Sharing Lunch WIth Carol Workun: The Mainstreeter Interview

“CAG has been my life for the last 17 years. It wasn’t a job for me…it’s been a lifestyle…”

In this edition of The Mainstreeter, we are glad to shine a long-overdue spotlight on Carol Workun, a tireless local organizer and booster who has recently stepped down from her post atop the Community Activities Group of Old Ottawa East (CAG) after 17 years of dedicated service to our community. In this interview, Workun recalls the growth and success of CAG over her years at the organization, from its early days as a “kitchen table” group to the point today where CAG is bursting at the seams with programs and events for all residents of Old Ottawa East. Often reluctant to take centre stage during her years at CAG, preferring to allow staff and volunteers to shine, Workun talks here about the changes that have shaped the organization and her own career, and what the future holds for both her and for CAG.

Current and recently retired members of the CAG Board of Directors recently hosted a dinner to honour Workun following her retirement announcement. Pictured here are (back row): Don Stephenson, Carol Workun, Lisa Dunnett, Camrose Burdon, Lynne Byford, (front row) Tina Raymond and Melanie Gilbert. Photo by Ken Workun

The Mainstreeter: For those in Old Ottawa East familiar with the work of the Community Activities Group (CAG), it’s difficult to think of CAG without thinking of Carol Workun. You have been the driving force behind this organization and its growth for almost two decades. Tell us what CAG has meant to you over your long and successful tenure?

Carol Workun: It’s so hard for me to talk about this without getting a little emotional. CAG has been my life for the last 17 years. It wasn’t a job for me – I’ve always said it was a lifestyle because I work in the community, and I live in the community, so I’m always out there with people who have questions and needs and wants. It’s been a wonderful lifestyle for me. It’s been a big part of my life, and my family’s life, alongside many other things.

Overall, my best memories are of the people that I’ve worked with and the relationships that I’ve made. I think the really important part of my days at CAG has been those incredible connections I’ve made with people. This is an extraordinary community in terms of people’s involvement, and the amount of effort they are willing to put into things that they’re passionate about. I’ve made some amazing friends, and I’ve had the privilege of getting to know my community more deeply than I could have done otherwise.

The Mainstreeter: Why was the Fall of 2019 the right time for you to hand the reins of the organization over to CAG’s new director, Carol Toone? And what does the future hold for you?

Carol Workun: I remember sitting with my husband one Sunday morning, having my morning tea, and the decision just became clear. It was something that had been percolating around for a little while. I looked at him and I said, “I think it’s time for me to step down from CAG”. He had heard me say this before but this time he knew it was decided. At that point, I also said to him, “Okay, now here’s the hard part. I want to go back to Sri Lanka for three months in the Fall”. That was part of my decision to step down from CAG. He did ask for 24 hours to think about that, but he has always been very supportive of me.

“This is an extraordinary community in terms of people’s involvement, and the amount of effort they are willing to put into things that they’re passionate about.”

For people who know me, they know I’ve become very involved with a school for young adults in Sri Lanka over the last five years. It’s become a passion of mine, and the more I’ve visited the school, the more involved I’ve got, and the more involved I want to get. So part of the decision was because I’m going out for three months in September to see the same group of students that I saw start the school year in January. I will be there for their graduation. I teach English, which is why I’m there, but I also support the students and the staff, and I have a real community out there. But in that moment, I think I was also affected by the stage of life that I’m at. At my age I’m at the point where people in my life are having health issues. I just lost a very dear friend in February, and you realize that if there’s other things that you want to do, you need to do them now.

And the last part is that I was working with an extremely good Board of Directors. I felt like I could step down and they would manage the transition well, as they have. Equally, I feel bad leaving as they have been so very supportive.

The Mainstreeter: Let’s talk a little bit about CAG itself, and some of your thoughts about the organization, then and now, and how it has changed over the years.

Carol Workun: The growth of CAG has been exponential. I was brought into the group and got involved with Julia Sneyd back when my kids were little. At that time we were really a grass roots kitchen table organization. At first we were a Board of about four or five, probably running five or six programs and an after school program. It was a lot of work for a small group of volunteers and at one point, it was down to just Julia and me.

Around that time, I remember the City contacting me and saying, you know, you’re not holding meetings, and part of our agreement with the City was that CAG was supposed to have regular meetings and produce minutes. I laughed and said to them, “Oh God, we just talk on the phone and get stuff done”. But we had to structure a little bit more at that point to satisfy our agreement. We also had a lot of grandiose ideas, and we grew beyond our capabilities. We tried to hire someone but were not successful, so at that point I said I would work for CAG for a few months while we searched for an executive director. Well, that six months turned into 17 years.

