Stettler’s Winnie Bissett couldn’t have found a more fitting – and fulfilling – career path.
Bissett is marking an extraordinary 32 years with Stettler Heartland Youth Center, and it’s clear she’s as passionate about the work she does there today as she was back in her early days with the busy organization.
“I grew up in Stettler – my parents owned Bloke’s Bakery,” she said. Through her growing up years, it was clear she had a talent for athletics and sports, so an active and busy lifestyle was the norm for sure with lots of socializing as well.
Bissett clearly could connect with people – a sign of where a future career path may lead.
“After here, I went off to Mount Royal College and I took recreation administration. When I graduated from there, an opportunity to run the Hanna Youth Centre came up so I started out there. It was fantastic – my job was in three parts – one-third of my job was with the youth club, one-third was with adult recreation so I looked after badminton and volleyball and got to play, too!
“The other one-third which I really, truly loved was that I ran exercise classes, social recreation and outings with seniors,” she explained. “It was the perfect blend.”
After the Hanna stint, Bissett returned to Stettler to begin her work with what is now the Heartland Youth Center.
“It was February 15th, 1989. When I first started here, we were two separate programs – the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers, Big Sisters. But we were housed in the same building,” she said. “I was the Boys and Girls Club director, and I did that for three years or so.
“It was the early 90s, and there was a bit of a funding crunch and we also weren’t able to keep up with the fundraising. But the program was booming – we had a tonne of kids,” she recalled. “But we couldn’t keep up financially. So the board looked at different ways to trim the costs,” she explained.
“We then become one organization – the Heartland Youth Center. But we still maintained our national ties to the two other programs,” she said. That was also when Bissett landed the post of executive director – in the early 1990s.
Today, there are directors who specifically run both programs (Christel Shuckburgh and Sara Wengryn) and Bissett oversees the entire operation.
Meanwhile, part of what continues to inspire Bissett in her career is when she reflects on her formative years.
She had and has an innate compassion for others, and she has always wanted to help establish a place where kids could just be themselves in a non-competitive social and recreational environment.
“When I came back to this community, and the opportunity to work here came up, I just thought how important it is for all kids to have a place like this,” she added.
Just the other day she was asking teens at the Center what they really like about the organization.
Their comments really say it all – ‘How the staff are nice to me’, ‘I like that I can be honest’, ‘I like volunteering’, ‘I like that I can be myself’ and ‘I like that I can make new friends’.
“Those are the things that mean so much to me,” she said as she looked over the comments. “It goes beyond the activities.”
Meanwhile, what matters most, is to continue to make those very meaningful connections.
“To empower youth, to build their confidence, to give them new experiences, to help them learn about giving back to their communities through community service projects and volunteering,” she said, pointing to the many ways that Heartland Youth Centre can really make a difference.
“We really try to inspire them to learn what it is to give back.”
Her passion also stems from belonging to a community that means so much to her.
“Stettler is an awesome community and there is a place for every young person whether it’s in sports, drama or music,” she said. “What I get to see is the growth – with kids that are too shy at first to make friends, we get to see them make those friends here. Kids can get their ‘voice’ here, too. And right now, because we can’t do a lot of volunteering (with the pandemic) the kids can do some junior leadership – some of the older kids can work with the younger ones and this helps builds confidence.
“What I also love about my job is that I have a lot of freedom to be creative and to think outside of the box. I get a good blend of social time with the kids, too. That’s definitely what keeps me going,” she said, adding how grateful she also is for the staff she works with every day, too.
Anyone who drops by Bissett’s office can also see how deep her love for the job really goes.
Covering the walls are loads of photos of kids she has worked with over the years. She loves hearing from them now about how they are doing.
“My office is memories,” she said with a smile.
“And here at the Youth Center, I hope that me or my staff or any of our volunteers can be ‘that person’ for any of the kids that we work with.”