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EMCS Society: filling the gaps in Sooke’s social life

Non-profit maximizes school facility and fills gaps in community

Ashley Green, left, and Anne Bell at Edward Milne Community School, where they work to bridge school and community. (📸 Zoë Ducklow)

Ashley Green, left, and Anne Bell at Edward Milne Community School, where they work to bridge school and community. (📸 Zoë Ducklow)

Even though Sooke is within a reasonable drive from Victoria—thousands of commuters take the route daily—the small community has limited amenities available in town. And there’s a chronic shortage of commercial space.

That’s partly why the Edward Milne Community School (EMCS) Society exists.

It’s awkward to describe what the EMCS Society does. Officially, they’re what puts “community” in Edward Milne Community School. They manage theatre bookings and make sure the props and equipment for various users stay in the right place and in good shape. They rent rooms after school hours for community classes.

They oversee the food garden at EMCS, and also employ gardener extraordinaire Matthew Kemshaw to maintain gardens at three other schools in Langford and Colwood. Kemshaw is like a librarian and shop teacher combined, but for growing food.

The society regularly hosts Foodsafe certification and first-aid training. And this year they bought a movie licence to put on monthly movie nights for Sooke youth. The next closest movie theatre is in Langford, which is a long bus ride away on a Friday night. And they own the massive whale skeleton that hangs in the high school atrium.

“We're always trying to fill the needs of the community. In Sooke, unlike the Westshore, we don't have as many amenities, we don't have as many spaces. So we're always trying to help fill the gaps in programming,” said coordinator Ashley Green.

In its 2021/22 annual report, the Society summarizes its mission as enabling people to “make a living, make a life, and make a difference.” It is, by definition, broad.

The two coordinators, Anne Bell and Green, who share a full-time position, struggled to answer what they do because it’s such a long list.

What they offer expands and contracts based on community needs.

Before there were any yoga studios in Sooke, the society hosted classes at EMCS. Over the last decade, studios have cropped up all over Sooke, meaning it wasn’t a gap the society needed to fill, so it pivoted to high-intensity interval training classes. But the pandemic has forced a lot of Sooke’s yoga studios to close, so Bell and Green are wondering if it’s a gap they need to fill again.

Bell and Green coordinate with the Sooke and Electoral Area Parks and Recreation Commission known by its acronym, SEAPARC, to make sure they don’t overlap programs. SEAPARC is part of the Capital Regional District and tends to focus on sports and fitness activities for children, school-aged youth, and adults.

What Sooke wants, EMCSS does

The society doesn’t only fill gaps of demand, it also responds to unique opportunities, such as when a young gray whale whale rolled up on a local beach in 1989. It was the Edward Milne Community School Society, only two years old then, that took responsibility for the skeleton after volunteers stripped it and cleaned it, and had it lifted to the ceiling in 1996.

A few years ago, the society led the transformation of an underused garage at the school, complete with a car bay and hoist. Not enough students were signing up for the courses, so the district had decided to close it down. The community saw an opportunity to make use of the workshop, and asked the society to step in. So it did.

The Sooke Makerspace has welding machinery, a 3D printer, industrial sewing machines, and a full suite of woodworking equipment. They started running courses and offered open drop-in times for people to work on their own projects in early 2019. It was growing quickly until the pandemic forced a complete closure. Now, the society is hiring for a new Makerspace coordinator to re-open that centre.

Also in the school is a professional kitchen that gets used by students in the food program, and by the society for classes like sushi art and homemade pizza. Some day Green hopes to offer community meals for refugees and immigrants in Sooke, where the group will learn to cook with local ingredients, eat together, and leave with a pile of leftovers.

The people most affected by Sooke’s limited amenities are arguably the youth. To make sure teen voices are heard, the society organized a youth council to give opinions about what young people want to see in Sooke. It wasn't just to inform what the society offers, but for all other youth recreation organizations like SEAPARC and Big Brothers and Big Sisters. It created a road map of what teenagers are looking for—primarily, a space to hang out, more regular transit to the Westshore, and access to sexual health information—and brought it to Sooke Council.

Pandemic interruption a temporary blip, programs are filling up again

The society’s bank account took a nosedive in 2021 because COVID restrictions put nearly a full stop on the society’s operations. Grants and donations are essential sources of income, but most of its revenue comes from program admissions. Already in 2022, things are getting busy again.

Bell and Green have no shortage of ideas for what’s next—it just depends on which ones they get funding for, and which most meet the needs of Sooke locals.

After-school child care is one idea that’s steadily climbed to the top of Green’s list of priorities. She knows it’s a grave need for families, and it also happens to be a priority for the provincial government which means there’s grant monies available.

Every summer they run a camp called Play & Learn for 25 students in Grades 1, 2, and 3 who have struggled academically. They get nominated by their principals, and there’s no fee to attend. The camp grew out of EMCSS’s long standing focus on literacy, and works to help students with numeracy and literacy through playing games and a lot of outdoor activities.

The beautiful thing about the society’s mandate is that it’s open to the imagination. All it takes is someone with a skill to share that interests the community and the society seems to be able to make it happen.

Coming up there’s a Christmas swag workshop, soap making, kickboxing, and more.