I’m very proud of the growth of CAG, but with growth has come challenges, not in the least financial. People often assume that CAG is City-funded – it’s not, it’s funded from programming. We’ve had challenges like increases in minimum wage and changes to daycare policies, and those kinds of things to contend with. I am a little saddened that we’ve lost some of that very simple kitchen table sense of things. It’s important going forward to remember that CAG is not all about budgets and spreadsheets, it’s not about money for this or money for that. It’s actually about serving our people and making connections and having strong relationships within the organization as well as within the community.

Carol Workun and former Chair of CAG, Nick Masciantonio, at The Main Event in 2014. According to Workun, Masciantonio was a great supporter of CAG and helped transition the organization through a period of change during his time on the Board.. Photo Supplied

The Mainstreeter: What are some of the accomplishments of CAG that you are most proud of over the years?

Carol Workun: In terms of projects, I think the most significant one for me was CAG’s fieldhouse renovation project at Brantwood Park, because we had a major fundraising effort, something that took us beyond anything we’d done before. This wasn’t like running Saturday morning soccer, this was raising $120,000. But we did it!

“We have to show people that there is a living community here that is active, and that cares and that we are not just a thoroughfare.”

The second thing that I’m really quite proud of is The Main Event. That was something that was started in response to a request from the Community Association. There had been some discussion at City Hall about Old Ottawa East not being a real community, but rather just a thoroughfare for cars from downtown to the hospital. As you can imagine, that got a few people quite agitated. We at CAG were the people who put on events, so the Community Association came to us and said, “We want a party on Main Street. We have to show people that there is a living community here that is active, and that cares and that we are not just a thoroughfare”. So that’s how The Main Event started! Like many things that we started, it was supposed to be a one-off event, but it was so popular it became an annual event.

The third thing I am proud of would be the Thursday night barbeques. I love them because they’re a little bit more back to our grassroots, one of the very simple things that brings people into the park, gathering together, playing with their kids, grabbing something to eat, You love it just because it’s simple.

Lastly, I’m very proud of CAG’s work with youth. We have been very successful in hiring young people to work with us. Through our after school programs and things like Saturday morning soccer and gym programs, we had the privilege of hiring young people, mostly from the community, often giving them their first job experience.

Interestingly enough, at my farewell party that the Board held, the most touching moments for me were from two of the young staff that we had hired at CAG. One of them won’t mind me saying this but he started off with some challenges. He actually recalled some of his early errors and thanked me for my patience. And he’s now one of our best staff. It’s just lovely to watch that amazing growth.

The Mainstreeter: Our community is changing so rapidly, and right before our eyes. What have been some of the challenges and opportunities for CAG over the past few years of rapid change and growth within OOE?

Carol Workun: All of us were quite unsure what the influx of new people would do to our community. What I’ve been excited by is that a lot of the people who have moved into the area have very much embraced the community. I think Corners on Main and Greystone Village have done a really good job at selling their properties by selling this community. Our challenge has always seemed to be how we were going to bring the newcomers in, when in fact they have brought themselves in, and indeed many of them came knocking at our door. One of our current Board members, Camrose Burden, began volunteering at the barbeques before she even moved into the neighbourhood. So the influx of newcomers has actually turned into more of a gift than a challenge.

I think that with a growing number of people our biggest challenge in future is going to be finding adequate space. Our green spaces have diminished and what we have left is going to be more intensely used. So how do we make that work for all of the people who want to access those spaces? But even bigger than that is our community space for events and activities. We have such small facilities that are not in keeping with the capacity of CAG to give this community programming and events that it wants. I think adequate space will be our biggest challenge over the next little while.

The Mainstreeter: I think that a large percentage of the people who reside in Old Ottawa East has directly benefited from CAG services and programs, which must make you feel happy and proud that your organization has personally involved and touched so many people in this community.

Carol Workun: Yes, of course! Somebody said to me recently, “I think CAG has touched me in ways I don’t even know because I’m not sure I’m aware of all the things that you’ve done”. I think the most measurable benefit is the connections that people have made through coming together for CAG activities, and these people go on and do other things together. I’ve always said that CAG is not about our yoga class. It’s not about our soccer class. It’s about the connections that you make from participating in these programs and events.

Pictured here with some of her students at Tea Leaf Vision, Maskeliya, Sri Lanka on a walk through the tea plantations practicing their English.
Photo By Carol Workun

When I stop to think about my time at CAG, I can say that it has been such a great honour to have this position. It was wonderful for my family, my kids all grew up with CAG. CAG allowed me the flexibility to be with my children. But it also gave my kids the great opportunity to see what it means to get involved with your community. My kids and my husband, they’ve all been amazing. Whenever I was short of volunteers, they were always right there. So, it’s been an honour for me, but it’s also been a gift for my family that they’ve grown up in circumstances where these things were never questioned; it’s now firmly part of who they are, and that’s great.
                                                                

If readers want to get involved in helping the Sri Lankan students, as Carol has done over the past five years, whether through donations or in a volunteer capacity, kindly email Carol Workun at carol@workun.ca.

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