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Lessons learned abroad helps Katina Connolly with charitable work back home

'That was mind-boggling. The conditions in which these people were living, and I don’t even like to say living because in some cases these people didn’t even have a tent'

This is one of a series of articles, as part of the feature called "Helpers", which focuses on people and organizations that help make our community better.

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For as long as she can recall, Katina Connolly has been focused on helping her community, no matter which community she has been a part of.

 “North Bay has typically been a regular posting during my childhood,” says Connolly who grew up in a military family.  “We were back and forth here a few different times, so I’d say it was the closest thing to home. Ever since I finished school this is where my parents were living, and this is home for me now.”

And it is North Bay that is now benefitting from Connolly’s professional and voluntary work. It started while attending Western University where she got involved with the Rotaract Club.

“I was very involved in different kinds of student initiatives which all revolved around volunteerism or community engagement,” says Connolly.  “Following university, I didn’t really have a career path in mind. But that was just something that always resonated with me throughout school and at the time of doing the fundraising program at Georgian College, I was volunteering at the United Way and was able to end up working for them once I had finished and it just snowballed from there.”

That position with the United Way ended with Connolly being the Community Coordinator for the North East region of Ontario, but it was the community club that would lead her to her next engagement.

“Rotaract is a branch of the Rotary family and I was aware of the different programs that they offered. It has always been a big part of my volunteer experience and giving back to the community and I had loved working with them on various projects throughout the years,” says Connolly who sought an opportunity through the Global Grant Scholarship Program to further her education across the pond and get more involved with the club as well.

Connolly says, “A Global Grant Scholarship Program is something the Rotary Club does every year. I applied a year and a half in advance and they go through all the different stages which includes an interview process and it's contingent on being accepted to a university for a program that aligns with one of Rotary’s areas of focus.  

That sent Connolly to St. Mary’s University in Twickenham, a suburban town in southwest London, England where she embarked on earning an MA in Charity Management.

“There were a number of other global grant scholars from all over the world that study within the London centre specifically and there were about 63 of them the year I was there. Just getting to know all of them and learn where they come from was an amazing experience,” says Connolly.  

“We had very interesting conversations, especially when we got to talking about our thesis and what people were studying and where their areas of interest were. Typically, it stemmed from their communities or backgrounds and upbringings, so there was a big cultural aspect to the exchange in addition to the educational side of things as well.”

Connolly says she got to view the fundraising industry from a big picture point of view as opposed to just focusing on one particular program or service and there was a lot to take away from the whole experience.

One experience that sticks out is a trip to a refugee camp in Calais, France.

“One of my friends was doing their thesis on the refugee camps there,” says Connolly. “I went over there and volunteered alongside him for about a week. That was mind-boggling. The conditions in which these people were living, and I don’t even like to say living because in some cases these people didn’t even have a tent. And it is thousands upon thousands of people who are just taking up camp in this field because they have been denied entry, in this case into England, but they were caught between terrible circumstances.”  

Connolly continues, “I volunteered at the library they had set up there, which really was a shack that had mismatched items and whatever people could find that could be used as learning resources. I was working with people that would show up every day at the earliest time possible because they were determined to learn English, or practice their French or to chat about opportunities and skill sets and figure out ways that they could be a productive citizen or contribute and give back to whatever community they would end up in, but with the end goal very much being to find a way to get to England, or find employment in France or something along those lines.”

Connolly says she will never forget how humbling this week of her life was,  

“Refugee camps were getting a very bad rap and I’m sure there’s a lot more to be said about the whole situation, but just seeing the circumstances that they were living in and seeing how determined these people were to make the best of the situation and their desire to fight for every opportunity to get to that next best situation was just a very humbling experience.”

Connolly says other parts of this one year of studying abroad have helped her immensely. With her dissertation on charities being urban-centric, she says that raised her level of awareness about fundraising and how money is given out.

“The charities operating within rural communities sometimes struggle trying to adapt to what an urban centre deems a priority or how they can deliver those services without having some of the same resources,” she says.  “My main takeaway of it all was that rural areas tend to have a lot of high needs challenges and they are not always funded the same as the urban centres. That means getting resources and delivering those services is harder because the priorities don’t always align with where the funding opportunities are. I was passionate about being able to learn and take something from this experience and being able to hopefully build a skill set that would allow me to do something for the North Bay community.”

Currently, Connolly is the Executive Director of the Capitol Centre in North Bay and says the program in England was very helpful for this line of work.

“That scholarship was one of the tools that equipped me to do well in this role. The Capitol Centre has always been that pillar of entertainment in the North Bay area and I have always been a patron and I have also been a volunteer here in the past. So, for me it’s really cool that I get to be able to go there to work every day,” Connolly says.

Like many businesses though, this last year has proven to be one of the toughest challenges the performing arts centre has ever faced.

“It’s actually nothing that we ever would have been able to plan for and nothing that we would want to have to go through again,” says Connolly. “But something that the staff at the Capitol Centre has is that ability to be creative and so it has sort of been an interesting challenge to finding a way to adapt to this pandemic. Finding different ways to engage with our patrons and different audiences and stay relevant in the community to provide those entertainment options at home, or virtually or however it might work. I think overall we’ve been managing well, all things considered, and we’ve had the support of the community behind us which has made it all worthwhile.” 

This scholarship program is worthwhile for anyone and the experiences will last a lifetime.

Connolly says some of those include, “Working at the largest Rugby Stadium in the world for the Rugby World Cup, seeing the Queen on three separate occasions, attending Ascot and Wimbledon, productions in the West End, and lining up outside movie premieres for celebrity sightings! The culture there is so rich that there were so many things to do and a year wasn't nearly enough time to fit it all in. The whole experience was made possible through the Rotary Global Grant Scholar program which I am extremely grateful for, and I'm incredibly fortunate that I was able to find a job within that field that allows me to stay in North Bay and continue with my passion for arts and culture while working within the non-profit sector.” 

 If you have a story suggestion for the “helpers” series, send Matt an email at m.sookram@outlook.com.