Mayor Shari Decter Hirst puts her arm around the United Way’s Debbie Arsenault following an announcement at city hall last year. Arsenault passed away overnight Sunday, according to friends, after a long battle with a chronic illness. (FILE PHOTO)
Debbie Arsenault is shown in a photo from the 1980s. (FILE PHOTO)
The city of Brandon is mourning the loss of longtime community advocate Debbie Arsenault.
For more than 30 years, Arsenault was the face of the United Way of Brandon & District — a passionate, dedicated leader and CEO with tireless energy for the cause.
"Her heart and soul was in the United Way," said Kevin Martin, former campaign chair for 2010-11.
"She had a way of making sure that the dollars that needed to be raised were raised, and she felt a huge responsibility … I think at the end of the day that’s what she was about … making sure our community was taken care of. And the inspiration that she gave to everybody carried through."
Arsenault passed away overnight Sunday, according to friends, after a long battle with a chronic illness.
Mayor Shari Decter Hirst first met Arsenault in the early 1990s when she became the United Way campaign chair under Arsenault’s direction.
"That was when our paths first crossed, and it’s been a very good 20 years since then," Decter Hirst said."I think the thing that always really impressed me about Debbie was that she was never satisfied with the status quo. If she saw a need, she was immediately trying to figure out how to meet it."
Decter Hirst reflected on the 2011 flood, and how the United Way came through to help.
"Last year’s community support fund that the United Way offered because of the flood was a classic example of … really being driven to support the community," she said.
Decter Hirst said Arsenault had a knack for motivating people to volunteer time and money to the United Way’s cause.
"Her expectation of us was always that we would come together and get the job done, whether it was increasing goals for the annual campaign or responding to very specific needs in the community," she said.
"People responded to that often far more generously than they had ever anticipated, after they’d had a chance to meet with her and understand what she needed us to do."
Programs supported by the United Way include Coats for Kids, Brandon Food for Thought, Helping Hands, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, CNIB, Canadian Red Cross Society (Brandon branch), Samaritan House, Tools for Schools, Learning Disabilities Association, Westman Immigrant Services, Brandon Family YWCA, and Child and Family Services.
The before- and after-school programs held a special place in Arsenault's heart.
"Our children are our citizens of tomorrow. We have to do everything we can to make sure they’re safe and well. And that’s a community job not just one organization," Arsenault said in an interview with the Brandon Sun in May 2010.
Samaritan House general manager Marla Somersall recalled just how committed Arsenault was to the community.
"She would do the hours it took, make the phone calls, have the conversations and not give up until she met the goal," Somersall said.
"She would always push people to have the conversations that needed to happen, encouraging people to think about things differently, and to look at what are the real funding needs and how to best go about serving the needs of the community."
Len Isleifson, a current city councillor and former United Way board and campaign chair, worked closely with Arsenault. He remembered her as "one of the most dedicated, enthusiastic people" he knew.
"She was a remarkable lady," he said.
"If you look at women in the community who make a difference, she was definitely one of them."
Staff at the local United Way office were not ready to comment, opting to wait until after a press conference this morning.
United Way 2012 campaign chair Bob Cey said Arsenault’s legacy will live on in Brandon.
"I think she’s just touched so many people in the community over her many years there, that the legacy is going to go on and on … in regards to people she’s helped, either directly or indirectly through the member agencies of the United Way," Cey said.
"We will miss her very much."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 10, 2012