Amanda Hill and Jim Proudfoot first met as teenagers, from separate towns and schools united in Kingston, Ontario to represent Nova Scotia at a national science fair. They connected easily, both enthusiastic and accomplished, passionate about theatre and community, grounded in their birthplace and predicting futures without borders. They loved their hometowns, but would they settle there as adults? Probably not.

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Fifteen years later, Amanda and Jim were again on a plane, this time bound for Edmonton to talk about Pulse Pictou County, a grassroots organization they formed (with third partner Stephanie Cooper) to connect youth and invite positivity in their home community. Years of young people leaving for work and local industries downsizing or closing had infused an air of gloom about the county. These were realities no one person could change, but what about perceptions? In less than three years, Pulse Pictou County has hosted many successful events and become a model for revitalizing communities by connecting their greatest assets: their citizens and their attitudes.

What happened between Ontario and Edmonton was a lifetime of experiences, with twists and wrinkles taking each of them away from home and back again. They returned with the enthusiasm and accomplishment of their teens; what evolved was a focus of their energy.

Where the world was once seen as ‘out there,’ they now dream of a Pictou County that honours its own limitless potential for sustaining careers, families and quality of life.

Amanda’s journey began in the Shiretown, where amid studying, sports, and music lessons, she and her sister Melanie gained a deep sense of community from their parents, Murray and Cathy Hill. Amanda embraced numerous outlets for her talents and energy, maintaining a top average at Pictou Academy, competing in the New Glasgow Music Festival, and volunteering for various school and community events. Growing up near the Pictou Marina and on the family sailboat, she connected early with her passion for the sea, giving her then and now an oasis in her high-octane life.  When making big decisions and needing an escape, she loves to paddle her kayak out into Pictou Harbour and just sit. “There is nothing like the sound of waves against the side of a boat,” she murmurs. “Nothing calms me more.”

“There is nothing like the sound of waves against the side of a boat,” she murmurs. “Nothing calms me more.”

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In her third year at St. Francis Xavier University, on a path to medical school, she became intrigued by dentistry and applied to Dalhousie Dental School “to get my foot in the door.” What she received was an acceptance letter. As difficult as it was to give up her fourth-year plans at X, she felt dental school was where she belonged.

After a lifetime of small towns Amanda was energized by city life. As one of 36 dental students (20 of them women), and with their own campus and her boundless optimism, she settled in quickly and deeply to her new home in Halifax. She thrived in both the technical and scientific aspects of her studies, began playing Ultimate Frisbee (a highly-competitive cross between football and soccer) and prepared to make Halifax her new permanent home. Then, another wrinkle. She was offered a job back in Pictou. Would she consider it? She would, as a year of gaining experience until a solid city opportunity came along. Then she met her patients. One year turned into two, then into seven. A year ago a new opportunity came along and she needed to make a change, but just across the causeway to New Glasgow, where she still counts her patients as a joy.

Dentistry remains her passion: she is president of the Northern Nova Scotia Dental Society and has been selected to represent our province on the Canadian Dental Association Task Force for the Future of the Profession.  She was named to the Top 50 Under 40 Leaders in Atlantic Canada, and is Chair of the Young Leaders Campaign with the United Way. She can also be found coaching ultimate frisbee at Northumberland Regional High School, singing with the Carillon Singers, playing soccer, or taking a rare bit of time for herself, such as going for a run or yoga class.

“I love my life,” she enthuses, cozy in front of the wood stove in her west side home. Moving to New Glasgow drew a bit of flack from her Shiretown friends, but the moment she stepped inside, the house felt like home. Her front room is her favourite, with the wood stove, large windows, and soothing blue gray walls. Her second favourite spot: her bedroom, crafted into a retreat space with a plank headboard she made herself,  a sheer curtain with mini lights on the wall behind, and a bed mounded with pillows. “I come in here and read, listen to music; it turns off my brain before bed. This is my sanctuary.” And in the past six years, her neighbourhood has become home to a growing number of her friends and her sister, who is just a few blocks away.

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It is the neighbourhood in which Jim Proudfoot grew up, born to parents Kendall and Jenny Proudfoot into a Pictou County household name: his grandfather (also Jim) was the founder of several businesses that today are Proudfoot’s Home Hardware in Pictou and Stellarton.

The younger Jim was also recognized for his sibling: identical twin brother Joe. They shared classes, opinions and interests, and while theatre was more Jim’s passion, they occasionally shared the stage. Joe played Jim’s ghost in West Side Story, but their most famous performance was complete improv: Joe, by now a Saint Mary’s student, visited Jim at Acadia one weekend. Only Jim’s roommate knew there was a twin. He and Joe spent the afternoon entertaining Jim’s friends; only when Jim returned from class did they realize the difference.

Jim majored in business but took music and theatre as his electives. After graduation he moved to Ottawa, living with friends and working a variety of jobs: setting up retail stores, recruiting  IT workers for government contracts, and a two-year stint as a financial analyst for Agriculture Canada. He loved the variety, the intensity, and above all the people connections of his work; what he didn’t have was home. “My whole time there, on my way to work on the bus and back I would be texting or emailing about the family business.

