Sitting in her bright corner office, chatting about her upcoming retirement, Lena Horswill uses the word “grateful” a lot.
Lena has been the executive director of Nelson Community Services Centre for 26 years. At the end of July she will move on to a new phase in her life.
“I’m so grateful for the board and staff at Community Services,” says Lena. “Over many years, they’ve made my professional life a dream come true.”
Lena began her journey to that life in Malaysia, where she was born. As a child she was fascinated by Canada and the stories she heard from relatives living here. In 1972 she fulfilled her dream and arrived in Ottawa.
Soon after, she began to volunteer at CUSO, a non-governmental international development agency. CUSO recognized Lena’s talents, and she worked there for 15 years.
“I’m very grateful to CUSO for all the opportunities I had to learn and grow. CUSO fit my values really well,” she says. “It also offered me training in political thinking and skills.”
During that time, Lena was involved with her union, and that’s how she met her future husband, Marty Horswill, of Nelson. He was working for CUSO in Papua New Guinea and was at the same union meeting as Lena, representing overseas staff.
A two-year long-distance relationship ensued, as Marty continued to work in PNG and Lena in Ottawa. When the time came for Marty to return to Nelson, Lena had to make a decision.
“It was really difficult. I enjoyed my job in Ottawa,” she says. “But I decided to take a chance to be happy, and to come with Marty. And I’m grateful I did!”
Lena brought along her daughters from her first marriage, Anitra and Andrea Gomez, arriving in Nelson in 1987. The new family was completed with the birth of a third daughter, Malaika Horswill.
Not one to sit still, within a few months of settling in Nelson, Lena was hired by Community Services.
“It wasn’t the most attractive job,” she says. “It paid less than unemployment insurance, and there was no window in my office!”
But she was confident things could improve and indeed they have. Lena has led the agency through significant growth in its three key areas of family support and counselling; services to youth; and stopping violence against women. The budget has grown from $85,000 in 1987 to $1.6 million today, and staffing has increased from a few staff and volunteers to about 22 people.
But the numbers are not what Lena’s proudest of. Two other accomplishments trump them.
One is Cicada Place, a facility offering supported housing for youth as they attend school or work. It opened in 1999.
“Joyce Dahms-Whiffen, our coordinator of youth services, saw the need for this and was determined to make it happen,” Lena says. “We worked together for seven years to complete Cicada Place, which has been a major support for youth.”
The other accomplishment was the opening in 1995 of a transition house for women and children seeking refuge from family violence. Lena notes that, unfortunately, the facility is still very much needed.
Lena is also proud that Community Services has been professionally accredited since 2006, meaning their clients can be confident in the quality of the services offered.
“We always knew we did good work, now we’ve had an external team confirm that,” she says. “It’s an ongoing process of evaluation and adjustment.”
One other thing Lena is grateful for is that in 2006 she finally got an office with windows and a view, when the agency moved into the Community First Health Co-op building on Lake Street.
Despite all the successes, the biggest challenge is always funding, Lena says. Even when provincial funding remains stable, increasing costs put pressure on wages and staff hours.
Last year, Lena had a life-threatening health crisis. She’s grateful for her recovery and for the reminder of what’s most important —health and time with family.
Lena plans to enjoy her beautiful home, and make cooking and gardening her full-time work. That is, when she’s not busy with friends and family.
“Family has always been my priority,” she says. “Now I’ll have more time for them.”