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The Village Advocate

Wendy Lees drives almost daily into the East Village neighbourhood, and gets out of her car laden down with art supplies and free baked goods. Immediately the residents see her and gravitate towards her.
Create! director Wendy Lees matches art with advocacy in Calgary’s East Village.
Create! director Wendy Lees matches art with advocacy in Calgary’s East Village.

Wendy Lees drives almost daily into the East Village neighbourhood, and gets out of her car laden down with art supplies and free baked goods. Immediately the residents see her and gravitate towards her. Exuding compassion and laughter, Wendy listens to them and shares what she knows about events in the ever changing landscape of the Village, a southeast Calgary neighbourhood. During this interview, people came up to her constantly and just wanted to check in, see how she was and maybe get a cup of coffee in the art space that she's created.

Wendy is the facilitator of Create! In the East Village, a free, drop-in program she started in 2013. She started it in response to two major changes: the Mustard Seed cancelled all their creative programming and the flood of 2013 which saw a mass evacuation of the East Village. The stress and trauma from the flood, Wendy said, was being felt by the residents but there was no outlet.

"I was a volunteer at the Mustard Seed shelter, and I found very little was available in terms of art programming for what I'm calling marginalized people in the East Village - that means people who are homeless, low income and seniors, people who've experience many challenges," says Lees. "So a program that combines social advocacy, personal empowerment and freedom of expression was needed. We provide free art classes and have a writing group, all reliant on donations and funds from businesses that support this vision."

Wendy cites her own background as the catalyst for her advocacy work. "I know what it's like not to be heard," she says, "to be discouraged from art and writing. But I needed to stop standing at doors that would not open and for asking people that can't help."

When she was younger she wanted to be a child psychologist. In university she studied art before completing a program in Interior Design at Mount Royal University. As she progressed, she kept returning to her twin passions of art and advocacy, resulting in a degree in Social Work from the University of Calgary. Then she worked at a women's emergency shelter, but that was not as fulfilling as she thought it could be.

"As a social worker, it bothered me that bureaucracy has taken the place of advocacy," she says. "That's why I do what I do now. I believe this work is the accumulation of all of my past experiences. Create! is it. I strongly believe we are all freedom seeking beings, and art is one way to have freedom."

A very private person, Lees constantly turns the conversation back to her amazing volunteers and the great people that come to Create! She was surprised to be nominated last year for Samara Canada's Everyday Political Citizen award, which recognizes Canadians who take exceptional steps to improve their communities.

Keeping Create! in the public eye is vital for its survival, says Wendy, as the future for the program is uncertain. Funding remains a constant issue as her main supporter, The Golden Age Club, closed on May 31. A helping hand has come from the Salvation Army offering her a space for the next few months at their House of Hope centre in East Village. Wendy remains positive as she packs up all her supplies: "It's time for a cleaning out of the air," she says. "It's going to be a good thing."