Lorraine Widmer-Carson leads the descent down the stairs into the basement of the building —  the site of her final project. Her burgundy Bloodstone shoes complement her red and black blouse. Her eyes are bright with passion. Her focus as clear as her crystal blue eyes; providing continuous opportunity and positive development within her community. Exposed light bulbs are the only thing that illuminates the the cool concrete floors. Exposed brick shows the true age of the building.

Off the main strip of Banff Ave sits a small office building. The outside is simple, bearing no marks of previous wear. The simplicity and whiteness is striking against the red railing, mildly chipped from years of use. People are bundled up, trying to avoid the callous temperatures. Some trudge by without a glance, lost in sight amongst the sweet shops and souvenir shops sporting the Canadian colours of red and white.Lorraine Widmer-Carson in front of the The Banff Canmore Community Foundation’s new location on Banff Avenue. It opened in 2015 as a result of increased funding after the 2013 flood. Photo by Hannah Willinger

Soon, this will be the place for the youth of Banff: SPACE Lab, an acronym for Share Philanthropy: Act with Care and Empathy. The lab will be a drug-and-alcohol free hub where the youth of Banff can come and hang out, free of outside distractions in a safe environment. The basement has been stripped bare. It’s difficult to imagine how this space will look after the renovations are complete.

Widmer-Carson, 62, is the executive director of Banff Canmore Community Foundation (BCCF), a mother, wife, restaurant owner and an active community member. Now after almost 12 years, she’s set to retire, but not before finishing this renovation as her final project. “[The SPACE lab] is about the future and I want to leave a strong message that our community and our future generations need dedicated attention, dedicated support and we need to earn the trust of others.”

As we look back on her journey with the community foundation, it’s hard to deny the economic and social impact Widmer-Carson has had on the community. At a glance, we see the evolution of the foundation from the ground up. The creation of immediate funds for people in need and expanding the geographic region of the foundation. Widmer-Carson has been a contributing factor to these initiatives and, in doing so has helped shape the identity of the foundation.

Widmer-Carson reflects on the milestones achieved during her time at the BCCF. “I have had a wonderful journey leading this organization for the past, almost 12 years. From almost zero profile and $15,000 in the Community Endowment Fund to where we are today.”

As her retirement closes in July 2017, the level of passion and excitement remains unparalleled. SPACE lab will be her last gift to the community. “It’s a Canada 150 project and I hope our young-adult community sees this as a place for learning about each other and offers a viable alternative to ‘meeting at the bar.’”

While the space is not a drop in location, it will be available for programs hosted by the local schools and youth programs. The total renovations will cost $150,000 including interior design and wheelchair accessibility into the basement.

“150 for 150,” Widmer-Carson chuckles, as she continues her tour. “There is some poetry in that!”

As she continues to gush information about the space and its capabilities,her passion is signified in her warm and welcoming gestures.

Corrie DiManno, communications and social media director for the BCCF agrees, adding, “It’s hard to pick one area but I would say Lorraine has excelled in building community trust. People know to come talk to her if they have an idea or need some help. She is seen as a connector and therefore, the Foundation plays this role as a philanthropic leader and community connector in the valley.”

Allison Gerrits, director of community services in Banff, says Widmer-Carson’s impact has been overwhelming but in a good way. “The Foundation has grown from a small organization focusing on Banff to a much larger entity, representing interests from across the entire Bow Valley. On top of that, she is a person who values and encourages people coming together to share collective wisdom, to brainstorm ideas and to see things happen.”

What is a community foundation?

Community foundations like the BCCF are non-profit organizations that create and build funds that are dispersed to the local community in forms of grants and social programs among others. The general goal of a community foundation is to enhance the quality of life in the local area.

BCCF was originally known as the Banff Community Foundation. The foundation attained charitable status in 2002 and began grant making in 2004. It hired Widmer-Carson in 2005 as the first employed staff member. At the time of her employment, there were some policies in place but the foundation was essentially brand new.

“The first joy was giving money away,” says Widmer-Carson.

According to Widmer-Carson, there are two dominating trajectories in the early stages of developing a community foundation. Building an endowment fund (a community savings account) or immediately grant making. BCCF decided their philosophy would be to immediately start grant making. In the beginning, the Community Endowment Fund had $15,000 donated from an anonymous donor. Over the years the BCCF has been able to grant make with sponsors, donations, government funding and social events. Today the Community Endowment Fund is worth about $2.5 million.When a foundation chooses to start immediately grant making, that money will go into the community relatively quickly to address current problems. Foundations can choose instead to build their endowment fund but risk failing to serve their community in the immediate tangible reality. Graphic by Hannah Willinger.

“The philosophy of this organization was to start grant making right away with the thinking that if you start giving out money, people will start paying attention to you and you [the foundation] can start understanding what their needs are. And youbuild your community knowledge in a really supportive way. Whereas if you start building your community endowment fund you’re taking that money [and] charitable dollars out of the pool. You’re saving it for the future but what’s happening in the here and now,” she says.

