It is with great sadness that we share the news that Peggy Birnberg died Friday February 8, 2013.
Peggy was our former Executive Director for over 19 years. Her kindness, compassion, love for life, vision and leadership is what has made Houselink what it is today.
Peggy had a very rich personal life as a mother and a grandmother, a sister, lover and friend, we all knew Peggy through her work.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Peggy and her sisters were originally from New York City. She was brought up in a family that embraced and thrived on art and politics. At the age of 20 Peggy began her career as a new teacher working on the lower-east side of Manhattan. She did what she felt was needed to get through to the students. That included feeding them, supplying educational materials from her own pocket and discarding the curriculum, to reach children who were unable to focus on books. They would respond to “doing, seeing and talking”, so that was how she taught. There were parents who faced their own challenges of drug recovery and poverty, but she loved the children and encouraged the parents to recognize their worth as good parents. This work gave her a great deal of satisfaction and stands out as a real success in her career.
She was also an activist. She participated in the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements, as well as community based actions like organizing parents around school issues.
Peggy moved to Toronto in 1976 and after discovering that she was not qualified to teach here, found a job at the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre where she worked as the Child/Parent Coordinator from 1978 to approximately 1988.
The centre was the first place Peggy really felt comfortable since coming to Toronto and while there, she had many successes. Key among them was her work to get York University to be more accessible to and supportive of Jane /Finch residents. That work eventually led to York’s bridging program for women.
She was able to secure United Way funding for the Center, which was one of the first non- mainstream agencies to get funding. This led the way for many other smaller, non-traditional services to be funded.
Peggy left the Center to take a position at Opportunity for Advancement as the Executive Director. She worked there from 1988- 1991 developing programs that assisted disadvantaged women to access education and training opportunities.
In 1991 Peggy joined Houselink as the Executive Director, a position she held for nineteen years.
Peggy came to Houselink when the organization was in crisis. Houselink had begun as a very grass roots organization and hadn’t developed official policies and procedures. After a government audit Houselink received a lot of negative press. Peggy had a mandate to firstly help us survive the scandal and then to reorganize and professionalize Houselink. At the time there were 3 buildings under development – Sackville, Davenport and Claremont – Peggy helped the staff pull together to get all of these things done.
Over the years Peggy joined many networks. She was active in ONPHA, at one time becoming the vice president and was appointed to the Toronto/Peel Mental Health Reform Task Force chaired by Michael Wilson. She became a champion of supportive housing – a woman who could convince the average person that supportive housing was a good thing. Her work greatly advanced Houselink’s profile in the community mental health sector.
In 1999 new money became available. Due to Houselink’s high profile in the sector, Houselink received funding to develop Barker, Danforth, Broadview, MacDonnell, and Indian Road. Again Peggy led the board, staff and members through the development of these sites – almost one hundred new units!
At Broadview there was intense opposition to the building from neighbours. Peggy launched the Homecoming Community Choice Coalition which promotes the rights of people with mental illness to live in the neighbourhood of their choice. This coalition was helpful both to us, when we faced another community fight during the development of Gerrard, as well as to others all across the province. Peggy spoke eloquently and often about NIMBYism and peoples’ rights to housing.
The Houselink fundraising department also flourished during Peggy’s tenure. She and her family were instrumental to the success of the Double Exposure photography auctions that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Houselink programs over ten years.
When Peggy left Houselink this is how she said she would like to be remembered:
“I want to be remembered for being fair and just, “That’s always been very important to me…I want to be remembered for changing the organization so that we are a model organization and that people turn to us for advice and support. I want to be remembered for my leadership and for the growth we experienced and how we do our work in a way that is very effective.”
But I think we can also remember her as a passionate, articulate champion who lived her life fighting for equality, opportunity and rights.
Read other tributes to this amazing woman:
Learn more about the amazing work she accomplished in our community:
Rest in Peace Peggy you will be greatly missed.