Helen Break’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

This is one of many stories from a wide variety of sources and a multitude of forms contributed by people upon request for my 70th birthday.   They will be posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them.  I will be posting these regularly until they run out next year sometime: if you have others to add, please send them to me.

My Friend Gail

November 2018

Gail is married with two children in their 20’s. With degrees in Environmental Studies and Adult Education, she is an independent consultant who has been involved in the residential energy efficiency industry for over 30 years in a variety of capacities including as an air sealing contractor, energy and indoor air quality auditor, retailer, researcher, consultant and trainer.

If that is not enough, she is also a tireless volunteer for her neighbourhood, which she moved to in 1989 with her husband, but also her school, her church and her municipality – connecting the dots and people to develop, fundraise and implement community improvement projects. Gail, and her family, have also taken in, and are caring for, an elderly aunt.

To my bewilderment, she does all this without seeming to run short of energy, inspiration, smiles and laughter.

We all know the type. She enters a room of strangers yet manages to connect with many of them. She rarely lets an emotional cloud darken her sunny outlook on life. She remembers faces, names and facts. She maintains a high level of energy and engagement even in the most trying circumstances She delights in every encounter, and feels a sense of connectedness with her surroundings, both social and natural.

Gail’s professional career is breathtaking with leading edge research and a number of “firsts”. Here is just a sampling of her many achievements.

Right out of university, Gail had the privilege of working on the development of Ontario’s very first blue box program. This led to her helping to set up the world’s first sporting event recycling program at the Special Olympics in Minneapolis St. Paul in 1991, and her developing and delivering a training program for 200 recycling volunteers and cleaning staff at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

In 1999, she produced a ‘Household Guide to Water Efficiency’ for Durham Region, which was so well received she was asked to produce a national version for CMHC. Gail developed and delivered North America’s first Green Roof Design 101 course (2004). She also delivered CMHC’s indoor air quality courses across Canada for over a decade (2000 – 2011), and researched and produced publications for CMHC on Carbon Monoxide (2000), House as a System (2014), Making your Home Alternative Water Ready (2014) and Net Zero Energy Homes (2014).

She has been a sustainability consultant to the City of Pickering (2005 – 2010), was the coordinator of York Region’s Max Day Outdoor Water Reduction Program for three years, and has been a professor at both Durham College and Seneca College. She has prepared energy management plans and Partners for Climate Protection reports for the Township of Uxbridge (2014) and the City of Oshawa (2014).

Between 2007 -2008 Gail piloted Ontario’s first Aboriginal Energy Retrofit Pilot for five northern First Nation communities, which led her to her present work on the western shore of James Bay where she is working with three First Nations
communities (Attawapiskat, Kashechewan and Fort Albany) on major energy retrofits to reduce energy use and improve the comfort and health of the occupants. She has just completed Community Energy Plans for the communities, which help guide them towards a more sustainable future. As a sidebar to demonstrate Gail’s resiliency, while working in a remote FN community on James Bay she recently fell, dislocated and broke three bones in her foot and despite incredible pain, she

managed to take pictures of her 6 day journey to get home that included three hospitals, two surgeries, 8 road/2 air/2 water ambulances, and you guessed it – all with a big smile!

Gail has also been on the leading edge when it comes to her volunteer efforts.

Being an avid environmentalist, Gail spearheaded the creation of Durham Environmental Network (DEN). From 1988 to 2005, DEN held regular and inspiring community meetings throughout Durham Region on a variety of environmental topics. The group created wonderful environmental products including A Household Guide to Waste Reduction and Recycling (1992 and 1999), a Pesticide Information Kit, an Environmental Resource Directory (1994 and 2001) and a full-colour, 2 sided Durham Region State of the Environment Poster Map (1997).  It was through DEN that I met Gail in 1991.

Gail helped DEN morph into Durham Sustain Ability in 2005, a not-for-profit social enterprise that carried on providing environmental expertise and consulting services on energy and environmental matters. Gail served as a volunteer director through to its closure in 2018.

From 2007 – 2013 Gail volunteered on the Smart Commute Award Committee for Durham Region, reviewing company submissions demonstrating their efforts to encourage carpooling, public transit and cycling. Today, Gail is a recognized expert in her field andpart of the invited list of community stakeholders that have contributed to the creation of the Durham Community Climate Adaptation Plan.