Since 2005, Widmer-Carson and the BCCF have reintegrated almost $2 million in the community and surrounding areas — money that goes towards schools, museums, social programs, sports programs, hospital programs and scholarships. “We have over $10 million invested in endowment funds [like big savings accounts]; with great working relations in the Community Foundations of Canada movement. With our partners, smart board volunteers, great staff, kind donors and the respect of other groups — positioning the foundation as ‘the go-to’ when it comes to questions about community, community knowledge and philanthropy and all things related to ‘doing and being good,’” she writes in an email. The Banff Canmore Community Foundation currently has invested more than $10 million in endowment funds to date. In Dec(.) 2016 the Town of Banff benefitted from another $110,000 funding with 24 projects through its community foundation. Photo by Hannah Willinger.

The money goes to programs involved in education, recreation, arts, culture, heritage, health and social. Education can include environmental concepts and topics. Health includes the hospital, elder care, music therapy among others. Recreation includes school programs like ‘Hike Day’ and other active living programs.

Widmer-Carson explained, “… we try to grant for scope but we do not grant for direct religious purpose, after that it’s pretty much anything the community can imagine. Day care, museum, school, the Y, friends of Kananaskis for trails.”

The Banff Centre Foundation is the largest fund affiliated with the BCCF — its total net worth accumulating almost $11 million in 2016. The Banff Centre is an education organization and facility for the arts located in Banff, Alberta. The foundation’s funds are professionally invested and are used for immediate purposes. “It’s a national strategy from the Department of Canadian Heritage to encourage arts organizations to not come down to zero every year.” The fund is professionally invested to ensure the balance doesn’t run out. While the funds are restricted to the Banff Centre, the centre does distribute money to the BCCF so they can continue to grant money in the community. “At the end of 30 years it’s going to continue to be there making distributions,” Widmer-Carson says.

What does funding look like behind the dollar sign?

“That’s the problem with our stories. It’s hard to tell a story. It’s not one story. It’s all the stories,” says Widmer-Carson.

Pen pals.

She leans intently forward, her eyes light up as she tells me about a particular story. A local mother had taken her child to play squash. When she arrived, there were around nine children from Morley; a designated settlement within the Stoney Blackfoot Indian Reserve for the First Nations people of Canada.

There were about three from children from Banff. “The teacher said, ‘Do any of you guys know each other?’ and her son said ‘ya I know those guys.’ He knew two children who lived on reserve because we have a pen-pal program that we have been funding for … eight years. They met in Grade 3 [now in Grade 5] and it’s a huge intercultural opportunity because Exshaw is a completely different world from Banff or Canmore.” The pen-pal program connects individuals together who may have never crossed paths due to geographic or cultural differences.

Music therapy.

Widmer tells me about this time last year on Saint Patrick’s Day 2016. Corina Strim, a music therapist funded by the BCCF arrived at the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital with green hats and green necklaces for the elderly patients. The residents were in a circle. Some were engaged but some were slumped over their chairs. “And one gentleman that was not there, was Jack, and so she’s saying ‘Jack, Jack are you there?’ He had his hat on and I was behind him. He was in his wheelchair, he was belted and she said ‘Ok Jack here comes your song!’ She put on the IPod and it was Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.”

Widmer-Carson’s eyes begin to fade as she smiles at the memory. The warm vibrations of her voice lightly skim the words, as if familiar but distant from the lyrics. “Jack’s head came up and he came alive and she placed a rattle in his hand … his one hand started shaking and his head was directly alert and Frank Sinatra was singing. By the end of it Jack was literally dancing on centre stage! He had been to New York and he had seen Frank Sinatra and the cognitive response was amazing, it was a miracle.” Widmer-Carson can barely fight back her excitement, “So you get to see miracles!”

I glance outside her office window. The stark blankness of the weather is a painful reminder of the unseasonably cold weather on the other side. While her office is decorated with a minimalist touch, the space radiates the warmth of a position lived out with passion and commitment.

The kindness fund

An anonymous donor had come into contact with Widmer-Carson; he wanted to set up a ‘Kindness Fund’. It was only $1,000, but he wanted it to go towards someone who may have fallen on hard times within the Banff community. “He said ‘I don’t care what is is. Maybe he got drunk last night and his wallet got stolen. Maybe he fell off his bicycle and broke his collarbone. I want to know that if somebody falls on hard times, there’s a pot of money [available] … They could get a cup of coffee or a hot shower or do their laundry.’” Widmer-Carson then spoke with the local YMCA to coordinate the donor’s wishes. The donor wanted a story from his donation.

But Widmer-Carson says the organization had an unintended outcome.

It took two years, but the fund became a teaching tool for the YMCA staff to become kinder individuals. A smile escapes from Widmer-Carson’s lips, “You can start to influence the culture of your organization with kindness training and seminar. We’ve got his pot of money but we haven’t spent any yet. Somebody must have come in and needed something…”

How did they accomplish this? By giving small gestures to people who may not have had the best morning or night. Like creating vouchers for a coffee, muffins or donuts. Her eyes brighten with excitement, “It is a chance for not just the individual who needs the support in the moment but the staff to have this kindness training.”

