For 25 years, children and teenagers bursting through the doors of the Heartland Youth Centre’s doors have seen many different faces, though one has remained the same.
This year marks the 25th year for Winnie Bissett as the centre’s executive-director.
Bissett, who had grown up in Stettler, said knew that she wanted to be involved with youth when she returned to the area.
“I grew up here, and I was very involved in school sports,” Bissett said. “I was very competitive and athletic, but I also saw a need for other opportunities for youth besides competitive sports. I also really like the aspect of Boys and Girls Club that gives kids the chance to give back to their community (through community service).”
She became involved in the Boys and Girls Club in 1989, stepping up as director when the original director moved on after about six months.
When the club merged with Big Brothers and Big Sisters in 1995 to form the Heartland Youth Centre, she became executive-director of the unified group.
The centre operates out of the Legion Youth Centre on the corner of 47 Street and 50 Avenue.
The office space reserved for Bissett at the Heartland Youth Centre is, at first sight, cluttered with children’s artwork, photographs and letters, but as she goes from one to the other, it becomes apparent that each one has a strong tie to her heart.
“This whole office is full of memories,” Bissett said, glancing around the cluttered room.
“Parents come in here and think it’s cluttered, but every picture on this wall has a memory attached to it.”
Bissett gestured then at one picture in particular, a marker anime drawing on yellowing paper pinned to the wall close to her desk.
“This picture has been here for at least, oh, 10 years, but I have such an emotional attachment to the girl who drew it that I can’t take it down,” she said.
Bissett gestured next at a colourful, pastel-shaded pencil drawing, framed in a position of honour on the wall. She explained that the young man who drew it is now in an arts program in Red Deer.
The noise of children having fun, letting go of their indoor voices for a little bit and just playing with their fellows, brings a smile to Bissett’s face.
“This is the environment I get to work in every day,” she said with a smile.
“And I love it. You can be having a rough day at work and you come in and a kid will give you a hug. And you hear some pretty funny things.”
Leann Graham is chairperson of the youth centre’s board, as well as a graduate of the centre, having spent her youth involved in programs there.
“I can’t believe that Winnie’s been doing this for 25 years,” Graham said, noting that it was that connection with Bissett that brought her back to serve on the centre’s board.
“Winnie was always that smiling face when you came through that door.”
Graham said that there’s nothing on the calendar for celebrations to mark Bissett’s milestone, as the centre also celebrates its quarter century anniversary this year, but she wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
She said it was something to be discussed by the entire board.
“The whole experience of the Heartland Youth Centre was amazing,” she said of her childhood.
Graham said she mostly participated in the summer programs, but that one thing remained constant — Winnie Bissett.
“She really is the brick and mortar of the youth centre,” Graham added. “She’s incredible. She sees the vision of the youth centre through.”
Bissett is the key reason the youth centre’s fundraising programs are so successful, Graham said, explaining that over the past 25 years, Bissett has turned a small radio auction into a fancy steak and lobster fundraiser with both live and silent auctions.
It’s the long-term results of the youth centre’s programs on the children that go through the system that touch Bissett the most.
“Over the years, a lot of our kids have received scholarships based off their community service work they’ve done here,” Bissett said.
“It is always a joy to have the lifers come in and tell you about what they are up to, or welcome their kids here.”
Charlie Thurston, an adult who attended the centre as a child, noted that “The Heartland Youth Centre really changed my life. A big part of that was due to Winnie’s commitment.”
For the board, though, the heart of the centre is definitely Bissett.
“The impact she makes speaks volumes,” Graham said.