Brock graduate leads COVID-19 response planning for Town of Caledon

Brock University graduate Heather Savage (BRLS ‘99) is no stranger to leadership roles.

But for Savage, who serves as the manager of Recreation for the Town of Caledon, navigating her community through the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic means ensuring no one slips through the cracks.

Savage is one of 10 managers within the Town of Caledon Community Services Department, all of whom oversee areas such as fire, community planning, building, heritage, parks and recreation. Occasionally, she serves as acting general manager, overseeing the entire mega-department, a role she was in when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We have all kinds of emergency preparedness plans in place for the municipality — everything from inclement weather to train derailments, but never before had we planned for a pandemic,” Savage says. “There were a lot of dots that needed to be connected and reactive problem-solving that needed to happen very quickly.”

Appointed chief of Logistics, Savage became a part of a small group of 14 senior leaders responsible for making decisions for 75,000 residents in Caledon and was given a spot at the Region of Peel Community Response Table.

Of this new high-pressure environment, Savage says, she is “often called upon because of her skills managing people,” an ability “that stems from my background in recreation and leisure and my early training as a lifeguard.”

Bringing a community development lens to her new role, Savage proposed a Community Connections Task Force to ensure no one falls through the cracks.

“There will be a lot of broken pieces to fix in the post-pandemic phase,” Savage explains. “In response, we are putting resiliency plans in place now, before it is too late.”

Through the province’s Municipal Act, there are specific laws in place that guide the relationship between municipalities and other levels of government. This means response planning has jurisdictional implications that need to be considered as part of the implementation process.

“In March, we began looking at unconventional ways to support our residents and the non-profit organizations that serve them,” Savage says. “An environmental scan of over 200 organizations to learn more about the direct impact of COVID is guiding our response.”

The Community Connections Team is now providing direct supports in ways the municipality would typically not be expected to. A centralized location for inquiries has been set up to help individuals find answers and groups navigate the bureaucratic system to access services and grants.

“We are being challenged to find solutions for situations we would not normally be responsible for, but we recognize there are gaps,” Savage says. “For example, we have a team connecting people to food programs and social services.”

One notable example is when the Toronto Region Conservation Authority offered to provide 70 bagged lunches a day but needed to know the best method for distribution. The team put them in contact with seven service organizations and a group with the ability to make deliveries.

“Amidst the pandemic, human generosity is prevailing,” says Savage.

While the provincial and federal government have opened subsidy programs, the Town of Caledon is thinking about long-term sustainability in the context of the reported findings from their scan and the gaps that have emerged.

“Organizations, particularly those non-profits struggling to continue supporting vulnerable populations, are worried about their futures,” says Savage. “They rely on funding streams and fundraisers and are not in any position to do this work, with great uncertainty ahead.”

Now that communities are moving into the recovery phase of the pandemic, Savage is relying on her background and industry experience in the private, non-profit and public recreation sectors to adapt and create the resources and systemic change necessary to overcome the next hurdles.

“Pragmatism and varying degrees of leadership skills are some of my biggest assets,” she says. “All the relationships Brock was able to foster for me has helped me with this. My education helped to shape my love for recreation into a direction that is now having a positive impact on the community in which I live and work.”

Savage credits fellow Brock graduate Kathy Moldenhauer (BRLS ’90), Director of Recreation and Culture for the City of Niagara Falls, for guiding her through the Brock Recreation and Leisure Studies program and providing her with mentorship and experiential education opportunities for her degree requirements. 

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