Change is good

The 2013 flood was a turning point in the Foundation’s young history. Prior to the flood, the BCCF was called the Banff Community Foundation. While Banff was affected, the devastation could not be compared to what the Canmore and Exshaw regions experienced. Homes were destroyed. Family heirlooms and priceless memories were washed away without a trace.

Widmer-Carson began brainstorming. “My first response was ‘let’s do an after the flood trail fund’. So I felt I had to do something, I just was compelled. There’s a call to action here. We’re not the Red Cross, we don’t have tons of money. In fact the Calgary Foundation was called in big spades to respond and I knew that we had some potential.”

“We absolutely are supporting community that is not within our exact geographic region, but it was just the right thing to do,” she says. “2013 was a game changer.”

This ultimately led to the Banff Community Foundation extending its geographic location to Canmore, Exshaw and as far as Lake Louise. They officially became the BCCF in 2015. The Foundation now serves Lake Louise, Banff, Canmore, Dead Man’s Flats and Exshaw. It will also do outreach work into Kananaskis Country and Morley. Bill Fisher, chairman of the BCCF commented on the positivity and resilience found in the face of such circumstance, “Our community is bigger than Banff, and the 2013 flood made that obvious … It truly does stretch from Lake Louise to the edge of the mountains in Exshaw … We are one valley, one big community, and we have much in common,” Fisher said in an interview with the Calgary Herald in 2015.

After the 2013 flood, the BCCF extended its geographic region in order to help neighbouring communities in need. “It was the right thing to do,” says Lorraine Widmer-Carson. Graphic by Hannah Willinger.

In addition to expanding the geographical region, the BCCF established the Matters of the Heart Foundation. It was established to help to assist families and individuals who had been struggling to regain a sense of normalcy following the impact of the 2013 flood.

“The Matters of the Heart fund was going to speak more to the heart and soul of what … psycho-social supports that we could offer,” says Widmer-Carson.

“The establishment of this fund relates to the Foundation’s vision of a ‘smarter, more caring’ community,” said Widmer-Carson in an 2013 interview with the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

The fund raised more than $50,000 in the first stages of fundraising.

When a new office space became available on Banff Avenue, Widmer-Carson jumped at the chance. “It’s a Parks Canada building. Getting an office space on Banff Avenue, we can serve the community in a whole different way. We renovated it. There have been over 2,500 people come and meeting groups, attend events, have conversations in this building,” she says.

Gerrits adds: “Lorraine had a vision for the old Parks Canada building, and when nobody else could see what it could become”, she said. “She walked anyone who had an interest through the space, and pointed out what it would look like, where the community could meet, where the local art would be displayed, how people would feel when they walked past on Banff Avenue to see that Banff does indeed have a smart and caring community behind its tourist image.”

In a second interview with the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2015, Widmer-Carson conveyed how significant the transformation was to the community, “If you told me two years ago the Banff Community Foundation would have over $12 million in assets, a street front address on Banff Avenue and a new plaque saying the Banff Canmore Community Foundation, I would not have believed you,” Widmer-Carson said. “I want you to imagine all the ways we can use this space to our collective advantage and how this new community foundation will serve the region in new exciting ways.”

A future after all

As we near the end of the tour, we pass a wall decorated with the accomplishments obtained by the foundation in the past year. She notices me sneaking a glance. She pauses with me for moment, “Join us in imagining,” she says as a small smile escapes her lips. “I coined that term when I first started.”

Corrie DiManno adds that the impact Widmer-Carson has had on the community is huge. “Lorraine’s legacy will be people who make intentional acts of kindness, people who help their neighbours, people who support community causes. She has set this community up to go be kind.”

Gerrits also adds that while Widmer-Carson is retiring, this does not mean she will not contribute to community engagement within her community. “She will be missed from her role at the Foundation, but the legacy she has fostered will no doubt, carry on. And in some way, Lorraine will undoubtedly be involved in other things that will result in community well-being. Of that, I am absolutely certain.”

Widmer-Carson plans on spending more time with her grandchildren, enjoying what the beautiful landscapes the Banff National Park have to offer and allowing more of a focus on helping run the family restaurant with her husband, Erwin. Lorraine Widmer-Carson has four children, whom she raised within the borders of Banff National Park. Her journey with the Foundation began with wanting a sustainable environment rich with opportunity for her children. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Widmer-Carson.

The memories and opportunities she helped curate over the last 13 years will leave a lasting impression on Widmer-Carson and the people who she touched along the way. Her voice softens with the thought of bright memories, “Amazing, fabulous, fantastic. You can’t put a dollar on it.”

“It’s been a lot of work, a lot of fun and now it’s time for me to step aside. Personally, I want to have more free time, I want to do some travelling and I want to enjoy all of the reasons I live here – hiking, skiing, family. I am eager to watch from the sidelines and enjoy the view!”

CorrectionA previous version of this story incorrectly identified the music therapist, whose name is Corina Strim.


Editor: Josie Lukey | jlukey@cjournal.ca

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