Finally, I realized that it just didn’t make sense any more. I missed my family and my friends and was already involved in the work. It was time to come home.”

That was four years ago. Today, he is inventory manager for the family business, working in an office next to his brother. “I couldn’t ask for a better business partner,” he says. “I trust him implicitly and we have the same way of thinking. When we disagree, though,” he added, “we really disagree. We learn a lot, and it’s a lot of fun.”

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A year ago, Jim moved into a two-bedroom duplex in Abercrombie, just across the county line from where he grew up and the best of both worlds: 12 minutes from either the Pictou or Stellarton stores, close to town but surrounded by trees for that private rural feel. The duplex, shared with a roommate and her two cats, Klaus (a tabby) and Fritz (too shy to be seen), is compact but airy with an open concept design, numerous windows and a fetching accent wall in seafoam green that heralds his favourite room. “I’m a stander and a leaner,” he says, “so when people are over you’ll find me in the kitchen.” He enjoys casual gatherings often with a theme attached: taco night or Margarita Monday. His cooking skill he

“I’m a stander and a leaner,” he says, “so when people are over you’ll find me in the kitchen.” He enjoys casual gatherings often with a theme attached: taco night or Margarita Monday. His cooking skill he downplays, but admits to a passion for barbecuing. “I’m always on the search for that perfect steak: the right temperature, the right cooking time … I love the challenge.”

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On nights too cold to barbecue he has lines to run and rehearsals to attend for the annual Pictou Rotary musical, which he has taken part in since returning home. It was here, on the deCoste stage, that he heard his name called in surprise and turned to see Amanda Hill, whom he hadn’t seen since that science fair in eighth grade.  They still shared the same enthusiasm and interests and now, they shared a challenge as well: they loved being back home, but many of their peers had moved away and it was difficult finding new friends their own age. They could also feel the dwindling energy in a community that for the past several years had been hit with economic shifts both locally and globally: jobs were changing or disappearing, the once major employers were downsizing, and people were continuing to move away.

Curious, they attended a meeting at the New Glasgow Library, called in February 2014 to discuss Now or Never: A Call to Action for Nova Scotians, released by the Nova Scotia Commission on Building the New Economy. “We went to listen,” Amanda recalls, “but at the very end, after listening to a lot of requests to the government and promises by government members, I asked: Can’t we just do this ourselves?” The audience applauded, and she had a flash of insight. “I knew what I could do to help.”

“We went to listen,” Amanda recalls, “but at the very end, after listening to a lot of requests to the government and promises by government members, I asked: Can’t we just do this ourselves?” The audience applauded, and she had a flash of insight. “I knew what I could do to help.”

Amanda, Jim and Stephanie talked some more. The needs were clear: engage the younger population in opportunities and sense of community, and inject positive energy into persistent negative storylines. Pulse Pictou County was born, and launched in June 2014 with a Trivia Night at a local pub.  More than 100 people turned out, providing a great night of affordable entertainment and a prime learning experience for the founders. “We know a lot of people, but that night, we didn’t recognize half of the people in the room,” Jim said.

“We know a lot of people, but that night, we didn’t recognize half of the people in the room,” Jim said.

“It made us realize that there are young people here, we just need ways to get people out and connected.”

Trivia Night is now every two to three months,  I (heart) Pictou County shirts have been snapped up, and physical events like curling and snowshoeing maintain connections during the colder months. There has also been a vital strength given the voice of youth: Pints and Politics, which paired municipal candidates with audience questions, drew a full house, as did a recent MashUp weekend where hopeful entrepreneurs had the chance to pitch, discuss and plan their ideas.

The success of Pulse Pictou County led to Jim and Amanda to Edmonton last fall. Author Doug Griffiths, whose book 13 Ways to Kill Your Community became a guide for Pulse Pictou County’s formation, invited them as panelists on community development; the Pulse model is being replicated in communities across the country.

“We keep it simple,” Jim says. ”We have terrific local support.”

They are also loathe to attach a number to ‘young.’ “If pressed we say 20 to 40 but really, it’s for anyone who relates to what we are doing and wants to be a part of it.”

Whether leaning in the kitchen or curled up in the sunroom, Jim and Amanda remain active
in their downtime, by their choice. Through Pulse they have proven that positivity is like wood heat: it can take effort to find, split and stack, but the result is a warmth that radiates, invites and motivates. Whether a patient of Dr. Amanda’s, a shopper at Home Hardware, a trivia lover or a citizen wanting to lead personal and community development, both Amanda and Jim have proven that no action is trivial when it brings people together, and that Pictou County has the capacity to develop its own homegrown solutions.

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Jennifer Hatt
Jennifer Hatt lives and writes in New Glasgow, with occasional dashes to her cottage in Pictou when cravings for quiet mornings and fresh rhubarb can no longer be ignored. She shares daily schedules, joy and well-chosen words with three musical children and a sweet fuzzy geriatric cat. When opportunities arise for engaging conversation – like in this month’s profile of Susan Weeks – she is there with pen and teacup in hand.