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WENDY ELLIOTT: Future of valuable Women’s Institute groups depends on renewed interest

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network
PORT WILLIAMS, N.S. —

It’s a reality in our time. A sad one. The volunteer organizations that have allowed communities to flourish and prosper are fading out of existence.

I was sad to hear recently that the once active Women’s Institute (W.I.) branch in Grand Pré was looking at shutting down at an amazing 106 years of age.

As the current president, Maggie Keppie, noted recently, “members grow older each year and one by one pass on, we find that women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s no longer have the energy and drive they once had to contribute to hospital renovations, promote cancer research, bolster school programs, work to maintain our community hall and local churches, meet the needs of victims of unexpected natural disasters, find ways to support the homeless, improve the lives of orphans, provide essentials of childcare for new mothers, and numerous other such projects.”

The list is so long, it’s hard to conceive of those roles disappearing.

But, as Keppie points out, “the remaining members are too few and too old, and younger women have not (yet) come forward to fill the ranks.”

The Women’s Institute began in Ontario in 1897. The organization was especially geared to rural women meeting inter-generationally, networking to boost education, health care and safety.

Nova Scotia W.I. members, says Keppie, have helped with important initiatives such as Buckle Up Baby, Sammy Seagull Cleanup, and Buy Local.

For over a century, she noted, two things have been at the heart of W.I.: a sense of fun and a sense of community.

Whether it was acting out plays, singing, sharing meals together, rug hooking, making dolls and other crafts, fashion shows, Christmas parties, wagon rides, or entering a float in the Apple Blossom parade, the W.I. members enjoyed their activities. They even hosted a tea for the Governor General of Canada and his wife in 1923.

Keppie says the organization was always based on shared values like kindness, generosity, patience, and understanding.

I remember chatting with Liz Johnson and Ruth Blenkhorn of Port Williams, who have a combined total of well over 75 years membership in W.I. They told me W.I. has a big impact on the community, but it is incredibly humble.

At the time they, too, were hoping to share their enthusiasm with some new members. Johnson recalled being a stay-at-home mother with four small children when she joined W.I. and the outlet it gave her.

“I was out with other women. It was a really nice fellowship of women. Nothing religious, it was focused on women’s issues and we did so many crafts then,” she recalled.

The two women can list some of the advances that W.I. fostered, like pasteurized milk, the rental of car seats for babies and yellow lines on roadways.

“These programs got taken over by the government,” noted Johnson. “But W.I. saw the concern first and moved forward.” She thought that W.I. taught her “to look beyond myself. Those are the kinds of things we do if community structures are stretched.”

Other efforts that W.I. in Nova Scotia launched live on in very visible programs such as the buy local food campaign known as ‘Select Nova Scotia,’ the Adopt-a-Highway program and a group’s initiative, called ‘Back to Basics.’

This program works over a six-week period to teach participants kitchen safety, safe food handling and smart shopping. The homeless, women’s heart health and helping with the cost of at-home cancer treatment costs are vital issues as well, Blenkhorn said.

The aim of W.I. in 1897 was to ensure rural women were aware of how to properly care for and feed their families. More than 500 branches were organized nationally within a decade. Nova Scotia got its first branch in Pictou County in 1913 and Port Williams wasn’t far behind.

Three Kings County W.I. members served nationally. Annie Stewart of Grand Pre was elected president of Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada in 1925. The late Elizabeth Rand of Port Williams was also a national president and so was Blenkhorn.

Most of us likely don’t know that at least three members of the Royal Family, including the Queen, have been members of the Women’s Institute. It would be a shame for so many reasons to see branches fold in this region.

Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott lives in Wolfville.

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