“Oh, no. Over my dead body.”
When she first visited Bradford 27 years ago, a little farming town, population 10,000, Liz Pegg turned to her husband, aghast.
She was not moving here.
“I am a city girl, not a country person. No way. No how. This is not happening.”
She and her husband, Bob, were considering purchasing the pet store on Main Street, and she simply could not imagine it.
Now, she cannot imagine living anywhere else.
That’s what volunteer work can do for you: turn a community into your hometown.
Despite her misgivings, they purchased the Pet Valu store, and then struggled, feeling like outsiders in this close-knit community.
“We didn’t belong,” Pegg says. “Our kids were already grown, so we couldn’t connect through the schools. How do we become part of this town?”
Then she watched the Bradford Santa Claus parade: one local marching band and a couple of floats.
It was during daytime work hours, “over and done in about 18 minutes,” she recalls.
“I mean, God bless everybody that put the time into building a little float. Santa arrived and kids were excited, but, honestly, there wasn’t a crowd on the street and it was just kind of sad.”
The parade fizzled out after that, until the local newspaper put out a call for volunteers to revive the event.
Pegg likes to “tinker and build and come up with ideas,” so she, her husband and her daughter, Jennifer, went to that first meeting.
“Within a year, we were chairing this thing.”
The new, little committee of volunteers opted to switch to something few other towns were doing at the time: a nighttime parade.
Pegg thought it would add a little mystery, a little magic — and it did.
“I always say a bale of hay in the daytime with lights on it is just a bale of hay with lights on it, but at night, the hay disappears and you see the lights. You look past imperfection and it looks amazing.”
One of those first few volunteers noticed an old sleigh sitting on a front lawn in the nearby countryside and asked, “How much?” That became Santa’s North Pole workshop and the parade’s first antique sleigh.
After a few labour-intensive years borrowing, setting up and quickly dismantling flatbeds from local farmers, they organized a fundraising barbecue at the local lumber store, selling boards donors could sign, and created a base for floats.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, the parade grew.
This year, the estimated crowd numbered 8,000 to 10,000, but Pegg, who chairs it, is reluctant to take credit.
“Believe me when I say this was not me by myself. It was a whole group.”
Volunteering has become a family affair for the Peggs, with Liz contributing to Bradford Lions work, helping at the food bank and the community fridge.
Recognizing times are tough, the family’s store donates pet food to the food bank.
“You may be struggling to make ends meet, you may have lost everything else, but we don’t want you to have to surrender your pet,” she says. “We’ve been doing that for 27 years and we will not stop.”
They also committed to feeding the South Simcoe police dogs, knowing the service was needed in a rural community, where kids might wander off and get lost.
Liz, Bob and Jennifer have been recognized numerous times for their volunteer work in the community, but she shuns the spotlight, pointing to the team effort and work of many.
“I prefer to stay in the back and quietly do what I do. This is how my kids have been brought up and how we operate.”
It’s not like she has any special skills to offer — just her time, she adds.
“I am not the sharpest pencil in the box, but I can give you my time.”
Now in her 70s, newly retired — or “rewired” — and looking for more ways to help, she has this advice for those looking to belong.
“Get involved. Find something that interests you and do it. Every little bit, even if you think it’s not important, counts. What ends up happening is that strangers become friends very quickly.
“There’s so much going on in the world right now that is so sad and we’re not able to do anything about it, so what can we do here? Let’s find a little bit of joy wherever we can and share that joy with other people.”
And then maybe you, like Pegg, will find this town feels like home.
“Even though Bradford has grown in leaps and bounds … it’s still got that small-town community feel,” she says. “There’s just some sort of connection. You couldn’t pay me to go back to the city if it were the last place on the face of the Earth. I love Bradford.”