
As the province continues to battle the pandemic, so too, do non-profits and CRNs.
“Despite all the conflict in the world right now, the non-profit sector has been really hopeful. We’ve demonstrated that people can work together, build each other up, and make the world a better place. Unless you’re in a non-profit, you might not experience this,” Fiona states. “CRNs are also needed now more than ever. They are important to the people who have been hurt most by the pandemic – seniors, the isolated and lonely, the vulnerable. Keep fighting for them and doing your best for them.
“CRNs and non-profits are the antidotes to conflict and social tension. I will miss working with everyone very much.”
(Header Photo: F. Lewis)