Meet Melissa Masse
Melissa is a Community Animator in Strathmore, Alberta. She has called Strathmore home for the last seven years. Melissa appreciates Strathmore’s close-knit community and the connection it offers. She says that rural communities like Strathmore offer accessibility, allowing community members to build relationships with one another and even with service providers.
Melissa’s background as a Social Worker and a strong advocate for mental wellness sees her continuing this work in the community of Strathmore. Melissa’s philosophy is that a happy community is healthy, and a healthy community can promote inclusivity, encourage building connections and foster a greater sense of belonging.
The Driving Factors
Providing residents with the opportunity to come out and reconnect with other members continues to be a huge driving factor in running community engagement events. Through community events, Melissa learned that many residents hadn't left their homes in two years due to COVID. These events were now giving residents what COVID had taken away; the chance to connect and meet one another.
Melissa accepts that there are many factors causing communities to struggle, including the increased cost of groceries, rising house prices, and illness. Melissa speaks about a person-centred approach and understanding what community members need so Animators can be flexible and intentional in the programs they offer. Melissa acknowledges that offering services that are accessible and barrier-free is the key to building a more resilient and connected community.
Involving the Community
Service providers would like to believe that they can recognize a community's needs and then offer programs accordingly. But Melissa acknowledges some of these approaches were not working, with low attendance rates at many community events. Melissa explains that she learned the importance of engaging with the residents to really understand what they wanted and how they wanted programs to be implemented, "Our residents wanted events that were held on a regular basis. We adapted and changed to meet resident needs, and it was successful. We are seeing more attendance and more residents coming out to longer-term sustainable initiatives.”
Building a Greater Sense of Community
Every community has its challenges and learning opportunities, but Melissa explains that these are opportunities to grow. It is powerful when a smaller community can offer its members the opportunity to build strong connections. The knitting club in Strathmore is an example of a program that offered just that. The knitting club saw regular attendance from at least 10-15 members, and strong friendships were developed because of the club.
Another success in Strathmore was with an American Sign Language (ASL) group. Although previously run in the community, the attendance in the ASL group was impacted by COVID. The community was able to bolster interest in this group once again by running a community event for ASL. Melissa reports that this led to a positive problem: too many community members were interested. This allowed them the opportunity to develop more classes than initially intended. "In the end, it has reinvigorated interest in that weekly, ongoing ASL group to practice skills and talk to one another. We do have residents leading that group who are hearing impaired and have felt super isolated because they have been unable to communicate with members of our community.”
The Skate More Girls was another Strathmore initiative that saw community engagement opportunities, especially with youth. This group was developed to be an inclusive space to challenge the negative perceptions that the community held about the skate park. The community's skate park is now viewed as a place for community engagement events and socialization for youth and families.
Partnership with Volunteer Connector
The community's partnership with Volunteer Connector is a significant success: "The partnership established a volunteer hub within Strathmore that allows community services and residents to be connected." Reminding us of the importance of barrier-free services, Melissa shares that this partnership worked to facilitate connections between organizations and residents of the community.
Learnings and Words of Wisdom
Melissa's biggest learnings include the importance of showing curiosity and offering a listening ear to community members. She recognizes that being receptive to community members' suggestions and needs result in greater success. Melissa is proud of her community's Indigenous engagement circle, which has provided opportunities for Indigenous perspectives to be heard and for future events and opportunities to be more culturally inclusive.
Melissa has shared several pieces of wisdom for future animators:
- Community engagement does not always have to be done formally; conversations at a grocery store or a community event can also provide opportunities to learn and grow.
- You don’t have to start from scratch. Look within the community to find existing assets and build upon those.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to build community engagement in all your events. There are no rules for community engagement; every event will allow an opportunity to establish a sense of community.