Willow Arts Community began as a grassroots movement in St. Catharines, Ontario. Founder/Director Shauna MacLeod was attending outpatient mental health services in 2015 and openly discussed the need for something “more” in terms of programming for people with lived experience of mental health/addictions. Encouraged by a psychiatric nurse and supported by others who echoed her vision, she identified there was an immediate need for an ongoing support network where individuals living with mental illness/addictions can participate in their own recovery process by exploring their creativity in a safe, community-based environment.
The founding “Start Up Committee” consisted of individuals with lived experience of mental health/addictions, artists, educators, and supporters. In October 2015, we began by meeting weekly in coffee shops with the sole purpose of developing an organization. We named ourselves The Willow Community- Shauna grew up climbing a beloved willow tree- a safe place where she could escape and write poetry. The “willow” represented her idea of safety, rooted connection, creativity, and freedom. The “community” represented belonging and ownership from within.
We researched existing and complementary agencies, explored locations in the city, created a presence on Facebook, and by December 2015, we had drafted our mission, values, and vision that were printed in our first brochure. Shauna held true to her belief that real change happens from the ground up. She refused the idea of sitting in boardrooms making decisions for people, and instead motivated and empowered individuals with lived experience of mental health/addictions to help create The Willow Community.
Early 2016, news spread that Workman Arts (Toronto) was surveying communities across Ontario to identify suitable locations for three pilot sites as part of their Province-Wide Grow Grant with Ontario Trillium Foundation. Shauna immediately began building partnerships with complementary and supporting agencies in the Niagara Region and submitted a proposal for St. Catharines to be considered as one of the three locations. By September 2016, their proposal was shortlisted with six other communities across Ontario. The cross-sector partnerships that were built during the proposal writing process continue to be the community framework for our organization today.
By June, The Willow Community incorporated as a non-profit organization. Many of our “Start Up Committee” members formed our initial Board of Directors. Social service agencies began inviting us to give community outreach seminars and word of mouth was spreading.
In the first year, we hosted 12 free arts workshops, 17 family friendly game nights, and our members participated in two art shows in the City of St. Catharines. We published 12 monthly newsletter “Brainstorm” that highlighted our members, their talents, and communicated our vision to the arts and mental health/addictions sectors. All of this was made possible by generous donations of space, time, energy, money and spirit by artists, members, volunteers, and supporters.
In February, The Willow Community’s proposal to Workman Arts was successful and earned St. Catharines one of three spot on their grant to Ontario Trillium Foundation with North Bay and Thunder Bay * in collaboration with Rodman Hall Art Centre, Niagara Artists Centre, Canadian Mental Health Association-Niagara, Niagara Region Mental Health, Start Me Up Niagara, Oak Centre Clubhouse and Mahtay Cafe.
In March, we moved into our office at Rodman Hall Art Centre and began providing all art workshops in the Studio Gallery. This had a profound impact on our credibility and visibility as an organization. We were now introducing our members into a historic, cultured space that many would not feel they belonged.
We hosted two widely successful fundraiser that enabled us to provide whole seasons worth of art programming. In total, we provided 44 free art workshops, hosted three art exhibitions, and participated in Culture Days. The year finished on a high note with the beginning of our “Songs from the Willow” program- a six-month music making project with Joe Lapinski, funded by the Ontario Arts Council.
In March 2018, Workman Arts was successful in securing three years of provincial funding and St. Catharines is now the home of one of three pilot sites across Ontario.
So far this year, We also hosted another majorly successful fundraiser that helped us provide full seasons of art programming. We have hosted two well attended art exhibitions and performed at In the Soil Arts Festival. Members were published in an online journal ti< and we published our first zine Branches under our publishing name EmBark Press. We released a full album of original music from the Songs form the Willow project.
Founder/Executive Director Shauna MacLeod was nominated for “Making a Difference” for her work with The Willow Community at the City of St. Cathrines Arts Award. She was awarded “Jury’s Pick” from among the nominees for her dedication to St. Catharines arts community. She was also invited as a guest speaker at the 2018 Youth Forum Committee for City Council to share her experiences with the arts and community recovery.