Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.
Gina Jones-Wilson’s work as a volunteer in her community of Upper Hammonds Plains started, as she says, “on the shoulders of giants.”
When Jones-Wilson was growing up here, her mother, Shirley, took her and her nine siblings to the church on Pockwock Road to help clean. Shirley volunteered her time in the role but made sure each of her children had a rag in hand to clean the pews. Meanwhile, Jones-Wilson’s father, Chris, was a volunteer and founding member of the fire department here, the first all-Black fire department in Canada.
“It kind of came natural to me,” Jones-Wilson said of her volunteer work. “If you want your community to be better you need to be a part of making that happen.”
Jones-Wilson, who will be 62 in July, has lived all but five years of her life in Upper Hammonds Plains, a historic community founded in 1815 by Black Loyalists from the War of 1812. Jones-Wilson’s family has been here for six generations.
She’s volunteered her time for decades and now spends about 25 hours a week volunteering in several roles. But she’s also looking for the community’s next generation of volunteers.
Jones-Wilson certainly has a lot of wisdom to share.
A volunteer career of firsts
There’s the 14 years she spent as a firefighter with the Upper Hammonds Plains Fire Department, the one her father helped found, and where her brother was a member, too. She joined in 1992. Tuesdays were training nights, so she showed up one night to join.
“Back then, there were very few women in fire service, volunteer and career,” she said. “It was a major step for them, but you know what? They became the best group of men to work with.”
She was the first Black female volunteer firefighter in the province. There would be more firsts in her firefighting career.
Jones-Wilson went on to get her level 1 training at the Nova Scotia Firefighters School in Waverley. Eventually, she rose to the rank of lieutenant.
“They had my back when I was going to fire school when my training,” Jones-Wilson said. “The chief was really instrumental in helping me to become the first member in our department to get trained as a level 1 firefighter. None of the men ever went for the official training. I just wanted to prove something. I told the chief I wanted to go for that.”
The biggest challenge during her time as a firefighter was finding equipment. At five feet tall, none of the standard gear fit her. Uniforms were all larger sizes for men. The shoes were the same, although they eventually found a pair in the US shipped in from a company in Burnside. And the backpacks with the steel oxygen tanks didn’t fit her properly either. Jones-Wilson said eventually had to go to physiotherapy for back treatments because of those backpacks.
But even with those challenges, she said she always felt respected and part of the team.
“Firefighting is not really a thing you can do on your own,” Jones-Wilson said.
She stayed in the department until 2006. In 2013, HRM closed several smaller fire departments, including the one in Upper Hammonds Plains. The former firehall is being renovated into a youth centre. Jones-Wilson is part of that work, too.
Concerns about development
These days, she has a few volunteer roles in the community, including a role with the Upper Hammonds Plains-Melvin Land Tract Society. That group of community residents is responsible for overseeing activities on the 1,000 acres of land granted by Queen Victoria to the community in 1855.
She also volunteers on the committee with the Chebucto Pockwock Community Wind Project, which operates wind turbines here. A percentage of the gross revenue from that project goes directly to the community.
One of her main roles is as the president of the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association.
The community has grown substantially in the last several years, and especially in the last two years, Jones-Wilson said.
“We were concerned because the development was blowing up, but there was no infrastructure,” Jones-Wilson said. “We’re a dead-end road. There are no sidewalks. There’s no transit. All of our schools have portables. Our elementary school has had portables for over 35 years. So, adding another 1,500, 1,600 homes, what is going to happen with that?”
Jones-Wilson said the community brought in planners from HRM to talk about the current zoning, which is GU-1 or General Use Zoning. Jones-Wilson said that zoning doesn’t require any community input. They learned about development permits for the area and wanted to know more.
Jones-Wilson was one of several community members who spoke at Halifax regional council in January about the concerns of development. (Matthew Byard reported that story here).
It’s not that the community is against development, she said. The community wants a say.
“We needed there to be a halt to it to figure out what we as a community would like to see,” she said. “I’m a country girl. I lived in the city for five years, but I moved back here, and I think most of the homeowners moved here because of the country look. No one wants to see a 100-unit apartment building in the middle of a suburban-rural area. If you’re going to build, build things that are part of the landscape.”
She wants to see new residents volunteer in the community, too. She said some new community members have taken part in meetings regarding zoning,
“They may have some ideas,” she said.
‘Younger people have a different outlook’
Jones-Wilson has been the president of the development association since 2009. The group has been around since the 1970s. Jones-Wilson said it’s been the “structure” of the community and she’s looking at her succession plan and wants someone younger to take over. She said the young adults are professionals with skills that volunteer boards need. They’re accountants, financial advisors, they know about housing issues.
“I’ve been working with a couple of them who I hope will take over my role as president,” she said. “I will always be involved with community, but younger people have a different outlook. They have newer ideas.”
When she’s not volunteering, Jones-Wilson keeps busy. She retired from her job as a records analyst with the province in 2019. Her husband, Edward, passed away four years ago. She said doesn’t like to stay home by herself. She likes to dance and loves to travel. Her son, Nico, who’s a lawyer with Stewart McKelvey, planned to take her to Europe for her 60th birthday, but COVID had other plans. Jones-Wilson said they’d like to get back planning that trip again.
Jones-Wilson wants to stay on long enough as president of the development association for the former firehall to be renovated into a youth centre. She said there’s three phases to the work and they’re now on Phase 2. They’re looking for approved funding for Phase 3. She’s hoping it will be done by the end of this year or spring of 2024.
Bringing the young people back
Jones-Wilson’s house is just up the road, not far from where that youth centre will be. She estimates that right now there are about 275 residents who are part of the historic Upper Hammonds Plains community members. They want to attract the young people back.
“As the young adults grow up, finish university, there’s no place to go,” she said. “That’s what my son faced. He’s now living in Dartmouth. What we’re trying to get is that age group between 25 and 35, maybe 45, back into the community because they’re the ones having the kids. That’s the only way it will grow. I’m not having more kids. That’s our main goal.”
And they’re finding ways to do that, including a community land trust project that will help build a mix of affordable housing. Some of that housing will be for seniors who can move out of their larger homesteads, which then can be purchased by younger people.
Jones-Wilson said her “heart is with the youth and seniors” in her community.
“For one, I get to mentor, and from the other I get wisdom and knowledge,” she said.
She recalls growing her here when the kids in the community could go to any elder’s home for some “treats and sweets.”
“I think a lot of that is missing today and I think that’s why we have a divide,” she said. I think if we get back to like the African proverb says, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ then all generations are all together.”
As for the seniors, Jones-Wilson said the development association got some funding to run programs for seniors at the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Centre that was once the community’s school. It’ll be a wellness program with a focus on exercise.
“Seniors, I find, once they start closing themselves off, it’s hard to get them back,” she said.
The community centre is also home of a day camp for the kids. At just $6 a day, it’s an affordable option for families here.
Jones-Wilson said another program will have the community’s young people teach seniors how to use their smartphones and computers to keep in touch with the community, including through Zoom meetings they may not be able to make in person.
Jones-Wilson said “we need to get back to the roots of connecting all generations.”
“We’ve been here since 1815 and we’re here to stay,” she said. “We’re an open community and we’re not gated. A lot of people think we wanted to be gated. We just want to be respected. It’s an African Nova Scotia community. That’s what we are and that’s what we’ll always be, down to the last man.”