Gail’s goal over the years has been to create a sense of community within the boundaries of her neighbourhood. The neighbourhood group she spearheaded is reflective of her leadership style. Everything they do helps community members come together and get to know each other. It is not run like a typical ratepayers group with a president, a secretary and monthly meetings. It works much more organically than that with individuals coming up with an idea, running with it and bringing along others who are keen to help out.

Here is just a brief sampling of how Gail gives freely of her time to her community, either directly or by helping those who have an idea get projects up and running.

In the late 1990’s, as a parent volunteer at her local school, Gail volunteered to update and maintain a large garden. She and another parent planted drought tolerant, pollinator-friendly native species with the students’ help. They created a curriculum that encouraged the teachers to explore the garden with their students. To celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary, they worked with the graduating Grade 8 class and created an outdoor classroom space under a large maple tree at the front of the school.

A few years later another graduating Grade 8 class agreed to fundraise with Gail to design and commission a piece of neighourhood art to acknowledge the efforts of a member of the community who was instrumental in the school garden design and maintenance, and who died very young from breast cancer. The woman’s daughter designed a ladybug crawling up a piece of grass. A metal artist recreated Rosie the Ladybug with repurposed metal including the round bottom of an old BBQ to make the ladybug’s body. This beautiful piece of art is over six feet tall and proudly stands in the middle of the school garden greeting everyone as they enter.

Speeders in her neighbourhood were a concern to Gail as a dog walker and later as a mother, so working with her municipality and Durham Police, she initiated petitions for speed reduction measures to slow down vehicles. The neighbourhood borrowed radar guns from the police and submitted license plates of speeders who, in turn, received letters of warning. After all of that effort the main recommendation from the Traffic Officer was to create opportunities for community members to get to know each other – “put a face to each home” so to
speak, so that is exactly what Gail has set her sights on. If people know their neighbours they are less likely to speed and be disrespectful when driving through the community.

Gail was instrumental in the creation of a community-wide Neighbourhood Watch program, the largest one in Durham Region and, she is told, perhaps Ontario. Around 80% of the community are connected by email to a Street Captain. Neighbourhood Watch signs and magnets, a branded neighbourhood tent (that anyone in the neighourhood may borrow) with the neighbourhood nameand logo were made possible through fundraising, of which Gail is a master.

Gail was instrumental in adding more seating and shade, as well as a pollinator- friendly garden to a neighbourhood park, and in developing several annual community events including Family Fun Day, Earth Day cleanups, Paint and Sips, Crime Prevention meetings with Durham Police and a charity yard sale supporting Joanne’s House, the local teen shelter. Volunteers also keep flower boxes on a bridge entering the neighbourhood, installed and planted by the municipality, looking great all summer long.

Gail’s family has hosted a neighbourhood Easter Egg Hunt for the past 21 years on Easter Sunday morning. It started with just a few families and has grown to over 125 childrenand spreads across 9 yards! Families drop off items to hide ahead of time and bring food or cash donations for Joanne’s House. Local teens earn volunteer hours at this event and at all of the other community activities.

This fall, Gail, along with others, introduced ‘kindness rocks’ to her neighbourhood. Painted by students at the local school, you write a message on a rock and leave it in a public space for someone to pick up. The idea being that one kind message at just the right time can change your entire day, your outlook and maybe even your life.

Random findings of the rocks are posted on the community’s Facebook page.

Recently approached by a community member to create more community art, Gail got people together to brainstorm. As a result, the group applied for a small grant to create a neighbourhood website and a local business directory, which will complement the well-used neighbourhood Facebook page and provide an opportunity to raise money for more community art projects and to offset the cost to host other community events.

Gail, rightly so, is a proud but never boastful recipient of the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Confederation of Canada award in 1993 and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee award in 2012 , both for community service. She received the Volunteer of Distinction Award from the local public school in 2008 and from the high school in 2012 and 2014. She received the Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade’s Business Excellence, Sustainability Champion Award in 2015, and the Durham Environmental Advisory Committee’s Evylin Stroud Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

In closing, Gail is an absolute wonder to me. She lives by a motto by Margaret Mead that has guided her throughout her life. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

But, I think Gail also lives by another motto, much shorter and simpler… “Let’s make it happen.” And, she does.

About jofacilitator

On Sept 1, 2020, I celebrated 50 years of work with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, facilitating meetings, groups, communities, and organizations, making it possible for ordinary people to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. I retired on December 31, 2021, but still volunteer with the organization.
This entry was posted in Stories of Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Helen Break’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

  1. Kathy McGrane says:

    A beautiful soul leading a beautiful life understanding our interrelatedness.


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