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Chipping in all over the community

'To see how grateful people were when you could help them out, that started to kind of get that in my head'

“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

It was looked at as a pit stop. North Bay was going to be just a small step on the way to something bigger. But that pit stop has turned into almost four decades of time, energy, and devotion given to the people who need it the most in North Bay. For 37 years, Dennis Chippa has been a well-known resident of the Gateway City and has spent most of the time trying to make the community better for all.

“I've worked hard for 37 years to try and make some bit of a difference in this community, whether it was in the media days or literacy or AIDS Committee or now, here at The Gathering Place. You just want to make a difference and you know you're not asking for anything or to be recognized, you just want to make a difference for people,” he says.

It could’ve been any other community in Ontario, or beyond, that benefitted from Chippa’s thoughtfulness and leadership, but it was a job working in media that got him here in the first place.

“North Bay has been my hometown for 37 years, I'm not from North Bay although, I do consider myself from North Bay now. I started here in 1987 when I came up to work at what was at that time, MCTV. We had CHUR radio and MCTV television. I did sports for three years with MCTV, and I was the Sports Director which was the Sports Department of one person,” says Chippa.

After another two years as an assignment editor, five years had gone by and Chippa was more enamoured with the Gateway City than he ever thought he would be.

Chippa says, “As I got up here and got involved with the community and got involved with some of the folks that lived here, I started to think. 'you know this is a really nice town and the kind of town that I could build a family with.'”

“I loved making appearances,” says Chippa. “I never thought of myself as any kind of celebrity, it was just that I worked at the TV station, but because I was on-air, I would get asked a lot to go out and do stuff.”

That led to him having a hand in several different initiatives.

“The first real kind of thing that I did that was like a big deal was, we put together the Alarm For Life Campaign and raised a bunch of money to put smoke alarms into buildings for individuals that we knew couldn't afford the batteries or they couldn't afford to get a new smoke alarm.”

Chippa explains, “I think why that was important for me was for me to see that other side. I didn't have any solid knowledge that there would be a group of individuals who couldn't afford a battery or who couldn't afford a smoke alarm. To see how grateful people were when you could help them out, that started to kind of get in my head.”

He assisted with the North Bay Anti-Drug focus in the “No Thanks I’m Driving” Campaign. Chippa says “that was a driving program that started at Christmas many years ago, and then it kind of stretched out to other community events, and then it became just a standard procedure to send that message out that drinking and driving is unnecessary.”

Along the way, Chippa says it was his work with Special Olympics for 10 years that was one of the best things for him personally.

“You learn how to check your ego at the door with Special Olympics. What Special Olympics taught me was, life can be stressful, but life can be amazing. The motto for Special Olympics is ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.’ What a great motto for life.”

He adds, “Let's do the best we can. If I’m going to be successful, great! But if I’m not, just at least let me try. And I think it really moulded me, not just for how I felt about North Bay but how I felt about the community itself.”

He worked in broadcasting for almost 20 years with 17 of those at MCTV and another two at Cogeco. Then, as if John Cleese was speaking to him directly, Chippa had a moment where he thought “and now for something completely different.”

He then embarked on an 11-year stint at the AIDS Committee of North Bay and Area.

“That was going into a whole different world,” he says.

“I was coming into a world where I had to talk to the general public about a disease very few people knew about and very few people cared about and then as an educator, I had to talk about what else people needed to know and how do people protect themselves.”

Chippa also says, “There were so many different angles we can work and different places we could go with the work we were doing.”

One of the things they did was begin to have the AIDS committee in charge of finding and properly discarding needles that have been found. Chippa says originally it was the North Bay Police Service that would respond to those calls, but Chippa says he felt the officer's time could be better spent in other areas, and this was a way to bridge the gap between the committee and the community.

“So, we started the Look Sharp, No Sharps program. Soon after we had parents calling us saying they found some needles on the beach and I don't know anything about them or they wanted us to talk to their kids about them? Then we were doing presentations to whole schools around this program.”

Chipp says, “That allowed me to kind of use some of my media skills and my marketing skills to say ‘OK how do we turn this into a program where we can get little kids involved in telling the parents to call the police and the police would dispatch us to get the needles.”

Anyone that has spent any time in North Bay during the winter knows how cold it can get here and there are those who have no place to go to escape those frigid temperatures. Over the last several years, The Warming Centre has been the place that has provided that shelter, and Chippa says that came along as a fluke.

“I was down in Florida and somebody called me, it was over the holidays, and they said ‘everything is closed, it is minus 40 up here, what are homeless people doing?’ We knew there were homeless people in North Bay and we knew that they didn't have any place to go. But you know it was one of those things where my first thought is, frankly it's really not my job.”

But of course that was not Chippa’s attitude for very long.

“I said that I have a couple of contacts and we can find a place and we can get some cots and we can get some blankets and that's how it started.”

Chippa added it was a program that received a lot of support from within the community and after several years it's something he is now moving on from.

“It's been seven years and I can let it go now, I’m fine with it transitioning. We’re going to have great safe beds and safe spaces. Now for me, it's all about the Gathering Place. It's all the different things we do at the Gathering Place and it's about turning what's been forgotten or has been kind of overlooked over the years into really making it be a part of leadership in the community.”

He says the best example of that has been showcased during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. He says right away it was a place that could help people.

“I'm very proud of that,” he says.

“I think the Gathering Place is really becoming a go-to for many people in the community. I think we have to take a lot of pride in the stuff that we've done in turning it into a real home for everybody.”

Chippa says, “People are calling us daily for help. They are new and have never been in this situation before and they are a mess when they call. They say I've never been to a soup kitchen and I don't know what I'm going to do, and they are scared.”

While having a hand in so many different areas keeps Chippa busy, the question was asked if he found it hard to leave different projects behind before moving on to something new.

“I don't have any trouble letting go of any of the events I've done. I found it really easy to help create or develop something, establish that and then let someone else run it.”

He says moving on to something else is easier when there is a new opportunity awaiting, although he says, “you never lose the news thing.”

“Not so much the negative stuff but the big events, like elections, I’m still an election junkie. I’m not a political person but I love the election night coverage. I'm still a huge sports fan and so those things don't ever leave you. You never stop having the news focus where you're thinking about the different good story ideas or the good leads. You get that little twinge of wondering how you would personally have covered the story.”

Chippa says he now turns those thoughts into how can he take what he’s seeing or hearing and turn it into something positive for the Gathering Place. He says that’s the way he hopes to see more people in the community think moving forward.

He says there is a spot for everyone who wants to help.

“Find what you like to do,” he says.

“Find your own skillset. No matter what it is you like to do, there will be a place for you, where you can volunteer. People hear about volunteering for any community and the first thing they think of is, do they have the time. If you can give me an hour, The Gathering Place can use you.

"We have volunteers coming in just to bag up dog food or put together hygiene kits. If you can give us an hour or if you can give Deb Marson at The Food Bank an hour to go and help her organize some of her shelves, there's a role for every person in this community we all have a role and it's a crucial role. There is no job that is not important and there's no volunteer position in this community that is not important. We are all a community and it's how we interact with each other that makes this community great.”

If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at matthew.sookram@rci.rogers.com