When Sheila O'Brien was appointed as special advisor on student life to the president in 2005, she was asked to evaluate the student experience at the University of Calgary. What became most evident was the need for a women’s centre and while there were already many champions on campus, there was no funding available.
O'Brien consolidated her efforts with Fiona Nelson, PhD, and her Women's Studies Praxis course, as they had already been building momentum with their three-year campaign for a women's centre. The turning point came when O'Brien and her late husband, Kevin Peterson, generously donated her year's salary to bring the centre to life.
The group held campus-wide consultations to find out how people wanted to use the space, and the services and programs they wanted to see offered by the centre. This information was then used to work with two environmental design graduate students to custom design the original space, as part of O'Brien's work with the Take Your Place 40th Anniversary Project.
Women designed concept and space, and then built the centre
"We were reaching out to philanthropists in the community to fund these spaces around campus — but my late husband and I thought, for us, it was really important we fund the women's centre," she says.
"We built the women's centre in a way that no one had done it before — we had women design the concept, we had women design the space, and then we had women build it."
When the Women's Resource Centre opened its doors on Oct. 18, 2006, it was established as place of kindness and community, but above all else, a space where women could come together as their authentic selves and talk about the unique experiences of women.
"In that moment, my heart was so full of pride and joy and hope — that we had actually pulled it off and all of us had come together to create something that reflected our values as feminists, for future leaders as we grew as a women's community at the university," says O'Brien.
Centre celebrates O'Brien's generosity with excellence award
The centre has since relocated from its original space on the third floor of MacEwan Student Centre in 2013. O'Brien notes that while the beautiful space the group originally designed no longer exists, she is enthralled that "we were able to keep the beautiful concept, impactful programming and commitment to women.
"Ten years later, it is everything I could have hoped for and more. The fact that the programming has sustained, evolved and grown really is a wonderful thing," she added.
"It was the best investment Kevin and I ever could have made."
The Women's Resource Centre celebrates it's 10th anniversary, and it continues to recognize O'Brien's unparalleled generosity. Each year the centre awards The Sheila O’Brien Award for Excellence in Leadership to a volunteer who has not only demonstrated outstanding leadership, but has also brought a sense of kindness to campus community — much like Sheila has exemplified over her lifetime.