What did Helen Perry do in the community?
“It would be easier to say what she didn’t do,” according to Christine Hager.
Perry and Hager worked alongside one another at St. James’ Anglican Church — one of many organizations Perry dedicated countless hours to over the years.
“Helen was my mentor,” Hager said.
When Hager arrived at St. James’ in the early 2000s, she met Perry, who was chair of the Couchiching Jubilee House board at the time. Hager soon got involved with that organization, too.
“That started my whole career as a community worker. She’s the one who put that passion in me,” she said.
Hager is among many in the community who were inspired by Perry and will continue to be inspired by her legacy.
Perry died May 4 at her family farm in Hawkestone.
She was born in England in 1936 and emigrated to Canada 10 years later with her parents and siblings. This community is better because of it and won’t be the same without her, Hager said.
“I’m so saddened and I’m heartbroken that we lost her,” she said. “I had the firm belief that she could overcome anything, even cancer.”
That’s the impression Perry made on those she met. She was tough, focused and determined — for all the right reasons.
“She had such a tremendous work ethic and such a passion for people,” Hager said. “She had a firm belief in her religion and she believed in helping people.”
Perry started the Loonie Lunch program at St. James’. The initial goal was to provide some hot food to those in need, but it became much more.
“The purpose is twofold,” Perry told OrilliaMatters in 2018. “It’s to provide a hot, nutritious meal to people who are hungry. More important, it’s a safe place for people to come to socialize.”
“People started to socialize and build friendships there,” Hager said. “That is a wonderful legacy of hers.”
St. James’ was just one of Perry’s passions. She also dedicated time to The Sharing Place Food Centre, the Boys and Girls Club, the CNIB, the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness and many other organizations, including the Orillia Youth Centre.
Kevin Gangloff, director of the youth centre, met Perry in the early 2000s. Both attended meetings with other representatives of local organizations and social services.
“Helen always had the best interests of the community in mind,” he said.
It wasn’t unusual for Gangloff to get a call from Perry, saying she had come across some clothing or food and wanted to offer it to the youth centre.
“She was incredibly selfless and always looking out for others,” Gangloff said. “She touched a lot of corners in this community.”
That includes the Leacock Museum.
When Fred Addis took on the role of museum curator in 2001, Perry was the volunteer co-ordinator.
“Helen was a dynamo,” he said. “There was a very visible energy inside that woman that gave the message from the get-go that if there was something that needed to be done, she was going to get it done.”
Addis described Perry as being “the poster woman” for community involvement.
“In a world of increasingly strong and stronger women, she was really focused and determined to do exactly what she felt she should do,” he said. “That’s the thing that I admire about her.”
She also encouraged others to volunteer, regardless of the cause.
“She pushed me to stay involved and do more,” said Addis, who is doing just that in his retirement.
Perry took her volunteer roles seriously and she didn’t like to waste time getting something done, knowing the beneficiaries of her efforts needed help as soon as possible.
“She was famous for her one-hour meetings,” Hager recalled with a laugh. “Meetings never went over one hour. If they did, she was watching the clock. She kept people in order.”
It’s difficult to summarize Perry and her legacy, but Hager said she will be most remembered for her “community spirit and helping the vulnerable” through so many organizations.
“She’s done just about everything you can think of.”