By Victoria Fulford
“Some people play bingo, some people play volley ball or swim. I go to committee meetings.”
This is how Sally Rutherford modestly explains her continuing commitment to the Somerset West community.
While many people spend their free time on other activities, Rutherford chooses to donate hers to the task of neighborhood improvement.
Arriving at her home, skipping ropes and children’s books in the front hall let visitors know this is a house where children reside. In the living room, sunny daffodils and colorful artwork create a cheery atmosphere and an upright piano stands ready for a young player’s lessons. This evening though, the only music heard is the constant ringing of the telephone.
The phone rings a lot at Sally Rutherford’s house.
It is a vital link for her family to an intricate neighborhood communications network in the Somerset area.
Rutherford, outfitted in navy blue business attire, her striking silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, remembers getting a phone call last fall about a meeting to establish a management group for a new pool facility planned for Plouffe Park.
“I think you should go to this meeting,” Rutherford recalls the caller saying. She also recalls being one of only two people who showed up.
Despite these discouraging prospects, Rutherford managed to get more people involved. At the next meeting more than 15 people met at Dalhousie Community Centre to map out the future of the new pool facility, forming a group called Friends of Plant Bath.
In December, Rutherford appeared before the city policy, priorities and budgeting committee to defend the project’s funding. The result of her appeal will be apparent when the city releases its budget this month.
Friends of Plant Bath is the latest assignment in Rutherford’s distinguished record of community involvement. Originally from Montreal, Rutherford, 43, moved to Somerset West in 1979 after completing two degrees in political science. Upon arrival, she was quick to become involved in community projects. Initially, it was a means to set roots in the area.
Her first foray into local affairs was as part of the Lebreton Flats Community Development Corporation’s council. The council was created to examine strategies for building low income housing on Lebreton Flats. But with no money or government initiative to develop the site, the corporation dissolved two years later.
Rutherford then became part of the new Dalhousie Community Association that resulted from the council’s demise.
Rutherford was attending one of the association’s meetings when she was approached by someone from the Somerset West Community Health Centre board meeting being held across the hall.
“There was a bunch of us that got dragged across the hall that night and by the next year I was sitting on the board,” explains Rutherford.
She became involved in fundraising for the centre, one of about twelve community health centres in the region, which includes a walk-in clinic, staff of physicians and programs to council residents on health-related issues. Rutherford says she found working with the board a rewarding experience.
“It was really an accomplishment for us to raise enough money to build the centre,” she says. “I’m proud of the fact that I was a part of that.”
Rutherford balances her community commitment with a high profile career as executive director of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, one of the largest general agriculture groups in Canada. “It essentially acts as a lobby group for farmers across the country,” she explains.
Rutherford’s work with the federation of agriculture, and her early experience on Parliament Hill as a researcher, have honed her knowledge of governmental procedure. This is one of the primary assets Rutherford brings to any project she is involved in and one of the reasons people in her neighborhood call her when they want help getting things done.
“Sally is a very well-known figure in the ward,” says fellow volunteer and neighbor Archie Campbell.
“There is a large network of people who are aware of how effective and reliable she is.”
Rutherford says she realizes she has skills other people may not have been able to develop to the level she has through her job, but she notes “they’ve got other skills they can bring in. Everybody has something to contribute.”
Coun. Elisabeth Arnold has known Rutherford since the mid-1980s and has worked closely with Friends of Plant Bath. She praises Rutherford’s grassroots activism.
“She is a tireless volunteer in the community…whose mix of community spirit and professionalism gives people the confidence that things are on the right track,” says Arnold.
Arnold also applauds her ability “to find ways to bring people together and celebrate their strengths,” something Rutherford admits is a challenge in a multicultural area. She says it is also difficult to get people involved who have never been active in the community before.
“One of the things I’ve learned about community involvement is that by sort of dragging people into one issue, the likelihood (increases) that you can talk some of them into coming out again,” she says.
The more time Rutherford spends bringing strangers together, the more nights she spends away from her husband and daughters Anna and Jessie.
“My kids are home alone a little more than I’d like them to be,” she admits. “I try really hard not to be away too much.”
Her husband is a school board trustee and also spends the odd evening out attending meetings.
“They understand pretty much what it is we are trying to do, and I think they’re quite proud of it,” Rutherford says of her kids’ attitude towards the couple’s community involvement.
“Although I did come home one night to find a note on the table which said the CFA and the school board have kidnapped my parents,” she laughs.”We keep that posted on the refrigerator.”
As the chances of a new pool facility being built this year to replace Plant Bath become slimmer in the wake of the new lean and mean city budget, Rutherford is not ready to give up.
She and the Friends of Plant Bath are already planning ways to take back the decrepit park that surrounds Plant Bath and “start building some real support for an active and usable facility” through a series of soccer clinics and other outdoor activities.
And Rutherford is quick to point out:
“Nothing is going to change just because you want it to change.”