“This is an amazing place to work. I come up the back stairs every morning and as I walk in it’s a jolt of electricity. Okay, here we go!” That spirit and enthusiasm is indicative of the dedicated career of Gerry Mills, who has retired after 30 years in immigrant support, most recently as ISANS Executive Director.
“When I go to reception, I see clients who are anxious and fearful, wondering what’s ahead, knowing that we can help. And there are kids who are delightful and oblivious to what their parents are going through, playing with toys,” she says, painting a vivid picture of the place she loves. “Such diversity of people coming through our doors. It’s exciting and busy.”
Gerry beams with pride for the organization that now employs more than 250 people. As Director of Operations for several years, she led a team that did innovative and effective work. “I love when our staff goes to conferences and comes back so shocked and excited about our national reputation.”
ISANS has changed her too. “Working here has made me more empathetic, more patient. I’ve become a better listener.” Gerry admits the early days were stressful, at one point actually mortgaging her house to pay wages.
Gerry had thought she might be a teacher after earning a degree in German and English in her native England. Because her husband was in the fishing industry, they moved to Canada in 1986 as temporary foreign workers. Despite knowing the language, it was a lonely and profound experience of culture shock. “It gave me an understanding of what people go through.”
Gerry divorced, and raised two children on her own. She volunteered in literacy training and teaching and worked part time in ESL at English Unlimited—one of Canada’s first settlement language training programs. Within six months she was Executive Director of what was renamed Halifax Immigrant Learning Centre (HILC).
HILC later shared offices with Metropolitan Immigrant Settlement Association (MISA). Gerry and MISA director Claudette Legault began discussions for a merger that created ISANS—something Gerry regards as one of her greatest accomplishments. Settling thousands of Syrian refugees is another career highlight. “I am really proud of the way the staff dealt with that; they were my heroes.” Gerry says ISANS’ accomplishments made the organization influential. “Our vision is a community where all can belong and grow, not just immigrants.”
Although she’ll miss staff and clients, retirement blesses Gerry with time to travel, garden and read, and, most importantly, walk her granddaughter to school.
“In a new country you look for the right place to do good work and make a difference. I never looked for another job. All you want in life is work you love with values that align with yours.”