2018 IW Winners

Influential Community Trailblazer - Thunder Bay

Donna Gilhooly

Donna Gilhooly

Even in retirement, Donna Gilhooly remains a driving force to enrich the quality of life in Thunder Bay.

The former recreational director for the City of Thunder Bay is all about cultivating community partnerships to achieve better outcomes.

Regarded as a tireless and inspirational champion of community service, Gilhooly is noted for her high standards and values grounded in dignity, humility and respect for all people.

Gilhooly was a pioneer in the emerging field of recreation when she began work at the City of Fort William in the fall of 1966.

“It was hard. There was a fair amount of discrimination,” she remembered.

“By the time I left the city, certainly gender issues were much more understood and dealt with than when I first started, I’ll tell you.”

During the 1960s, the recreation department’s programming consisted of playgrounds and winter rinks.

Gilhooly created a rich legacy of programs and services in transitioning the award-winning recreation division from one of segregation to one of inclusivity.

She instituted a grass-roots community development approach toward removing barriers and making programming accessible and affordable for all.

Gilhooly worked with social service agencies and sponsors who brought funding and enthusiasm to the table. “Together, it was a better effort.”

Citizen engagement was integral to her philosophy. “This is what makes a stronger community,” said Gilhooly. “If you sat in your office and made decisions on what the community wanted, you’d be isolated and probably be wrong half the time.”

There were political battles won and lost. Some administrations were not willing to spend public money on anything that couldn’t be paved.

Still, the outspoken Gilhooly persisted.

“The biggest thing is you never worked alone. You had community partners. If the council chamber was filled with people in wheelchairs, it’s hard to turn away from that.

“As much as that was a personal philosophy it was also a political strategy.”

But she also credits generations of progressive city councillors who supported real change in the development of opportunities.

A project is close to her heart is P.R.O (Positive Recreation Opportunities) Kids, a registered charity that allows youth from economically disadvantaged families to participate in community recreational activities.

Gilhooly struggled for years trying to figure out a way for such children to have equal access without having to identify themselves as in need of assistance.

Beginning in 1998, hundreds of community partners have since come forward, donating spaces for 23,000 children in that span.

P.R.O. Kids won the Peter F. Drucker Award for Canadian Non-Profit Innovation in 1999.

“It is such a success in our community,” she said.

Gilhooly shocked her colleagues when she took early retirement in her 50s.

Seventeen years after her departure, her private life seems a continuation of her professional career.

“Your principles about community service and responsibility to community, they don’t change. You carry your values and your principles with you wherever you go.”

Gilhooly helped secure funding to preserve the historic C.W. Parker carousel at Chippewa Park, one of only three such carousels remaining in North America.

She is on the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund board, is past vice-chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and is a member of the City of Thunder Bay Waterfront Development Committee.

Her work has been recognized by the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal and with the Commemorative Medal for the 125th anniversary of Canada.