Community loses social service legend
Charlotte Maher made a career out of helping the groups that help midtown
Talk to a dozen people about Charlotte Maher and a remarkably consistent picture emerges: an assertive leader; a supportive friend; a cheerful woman; and the type of person who rarely distinguished between her personal and professional life because she was lucky enough to laove her job.
Born in the United States in 1924, Maher earned a teaching certificate from Indiana’s Earlham College, a social work degree from Boston University and later, an advanced social work diploma from the University of Toronto. She was already in her late 30s when she began her career in North Toronto’s social services community in 1961.
Maher never became the face of a single organization. Instead, she frequently changed companies, said Jane Moore, retired executive director of Senior Peoples’ Resources In North Toronto (SPRINT).
“For about the last 20 years of her professional life, she made her living as interim executive director for social service agencies that were between EDs,” Moore said. “Her niche was being able to step in for three months or a year … figure out with the board where the organization wanted to go and steer the ship in a good direction.”
Maher served as interim executive director at least 48 times for social service agencies across the province, including SPRINT, St. Christopher House, Youth Without Shelter, Central Neighbourhood House, Sistering and St. Clair West Services for Seniors.
She was instrumental in founding the Central Eglinton Community Centre, the Upper Yonge Village Daycare, the Sherwood Park Residents Association, SPRINT, People and Organizations in North Toronto (POINT) and the Anne Johnston Health Station.
“She was part of an activist group that helped persuade the government that we needed a community health centre in North Toronto,” Moore said.
After retiring around 15 years ago, Maher devoted herself to volunteering full-time with CareWatch, another not-for-profit organization she co-founded that helps seniors live at home for as long as possible.
“I think she felt that so long as seniors were in their own homes and able to do the things they’d always done, despite being a little shakier walking or needing a hearing aid, they could contribute to their social scene for years,” said friend and CareWatch colleague Tammy Smith. “She was certainly not one to put up her feet and watch TV at home.”
Maher got her start in Toronto working for the YWCA as she had in Pittsburgh, but soon moved on to the Central Neighbourhood House.
Later she began working with the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, where one of her jobs was to collaborate with a group of North Toronto parents who ultimately formed what became POINT.
“When I came to POINT, there were absolutely no services for seniors in North Toronto and yet we had the highest percentage of seniors in the city,” said Joan Osler, POINT’s retired executive director.
“It was assumed people in North Toronto didn’t need help,” she said. “We proved that wrong by developing many of the services we now have at POINT, and Charlotte was always involved in all of them.”
Central Eglinton Community Centre’s retired executive director Susan Kee praised Maher’s ability to relate to anyone, regardless of their background.
“It didn’t matter if she was meeting with the premier or the guy on the corner,” Kee said. “Charlotte was Charlotte … If she didn’t like what you were saying, you’d be the first to hear about it.”
She was also passionate about education, serving as a public school trustee for eight years.
In her personal life, Maher loved bird-watching and was an avid gardener, Wiley said. She remembered Maher giving away herbs when she grew too many.
She had her vices, of course. Central Eglinton’s Kee vividly remembers Maher sucking on a cigarette, though she managed to quit in recent years, while joking about visiting “her” park on Roehampton Avenue, which former councillor Michael Walker named in her honour.
And she always had a cocktail before dinner, Wiley said, usually a Manhattan or martini.
POINT’s current director, Diane Werner, said that Maher always advocated for people to involve themselves in the city’s decision-making process, instead of being passive recipients of programs and services.
“Charlotte wanted seniors’ voices in particular to be respected — not just heard, but respected — by policy makers and service providers,” Werner said. “Not what seniors want done to them, but what they want for themselves.
“She would have mentored countless community development workers, and students and staff who were studying social work … especially in her latter years,” Werner said.
“Her death was a great loss to North Toronto and I dare say the city as a whole.”
Maher lived independently and worked at CareWatch until two days before her death on March 5.
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