Stephanie Dong is one of Apt613’s correspondents at United Way Ottawa. With its Community Builder Award program, United Way Ottawa honours Ottawa’s outstanding volunteers: the organizations, partnerships, agencies, neighbourhood groups and individuals who work tirelessly to make our city a better place for everyone. Do you know someone who deserves a Community Builder Award? Nominate them!
Since her arrival in Ottawa in the 1990s, Elaina Martin has become a fundamental part of the community. Mainly recognized as the founder of the popular Ottawa arts and music festival Westfest, Elaina has expanded her role from creative entrepreneur to community leader in a short span of time.
During this year’s Westfest, United Way Ottawa’s recognition team surprised Elaina with a Community Builder Award to celebrate her years of volunteerism. Looking back on her endeavors, Elaina shares how giving back to the community has become a part of her identity.
“It’s become a part of the fabric of who I am.”
Since the young age of 10, Elaina wanted to make a difference in her community. In the week leading up to a telethon in her hometown, Elaina organized a children’s caroling group to raise money for the annual event.
“Volunteering, it just came really naturally, and it’s always been a part of my life,” explains Elaina, “It’s become a part of the fabric of who I am.”
After volunteering for more than 35 years (!!!), Elaina has amassed a healthy resume of experience. Now she uses this knowledge to guide others.
Elaina has been providing advice on how to strengthen our community for years by volunteering on a multitude of boards. Recently, she took on the role of Board Director at Minwaashin Lodge. By assisting in the planning and implementation of programs and services for Ottawa’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and children who are survivors of violence, Elaina continues to elicit positive change in our community.
“I have a whole lifetime of connections, resources, sponsors and relationships that I have spent my life building up that I now get to share with others,” says Elaina.
“That’s the best part about board work – picking an organization that I truly believe in and then using all of my self-made power, through 35 years of connecting with people and the resources that come with those connections, and getting to lend and give them to these organizations to help them do good in their communities.”
A fixture in our community
While there are many initiatives and organizations that Elaina supports, the one she holds most dear is Westfest.
“What I’m most proud of is that this little free festival whose mandate is about erasing barriers and literally not making any money, has been able to survive for 15 years! That’s incredible and it’s not easy.”
Established in 2003, Westfest was originally a simple, one-day music event. “In year one the big slogan was ‘I want to throw a big party, I want to invite everyone, and I want to make it so everyone can come for free,’ and it’s still the exact same.”
15 years later and Westfest has become a landmark for Ottawa. Now a three-day long event, Westfest continues to be fully inclusive and dedicated to showcasing established and aspiring Canadian artists that might not otherwise have visibility in Ottawa.
“I think Westfest has impacted the community on a social level, definitely. It’s the first place that many people saw their first Indigenous dancers in full regalia. I think it’s also the first place people saw Inuit art and artists, the first place they saw throat singing and the first place they saw real, serious black hip hop in the streets of Ottawa. It’s just what you do when you’re inclusive.”
Elaina recognizes that putting on this festival would be impossible without her team, the “Westfest Army.” Consisting of about 100 volunteers, the Westfest Army comes together once a year to bring joy and culture to the Ottawa community.
“It doesn’t matter what they do in their everyday lives,” explains Elaina, “that second weekend in June, they come. It’s turned into a family reunion.”
A rallying point
Because of her inspiring work throughout different facets of Ottawa, Elaina was a natural fit for the title of United Way Ottawa Community Builder, which she received this past June.
“It doesn’t matter what you love, some organization, some people, some group needs you and when you volunteer where your passion is, volunteering is better than money. It’s like gold.”
Through research, evaluation and partnerships with community experts, United Way Ottawa identifies the root causes of the biggest social challenges facing our community, and helps find solutions that change tens of thousands of lives for the better. One hundred percent of donations stay in Ottawa to help those most in need.