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Keys to the hall hold secret to vibrant community

Serving on the hall board has become a family tradition in these parts

Group of people standing outside a rural hall.

It’s where newlyweds dance, long-marrieds celebrate anniversaries, and countless gifts have been opened at bridal and baby showers. It’s where families have reunited and mourners have paid their final respects.

Don’t even try to figure out how much beer has been served at all the socials.

Now, on the eve of reaching a milestone of its own, the Woodlands Community Hall’s volunteers are getting a present of their own — a Volunteer Service Award presented last week by Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger at a gala Volunteer Service Award Dinner. Honourees are recognized for individual, youth, community categories.

Woodlands Community Hall volunteers were recipients of a community award for a century of service maintaining this focal point of their municipality.

“It’s quite an honour to receive it,” said Bob Brad, a past president and now longest-serving member on a committee of 15.

Hosted fairs

Built in 1915, the building is a legacy of the Argyle, Woodlands, Woonona (AWW) Agricultural Society, that began hosting fairs that same year.

In its earliest days, Woodlands hall was where farmers came for short courses in livestock care and production and to participate in other farm programs offered by the AWW Agricultural Society.

Over 100 years the hall has been the site of countless community gatherings, said Lana Cowling-Mason, the RM of Woodlands community economic development officer.

Everyone living in the area has a memory tied to it, whether it’s where they had their bridal shower or went to “one of those wild socials we went to as kids,” she said.

“It’s the backdrop to pretty much every milestone in most community members’ lives,” she said.

But the modest wooden building might have closed long ago if not for generation after generation of community caretakers stepping forward to keep it going.

Fittingly, the original foundation of the building still supports the well-kept facility that has seen several additions over the years, said Cowling-Mason, noting the hall board has done an exceptional job at succession planning. People serving on this board are following in the footsteps of parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.

“The successful operation of a community hall for 100 years is the definition of perseverance,” she said, adding that years of service by the current board ranges anywhere from two to 50 years. These are people who have been passionate about this work all their lives, she said.

“That just deserves so much respect.”

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Bob Brad recalls how they got guys like him involved. He joined the board in 1967 and remembers being told how pleased the committee was to see a young lad like himself “taking an interest in the hall.”

“I wasn’t really all that interested at the time,” he said with a chuckle. “But since then I’ve seen all the different things it gets used for, and I’d like to see it keep on going.

“And it’s a good bunch to work with.”

Younger members like Lisa Lillies, the committee’s newest member agrees.

“I’ve been with it two years,” she said, adding that her own memories of the hall are of all the weddings, showers, and socials she’s been at over the years.

“I felt that a lot of younger members needed to come out and help support our hall,” she said. “It’s a very important part of our community.”

The volunteer committee members look after all the hall upkeep themselves, with ongoing rentals, plus another long-standing community tradition — a weekly bingo — helping to pay the bills.

Theirs is one of the few remaining weekly bingos in the area since video lottery terminals became popular.

“When the VLTs came in, it really did change the demand for those things,” noted Cowling-Mason. But there’s another reason volunteers keep hosting these weekly bingos.

“They said, ‘We think it’s still important to have that gathering time,” she said.

“They said, ‘If we were doing it for the money we’d have stopped years ago.”

Community engagement party

On the subject of money, they’ve tried to attach a dollar value to what volunteer time contributed in their community adds up to, said Cowling-Mason. It’s easily $100,000.

That valuation is part of an ongoing effort in this municipality to make sure all community volunteers know how important their contributions are. RM of Woodlands Community Development Corporation annually organizes a volunteer recognition evening of its own, said Cowling-Mason. Everyone connected to a voluntary organization is invited and it’s an evening when the community honours outstanding voluntary contributions.

“We call it our ‘community engagement party,’” she said, adding that it both highlights these volunteer contributions and links people together across the four small centres within the municipality.

Incidentally, no one has to volunteer that night to host the dinner either.

That’s because the CDC co-hosts the event with the Warren Collegiate student body, said Cowling-Mason.

About 40 to 50 students do all the meal planning, preparation and help MC the evening to to make sure all those volunteers “get the night off,” said Cowling-Mason.

Involving local youth this way has been “a phenomenal way” to link the school to what’s going on in the rest of the community, she said. And it’s done wonders to link community groups into the pool of volunteer energy and talent among local youth.

“It has been such a tremendous eye-opener in our community to see what the capacity of our kids is too,” she said.

One of three

Woodlands Community Hall was one of three community groups receiving the Premier’s Award last week. Others were the Churchill Ladies Club and a volunteer team with Ten Thousand Villages.

Other rural Manitobans receiving individual awards included Bernice Enstrom for her lifelong commitment to St. Phillip’s Anglican Church and the Women’s Institute in Stonewall. Richard (Dick) Walker of Swan was also honoured for long-service volunteering with the Rotary Club of Canada, the Swan River Valley Agricultural Society, and for founding the Ducks Unlimited Canada Swan River Valley fundraising banquet.

National Volunteer Week is held April 6 to 12 to recognize, celebrate and thank Canada’s 13.3 million volunteers. A 2010 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating indicates that close to 53 per cent of Manitobans over the age of 15 volunteer, contributing approximately 74 million hours annually.

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