Lanark County Social Services is celebrating its 50th anniversary in November – marking five decades of tremendous change in serving the community.
The department began operations on Nov. 3, 1973 in the basement of Lanark Lodge, the county’s long-term care home. At the time, there were three field workers, a secretary/receptionist and Director Ray Elgersma, who also carried a caseload. There were no computers, staff shared three phones and all cheques had to be driven to the courthouse to be signed by hand by the county clerk.
Elgersma recalls the primary tasks were the administration and provision of the General Welfare Assistance Act, and the completion of applications for admission to Lanark Lodge.
“While it was a bare bones organization initially, there was a youthful, professional enthusiastic staff seeking to be a compassionate, caring income support service for persons facing economic challenges that needed financial assistance,” he said.
By the first decade, a one-stop service delivery system consisted of children’s aid, provincial social services (including disability, family benefits and vocational rehabilitation services), and Lanark Social Services. Big Brothers (now Big Brothers Big Sisters) also had its office there for a time.
The department expanded to include a Service Facilitation Worker to assist persons with developmental challenges moving to independent living. Adult Protective Service Workers advocated for persons with developmental challenges.
“Lanark Social Services was one of nine agencies province-wide chosen to oversee the administration of the provincial Family Benefits Act,” Elgersma said.
By 1984, the staff complement grew to 15 and the department moved from the basement of Lanark Lodge to nearby professional offices in the new county administration building erected at 99 Christie Lake Road in 1982.
In 1998, the province downloaded management of social services to municipalities, which led to the creation of 47 service system managers. Lanark County, as an upper-tier (county government), became a Consolidated Municipal Service Manager and oversees systems planning and manages delivery of local human services, including client centered and income supports, housing services, homelessness services and prevention, and child care and early years services. Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada where municipalities hold responsibility for social services.
“This kind of service delivery requires a community approach because these are critical needs that our clients rely on every day,” said current Director of Social Services Emily Hollington. “The department’s purpose is ‘to provide guidance, support and resources to the people of Lanark County to promote empowered and fulfilled lives.’ Our staff truly strive to work with clients to help them navigate their journeys and individual circumstances.”
Today, Lanark County Social Services has a staff of about 60 people and an annual budget of about $50 million. The department’s value statements speak to an inclusive community (“together we’re better”), compassion and appreciation (“everyone’s story matters”) and collaboration and collective energy (“together we’re stronger”).
“We have embraced many collaborations and partnerships in the community over the years in an effort to serve individuals and families better,” Hollington said. “This ranges from participation in collaborative tables such as the by-name list committee for homelessness and the Lanark County Situation Table to working closely with non-profit agencies such as Carebridge and Lanark County Interval House and Community Support to provide affordable housing opportunities in the community.”
The department plays a critical role in emergencies as well, providing food and shelter during crises. This was evident, for example, when 640 evacuees from Deer Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario fled their homes due to forest fire. For two weeks, upwards of 20 Lanark County social services staff were on site at the Gallipeau Centre in Smiths Falls, providing a variety of support services.
“We are fortunate to have an incredible team of individuals who are dedicated to helping people with a wide range of services in often challenging circumstances,” said Lanark County CAO Kurt Greaves. “Congratulations to the department on this significant milestone.”
Warden Peter McLaren (Lanark Highlands Reeve) also extended congratulations on 50 years of serving the county. “Over five decades there has been an incredible amount of change and the department has evolved tremendously. Many of our residents face significant challenges in their daily lives, and this department and council will continue to look for ways to empower them and meet needs in our community.”