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COMMUNITY ANGEL: Drive for justice motivates housing advocate

'It's an inner drive for justice,' says Newmarket resident Yvonne Kelly, a tireless volunteer who steadfastly believes building 'small change' will lead to 'bigger change'

NewmarketToday continues its annual tradition of marking the giving season by celebrating Newmarket's Community Angels — the people whose kindness, compassion and community spirit help make our town one of the best to live in the country.

Yvonne Kelly can remember working in lower-income communities and shelters dating back to the 1980s when she was in university. 

The Newmarket resident and social justice advocate said the work is a lifelong passion. She continues chairing the Social Planning Council of York Region and co-chairing the Affordable Housing Coalition of York Region.

While housing issues have significantly worsened since the 1980s, the school board employee remains committed to trying to alleviate the crisis. 

“It’s an inner drive for justice,” she said, adding that she gets her energy by being surrounded by other impassioned people. “If we don’t do that work, it would be hard for me to imagine just walking away because there is also an opportunity to build small change that hopefully will lead to bigger change.”

Kelly has made a name for herself in advocacy for social issues and housing. She is currently working for Newmarket Heights as part of its community action table for the community safety and well-being plan, something also occurring in Georgina. She has also chaired the Social Planning Network of Ontario and run for office for the NDP three times, though has no plans to run again.

In her volunteer work, she has pushed for progressive housing policies and systematic reform. Most recently, the Affordable Housing Coalition got many York Region election candidates to pledge commitment to housing policies. 

“I grew up in a very working-class family, and I think there was always conversations. There was always issues being discussed and how we can make that more fair. More equitable.” 

“We do it because we’re passionate people,” she said. “It’s not really valued and appreciated and funded. So it relies on the tenacity and the energy, and sometimes the energy is low.” 

Still, she said advocates made some gains, such as a social assistance audit at York Region 12 years ago that she believes changed the government dialogue around poverty. She said progress can come from efforts like the community safety and well-being plan working with some of the most vulnerable communities.

Working on collaboration between organizations over the years is also key to her.

“We’ve built enough trust and capacity to say, ‘Hey guys, let’s stand up together,’” she said. “That’s what we’ve been working on for years to get to the point that we’re not the only ones saying these things.”

Kelly is seven years from job retirement, working at the York Region District School Board as a community and partnership developer. But she said her volunteer advocacy work will remain a focus regardless. She remains committed to helping Newmarket Heights and other area communities experiencing struggles. 

“This is important, and I do love the work and I do love the people."