A disagreement about homelessness in Nelson prompted Rona Park to do what she does best — carry the torch.
Park was at a 2015 meeting that included local stakeholders arguing about who was responsible for taking care of the city’s street community. Park piped in to suggest everyone at the table shared the responsibility. Perhaps, she offered, she could search for solutions other communities had found.
“Of course, nobody said, ‘No, no, don’t do that,’” she says now.
That meeting led to the 2016 creation of the Street Outreach Team, two people who walk the streets of Nelson offering items such as socks, vitamins and, crucially, connections to the city’s various social services. The team has helped approximately 600 people since it first hit the streets four years ago.
Park now says that project was among the biggest accomplishments of her seven-year tenure as Nelson Community Services’ executive director.
“I felt like there must have been a magical mix of, we’ve got the evidence, we know what to do, we know what the problem is here and we have the people who are willing to make something different happen. It was like a magic combination for me to feel really supported to go forward and just build this up.”
For 26 years, Park has been a key figure in building Nelson and Castlegar’s social service sector. Her remarkable career of giving back ended, at least formally, last week when she retired from Nelson Community Services (NCS).
At a ceremony in Lakeside Park on Friday, Park was honoured with a plaque and feted with speeches by her colleagues and family.
NCS, which has operated since 1972, runs the Aimee Beaulieu Transition House for women and children escaping domestic violence, Cicada Place youth housing, the Street Outreach Team and various mental health and counselling services.
When NCS chair Cathy Leugner joined the organization’s board six years ago she was immediately taken by Park’s professionalism.
“I’ve heard people say they walk into a room and see Rona there, and they’re like, whoa, stress level goes down, because they know they’ll have meaningful discussion,” says Leugner.
“And she inspires people. She really does. She challenges people. So I know as a board member, when we’re looking at things and trying to look out of the box, and stay in line with vision and all of that, she’s really good at steering that ship.”
Helping others runs in Park’s family. She says she learned empathy from her mother, a nurse, and her father, a farmer. Her five sisters also later moved into professions focused on caring for people.
Park moved to Nelson with her family in 1994. She and her husband Doug Scott wanted to move their children out of Calgary, so they planned on visiting B.C. cities with Waldorf schools. Their first and only stop ended up being in Nelson.
“We never went any further,” says Park. “That was it. We just went home and packed up and moved down here.”
Park, who has a psychology degree from the University of Victoria, started in Nelson as manager of the group home program for Nelson and District Community Resources, which later became Nelson CARES.
She went on to work as a counsellor at Castlegar Community Services, but budget cuts cost her the job. She was asked to stay on though as an interim executive director, and later took on the role permanently. There she stayed for six years before moving onto a three-year stint at Nelson CARES.
In 2011 Park thought she was ready to leave social services behind and took a job with Columbia Basin Trust. She enjoyed her work there, but after two years found it wasn’t satisfying.
“It finally in the end didn’t kind of really meet my passion for being, if you will, like on the ground and making things happen,” she says. “I was kind of just the liaison to talk about money and projects, but I didn’t actually get to make things happen.”
Park started making things happen again in 2013 when she was hired by NCS as its executive director.
Nelson CARES executive director Jenny Robinson has worked with Park on initiatives such as the Nelson Street Culture Collaborative.
“She’s a real diamond,” says Robinson. “She’s brilliant, and she’s strong and she’s always there. We’ve never had a falling out. We’ve always been in step with each other and I think that’s because we share a real value basis that people need support in our community and we need to support folks that need it, that we can’t leave them behind.”
That mindset, necessary as it is in such a job, can also be a grind.
NCS has 48 staff and volunteers who assisted 1,134 clients in 2019-2020, according to the non-profit’s annual report released last month.
Park’s primary job as executive director was to find and secure funding for various projects. But it’s also filled with more personal challenges, and Park has learned it’s her responsibility to never look away.
“Every day at work there is some client issue that I become aware of that’s like, oh my gosh, we can’t have that happen. We can’t look away from that problem or that plight of that person,” she says.
“And there’s got to be a response, right? Morally, ethically, and practically, there has to be a response. I think that’s my approach, is let’s do everything we possibly can to make that happen.”
Now, after decades of taking care of her community, Park is ready to spend a little time on herself. She’s got three grandchildren to spoil, and when the pandemic ends she hopes to do some international travel.
Can she look away? Can retirement force her to take a break? Probably, she says, but not forever.
“When you’re used to being the person who puts out so much for other people and for an organization it’s difficult to pay attention to oneself so much,” says Park.
“I really hope I can do that. Because I think I’m probably worth investing in. I have lots more to give. It’s just that I need to recharge my battery a little bit and do that.”
It’s hard to argue she doesn’t deserve it.
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