Be kind to everyone. This is the message that Shiela Shaw, executive director at the Fort Frances Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), wants to relay to others.
It usually takes most people a few tries to find their life’s purpose, their true passion and dream job. But for the lucky few, first time’s the charm.
Shaw, 65, has been at the helm of the organization, with 32 years of doing the job she very much enjoys, and that is helping people.
“CMHA was everything I believed in,” Shaw said. “I loved their values. I’ve always come into a job I liked. I’ve had a lot of freedom to develop. It is a grassroots organization that puts the person at the centre of their care. My job was to ensure the staff had the support and the tools they needed to ultimately better serve clients, patients or community members.”
When Shaw began working at the CMHA in 1989, they only had one staff member and one program running. Fast forward 32 years, CMHA now has over 60 staff members managing programs in Kenora and the Rainy River District, including Fort Frances, Atikokan, Sioux Lookout, Red Lake and Dryden.
“It’s changed significantly over the years,” Shaw said. “I love it for a variety of reasons. I always enjoyed coming to work. I work with a terrific group of people. I’m a firm believer that everybody has a gift and that we’re all of equal value.”
Shaw’s work in the community has been an extension of her message of kindness as she is passionate about the need to better integrate primary care and mental health and addiction services at all workplaces.
“We have to stop separating our minds from our bodies,” Shaw said. “They’re both parts of the same being, and without both being healthy, neither is.”
Although work can at times be challenging, Shaw said with the right mindset, everything is possible.
“I do not think there are barriers that we do not put up by ourselves,” Shaw said. “I think if there’s truly an obstacle it is possible to overcome.”
Shaw’s passion of helping people and her affinity to seeing them grow into the best versions of themselves has led her help sponsor a family to come and live in Canada.
Shaw and her husband have been travelling to Cuba since 2000 where they had a great time, developed some friendships and decided to go back the following year. Shaw said during one trip, they met a couple who wanted to immigrate to Canada.
“We started having this discussion and over a couple of years we’ve gone back to Cuba for a short time and that turned into immigrating a family,” Shaw said. “It is probably one of the best things we have done in our life.”
With the help of local families, Shaw said, they were able to bring the Cuban family to Canada where they found employment. The family now lives outside of Toronto and Shaw said they talk to them regularly.
Besides work, Shaw is also a professional glass fuser. Her work has been exhibited at galleries in B.C., Ignace and the Fine Line Art Gallery in Fort Frances.
“Fusing glass is my own personal outlet,” Shaw said. “As a glass artist, I love playing with different techniques and pushing the limits there, but I’m most comfortable using glass powders and creating impressionistic landscapes.”
Shaw said she started fusing glass over 16 years ago before she began mentoring a few other fusers more recently.
With Shaw retiring in June, she said she is looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren and being up at the lake exploring the shoreline and looking for treasures.
Her one message is to be kind to everyone you meet because chances are they are fighting a battle you know nothing about.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile or a kind word,” Shaw said. “Those small acts of caring have the potential to turn lives around.”