Edmonton is full of these people. On the news, we most often hear stories about those who make big changes to our city. But outside of that, there are also thousands of little stories of people working in their community to make life better responding to need.
Here are three of them. We call them Community Champions.
Ten years ago, when Maryanne Wiebe lived in St. Albert, she says she would never have to pick up garbage. But living downtown is a different story. Now she’s out cleaning litter so often that many core residents recognize her.
“They call me ‘the garbage picker’ or ‘garbage lady,’ but I prefer to be known as their neighbor—because that’s what I am,” Wiebe says.
After raising their children, Wiebe and her husband decided to move to central Edmonton and embrace downtown living. “We walk almost everywhere,” she says.
She walked about 20 blocks to work every day. And that’s where everything changed.
“So, I am walking around downtown, minding my own business and I think, ‘Boy there’s a lot of garbage here,’” Wiebe says.
For the first year it bothered her. “I was just angry,” she says. But after that, she wanted to make a difference. Wiebe signed up for Capital City Clean Up and adopted blocks of the city to clean—14 of them along 100 Avenue.
Wiebe says she felt self-conscious the first time she took out garbage bags. But in the seven years she’s been part of the Clean Up, she says she’s become so adept using her trash grabber that she can swipe a floating paper bag out of the air.
She goes out once a week. In just two weeks’ time, she collects two large black garbage bags of litter from the streets. Over the years she’s finely tuned her routine. She knows where all the city garbage cans are, so she can empty as she goes. The worst thing she’s ever picked up? A jar of urine by the Edmonton General Hospital.
“Some people think I am doing community service. People stop to say they hope my parole officer knows I am doing a great job. Or they stop and ask me why I am doing this.”
So why is she? “I’ve always said it takes a village to make things work and I am a part of that village.”
Her route takes her by the Edmonton General where she has gotten to know some of the long-term residents. “Oliver is Edmonton’s best kept secret,” Wiebe says.
Curtis Boehm’s work as a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church is all about connection.
And he sees a lot of them. Outside, he says he notices who’s on the street. “The walking traffic in this neighbourhood is incredible,” he says.
And it’s through his proximity to the church building— he and his family live beside it—that he gets a chance to speak with some in the community who are homeless. He takes time to learn their stories.
“Many people have a route that they take every day, and Oliver is a refuge from some of the issues that happen in the inner city,” he says.
Boehm has worked at the church since 2016 and is an active member with the Oliver Community League. Boehm also managed the Oliver Bike Club for a bit. Badly, he says, as he has three school-aged children. He remains an avid cyclist, and often bikes to his visits around the city.
Many of the connections Boehm makes are through church programs like the basketball game nights that they host or the summer garage sale. But the church is also a space for groups to meet. Everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to condo board AGMs. Even the Oliver Community League now meets at the church.
Boehm says being a part of the OCL is a chance to learn what people in the core care about and how it aligns with Grace Lutheran’s mission. He says issues like walkability, challenges for seniors and combatting urban isolation are shared concerns. “When I started here we thought this would be an ideal way to be a part of our community.”
Recently, the church combined their potluck with one held by the community league. “It was a great chance for the church people to meet the community league members,” he says.
Although not everyone who comes to the church is from Oliver, the community has many elderly people who choose to live in the area because they are close to services, he says.
Boehm says Oliver is a small corner of the city but that there are many opportunities to connect with its people. “All those things are part of what drew me here.”
Elliott Tanti wanted to be an actor but ended up helping his community instead. After he finished his political science degree at the University of Alberta, he moved to Vancouver to pursue acting.
But, “I wasn’t very good,” Tanti says.
Today, Tanti works to help the homeless. He serves as a communications representative at Boyle Street Community Services. Aside from this, he has also volunteered with Edmonton Homeless Count and worked as a staffing clerk at a continuing care facility.
Tanti lives in Oliver and is a strong advocate for the work people do at Boyle Street. “It is one of those places that you walk in a room and you immediately feel a sense of belonging, and there’s an aura about the place that is really incredible,” he says. “Some of the most abused people in society are coming through our doors every day.”
He says he feels blessed to do the work that he does. Not only for the chance to help people but also the sense of purpose it gives him.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my own privileges,” he says. “I’ve had lots of opportunity in my life – beyond being a white straight male.”
For example, he recounts a meeting with City of Edmonton officials about public spaces, where he brought some of the Boyle street clients with him.
“I had no fear about going through the front door, but our community did,” he says. “I see my work as a way to open doors for other people who have not had the same opportunities.”
Working in communications was something Tanti says he sort of fell into. With his varied background he found himself drawn to work in the inner city. And he credits his father, who has a career in communications.
Today he uses his skills to tell stories of people who often are kept invisible, often with social media. He uses it to shift perception.
“I really enjoy changing the hearts and minds of people in the community— whether it is my condo board or my friends who have also moved into Oliver.”
Though he tries to make change, Tanti says the front-line workers at Boyle Street are the real heroes.
4 Ways You Can Become a Core Hero
Who doesn’t want to be a hero? Well, if you engage in your community it’s easy to become one—with or without a cape. Here are four big ideas to set you on the path.
Half of all Albertans volunteer. And each year, this chunk of volunteers offers Alberta the equivalent of $8.3B in time and energy. Indeed, in some ways, volunteerism is an essential part of our society. But why is volunteering critical to becoming a core hero? Karen Link, executive director of Volunteer Alberta, says it comes down to a “beautiful mathematical equation.” Volunteering helps your community, but also boosts your personal mental health, which trickles back into your community. In short, the good multiplies. “Volunteering is about community and individual well- being,” Link says. “There’s a direct correlation. It’s that pathway to feeling connected and belonging.”
2. SHOP LOCAL
This one can be counter intuitive. After all, shouldn’t you just do things yourself to better your community? No. You should also spend in your community at local shops, because local businesspeople are aiming to better your community, too, as well as keeping the money they earn within it. Discover more of them and it’s another win-win. “Simply put, shopping local means that people have taken the time and effort to explore our community and discovered something unique and local,” says Ian O’Donnell, executive director of the Downtown Business Association. “Imagine if we all explored a little more of this city.”
3. TAKE A CLASS
Throughout your community are dozens of organizations offering classes for people with varying skills, from amateur to pro. If you want to become a hero in your own ‘hood, take one. For the reasons why, we asked Amy Leigh at the Society of Northern Alberta Print-Artists (SNAP), in Oliver. “Taking a class at SNAP not only directly supports a local, not-for- profit, artist-run centre but it allows one to connect with folks within their community,” Leigh says. “Beyond it fosters ongoing conversations and capacity building in addition to igniting possibilities for future collaboration, knowledge and skill-sharing.”
4. START AN IMPROVEMENT PROJECT
Oliver Community League features several projects, like the Abundant Communities initiative, Make Something Oliver, Free Little Libraries, and the Mitten Tree. Want to be a community hero? Take a page from OCL and start a project that makes your community stronger and people will get behind. “Oliver may be a challenging community because of our diversity and our size, but it is those very things, and our vibrancy and connectedness, that make it possible to just try something out,” says Lisa Brown, president of the Oliver Community League. “If you positively impact just a few people, it’s certainly worth the effort.”