“It all started with a little house on a hill.” That is Joan MacKinnon’s memory of how the organization that today is known as HomeBridge Youth Society started over 40 years ago.
Ms. MacKinnon worked in the Child Welfare System as Regional Administrator in the late seventies and was not content to just sit back and wait for problems to solve themselves.
“I was in a position to know where there were gaps in the system. We were having trouble finding places for teenage boys, mostly between 12 and 16 years of age,” she recalled. “Group homes were opening up for other populations, so I thought why can’t we have one for boys?”
She and a group of her colleagues, who were front line Social Workers, got together and decided it was time they created the change they wanted to see in the system. They started the process of getting all the requirements and paperwork in order to open up a group home including registering their organization as the Association for the Development of Children’s Residential Facilities. Ms. MacKinnon says the real challenge was finding a house to purchase that would suit their purposes, but they eventually found a property near Sullivan’s Pond in Dartmouth.
It was once a guest house so the size was right, but Ms. MacKinnon remembers it being more than a little run down. She put down $100 of her own money to hold the property until they could finalize the sale and then she and her colleagues, who eventually became the Board of Directors, got to work fixing it up.
“It needed a lot of work, but it was wonderful,” she said. “The cooperation we had to get this done was just wonderful. People were scraping floors, hanging wall paper, painting and everything. It was a lot of fun.”
After formalizing the Board with Ms. MacKinnon as Chair and hiring staff, they opened Hawthorne House to its first residents in February of 1979. In the four decades that have passed since the organization’s modest start much has changed. The organization has grown to include six residential care facilities, an accredited school program and both arts and recreation based therapeutic, life-skills programs. Even the name changed from the Association for the Development of Children’s Residential Care Facilities to HomeBridge Youth Society. Allan Boucher, who has been a Youth Care Worker with the organization for 35 years, would suggest however that not everything has changed.
“What has stayed the same is the people,” he explained. “The people who come into this field are a special, caring breed of people. They are supportive and always there to help you through. No matter how many times we feel like we are hitting our heads against a brick wall, we hang in there and there is always someone there to offer support and listen to you when you need it.”
Executive Director, Ernie Hilton agrees that the heart of Youth Care Workers is one thing that has remained consistent.
“Then, as now, I loved the people,” he said.
The proficiency of Youth Care Workers in their practice, even in their first year, however he says has come a long way. Like Mr. Boucher, he started as a casual Youth Care Worker at Hawthorne House over 30 years ago with far less formal training than practitioners now have even in their first year of studies.
“I could not be more pleased at how we all have rose to the challenge of accepting excellence in practice as our bar of expectation,” he said. “It really is the best way to honour ourselves and the youth and families we are here to serve.”
Mr. Hilton estimates that the organization has served between five and six thousand young people since opening Hawthorne House in 1979. This is something that Ms. MacKinnon takes great pride in. She retired as Board Chair in 2000 after hiring the organization’s first Executive Director, but still keeps a close eye on the happenings in and around the HomeBridge Community.
“I look back so fondly (on opening Hawthorne House),” she said. “It really was a labour of love and it is definitely the thing I’m most proud of in my career. It all started with a little house on the hill and now it is something I never dreamed of. I wouldn’t have even had a clue it would go this far.”
Mr. Hilton hopes the organization continues to make Ms. MacKinnon proud as he continues to look forward to what more can be done to serve vulnerable youth in our province.
“HomeBridge has a capacity to offer so much more and I hope we get an opportunity in the time I have remaining as Executive Director to help bring that to fruition.”