The women advocating change through the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario have been integral in quiet community victories for generations, and the Virgil branch is looking for new members to infuse fresh energy into the organization.
Currently, the Virgil branch has 10 members, many of whom are older or often out of town, with less time to devote to the institute, Margaret Byl, past president of the local branch said.
“Our Virgil branch members are aging so it’s harder to get community awareness and do those community events,” she said. “We’re trying to get the word out that we’re still here and we’re still doing things for the community.”
The national organization has championed numerous causes regarding public safety, education and the general interest of the community, such as automatically providing birth certificates in 1963, removing staples from food packaging in 1975 and making the safety bars on the front of school buses mandatory in 1998.
“We don’t just sit around drinking tea,” she said.
This week is Women’s Institute Week and the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake recognized the importance of the institute’s work during a flag raising Tuesday morning.
The not-for profit organization has been advocating for women, family and community since its inception in 1897. The institute was inspired by Adelaide Hunter Hoodlass, a prominent Canadian woman who fought for women’s education.
After the death of her son from what was then called “summer complaint,” now known to be caused by drinking unpasteurized milk, she sought to bolster rural women’s education so they could better protect their families.
Byl said the organization hasn’t strayed far from its initial mandate of working for the personal growth of women, “for home and country,” to encourage a balanced lifestyle for all. Though she did say membership has changed a bit over the years.
“It's the membership that has changed, more from rural to including everybody, but our focus is still on education.”
For example, she said right now, there's a lack of life skills training in the high schools, “and so we're still advocating for that.”
Causes championed by the group are widespread; the institute is focused on raising money for Lyme disease.
“The provincial organization, right now, is still on Lyme disease because there's way too many people that have the disease that aren't being diagnosed and treated properly,” Byl said.
Locally, she said the small group of women in Virgil continue with the Books, Blankets and Bears campaign. It is an initiative started in 2016 to donate items to local hospitals, fire and police departments and shelters to provide some comfort to young people experiencing crisis or challenging times.
The book Quincy and His Quilt: A Northern Adventure, written by members of the organization, was the inspiration for the campaign. The Virgil branch has previously donated items to Gillian’s Place and the children’s ward at the hospital. This year, Byl said donations will likely go to the Niagara Regional Police.