When Wayne Helgason first joined the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg (SPCW) 16-and-a-half years ago, many of the poverty reduction organizations that community members have come to rely on did not exist.
It is thanks, in part, to the SPCW’s involvement, Helgason’s leadership as executive director and his background in child welfare that some of these organizations not only came into existence, but still thrive today.
“I’m now a grandfather,” Helgason said. “I’m stepping down to have more time with my family.”
He notes that he will still be involved with several community initiatives after his retirement on Jan. 3, 2011.
One initiative that Helgason is particularly proud of during his time with the SPCW is the summer learning enrichment program for inner-city youth.
School-aged children from the inner city take part in five weeks of math and science-based learning activities during the summer taught and assisted by university students in education and high school students from the community.
“This past year, 95 per cent of the kids came back to school in the fall at the same functioning level or better,” Helgason said. “75 per cent had improved test scores over the summer, with stronger math and readings skills.”
Strini Reddy, volunteer chair of the program, notes that it could not have grown from 120 participants when it started in 2005 to 630 in 2010 without the SPCW and Helgason’s involvement.
“Wayne’s personal commitment really helped us expand the program,” Reddy said.
Another milestone that stands out for Helgason is the SPCW’s receipt of the social justice research award from the University of Manitoba and Canadian Centre for Jesuit Studies for the SPCW’s publication, “The Manitoba 1999 Child Poverty Report Card, an Agenda for Action.”
“(This award) showed that the major institutions and key opinion leaders were recognizing that those without resources were falling behind and the (poverty) gap was growing larger,” Helgason said.
Sandy Gessler, president of the SPCW board, notes that not only has Helgason helped to put poverty on the local agenda but he has helped distinguish the SPCW on the national stage as well.
“Fifteen years ago, poverty was not a popular topic,” Gessler said. “Now, there are a number of groups working at it and (Helgason) has been the lead in raising awareness of poverty, whether with reports that monitor progress, or advocacy about raising the minimum wage and the health consequences of poverty, especially on children.”
Furthermore, notes Gessler, Helgason has mentored many youth and helped launch their careers.
David Cavett-Goodwin is one such youth. After gaining experience as a policy analyst with the SPCW, he moved on to work with the federal department of finance.
“Not only did he give me a chance, but many others as well,” Cavett-Goodwin said.
If it weren’t for Helgason’s encouragement to get involved with the SPCW, many youth could have led very different lives, he noted.
While there is no immediate successor lined up for the executive director role, according to Gessler, there are some good candidates.
After the job description is updated, the organization hopes to have a candidate identified in three or four months, Gessler said.
Published in Volume 65, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 21, 2010)