There is no mistaking her home, a grey and tidy bungalow barely seen from the street corner but rocking a building lot both gravelly-new and settled like a warm, wise neighbour. On the verandah: matching yellow Adirondacks next to a neat table holding twin white pumpkins. “I worried it was too soon,” their owner says on a warm night in September. “But I put them out, and it works!”
Nicole LeBlanc is that rare blend of youthful exuberance and boundless optimism, woven with the values and wisdom of an old soul. At 31 she has already lived a lifetime of work, travel, and community engagement. To hear her tell it, though, she is just getting started.
Like her home in Trenton, which she shares with her partner of 12 years, John Rushton, and their fur baby, Tyson, a black-and-white boxer pup who joined the family last Christmas. “It took us 11 years to buy it,” she says of their home, laughing as she does with most statements about her life. The modular show home was set on their lot this past spring, and landscaping continues to be a work in progress. She nods toward the roller machine, its weathered yellow hue offsetting the emerald green of their backyard field and the chairs by her front door. “I’ll decorate it for Christmas if I have to,” she vows.
That is Nicole: opportunity in every breath, potential in every moment. And with the determination to seize and live it all, there has been no stopping her.
Nicole’s story began in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where her parents met and she was born. A year later, her family moved to Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, the first of several moves for her dad Dana’s career with Michelin. Two years later, he transferred to Granton and Nicole lived and played on North Albert Street in New Glasgow, surrounded by an eclectic border of concrete sidewalks, old-growth trees, and her mother Nancy’s own boundless energy – for family, decorating, social work, and community. Another work transfer took them to South Carolina for Nicole’s junior high years, but they returned in time for her to attend and graduate from New Glasgow High School. “I’m flattered when people ask if I went to North Nova,” she laughs, referring to North Nova Education Centre, which absorbed NGHS and two other high schools when it opened in 2003. “It makes me feel so young!”
A degree from St Francis Xavier University was followed by a public relations degree at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. Then it was back to Pictou County to start her career.
“My partner’s family was here, and it felt like home to me,” she says of her decision to settle here, despite signs that may have pointed to the contrary. “I applied for jobs here, and some outside the county that were in commuting distance, but I wasn’t getting anything.” She was making tires at Michelin when a job posting appeared for a new and massive project: a proposed health, fitness and recreation facility in the county had secured government funding and a slowly growing pool of public interest, but was in need of a coordinator for its fundraising and community outreach efforts. Nicole leaped at the chance to apply and bounded to her interview at the Highland Square Mall, until a familiar figure rounded the corner ahead of her.
“It was Dr. John Hamm,” she recalls, “and I was always so in awe of him. I kept praying that he was there to pick up something from Sears.” Dr. Hamm was a respected family physician and a former premier of Nova Scotia, and continues to be involved in community life including, as Nicole was to discover, the wellness centre project. “He turned down the corridor just ahead of me and I’m thinking, Oh, no!’ He’s going to the same place I am!”
When her phone finally rang a few weeks later and the job offer was made, she couldn’t believe her good fortune. “To get work in my field right here at home, and to be part of something this new and exciting, I never dreamed I would have this chance,” she enthused, still excited by a job that ended more than two years ago. Among the highlights of her time with the Wellness Centre? Working with the board and volunteers, and being mentored by community leaders like Dr. Hamm and Murray Hill, who co-chaired the Wellness Centre campaign. After two years working with a team of 15 community leaders and about 30 volunteers, the project raised more than $7 million, and the Pictou County Wellness Centre opened in 2013.
“I know there are still issues to be worked out,” she admits, “but it was such an important project to bring resources and people together as a county, and it really is something we should be proud of.”
Her work with the Wellness Centre also did not go unnoticed by Sobeys Inc., a major project sponsor. Following the end of her contract, Nicole was offered a term job in the company’s communications department, a job that is now full-time, based in Stellarton.
Her young life is a testament to the rapid changes within the county. She still refers to her former Wellness Centre office space in the Highland Square Mall as ‘the old Ranchhouse restaurant.’ Her high school has been converted to a junior high, demolished, and replaced with the vivid New Glasgow Academy. But what hasn’t changed – and what she loves most about her community – are the tight-knit families and the close proximity of everything.
“I love how when you mention a name someone knows them, or their brother, or their grandmother’s cousin,” she grins, plumping a pillow on her puffy leather couch while Tyson splays across her lap for a scratch. “I recently had colleagues from Ontario visiting here. They stayed at my parents’ cottage, 10 minutes away. We were at the golf course, another 10 minutes away. Everything they wanted and needed: Trenton Park, the grocery store, was a drive of just minutes. They were used to hours of commuting, and were just amazed. I had to clarify that I actually do sometimes venture more than 20 minutes from my home, but the neat thing is, I don’t often have to.”
When she does venture out, it’s to South Carolina to visit her parents, or to travel for work. “I got to see Newfoundland for the first time on a work trip, which was awesome,” she says.
But an ideal vacation day for her?
“A good cup of coffee in the morning, then sneak in a bit of TV, then relaxing with John.” Couple time is something neither of them take for granted, with Nicole’s active schedule and John’s own unique job. “John is part of a family business that moves houses, work that keeps him on the road and often working at night,” she explains. “So whenever our schedules line up, we really treasure that.
We’ll walk Tyson, cook supper together, maybe watch a movie, just relax.”
When she’s not indulging in Dexter on Netflix or back episodes of Real Housewives (of anywhere, she confesses to loving them all), she’s scrolling Pinterest for her “next great project.”
“It’s so true, why pay $25 for something when you can buy $92 in supplies and make it yourself?” she offers, thrilled by the prospect of creating and transforming, taking her successes and failures in stride. Photo boards, stained and personalized?
A definite hit, generating enough in Christmas sales to buy John a jet tub for the emerging bathroom in their new basement. “I was going to buy him a toilet, but we did way better than we expected!” However, the wreath that she spent hours gluing tiny styrofoam balls to, only to have the foam melt under the spray paint? A fail, she sighs. “It was hissing and popping and I’m watching it melt going, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’” Spray paint, she says, is usually her friend, transforming more than one abandoned piece of furniture into a functional point of pride. Her living room coffee table is a vintage window pane set atop a retro table literally found on the side of the road: “We’re talking brakes on, in reverse, going ‘is this for real?’” The square table had wire hairpin legs, a perfect fit for her windowpane and her style. Her favourite decorating event? Spring cleanup days. “I look at John and say ‘Let’s do this. Should we draw a map? Maybe get a trailer?’ He just shakes his head. But he supports my ambition.” When she wanted to jazz up the immaculate beige walls of their ready-to-move-in home, he did set some boundaries: one can of paint, and anything she could do herself. The result was a navy accent wall in the living room, which sets off the artwork above the brown couch, and is drawn out nicely by white curtains with a bold navy stripe that just appeared as if by magic at a local store. “They’re perfect,” she sighs, as a late summer breeze billows them into the room. A rare moment of peace for one who in her ‘spare time’ indulges in her other Pinterest pleasure – cooking – and invests her time and expertise in her community. She’s a board member and proud Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters, serves on the board of the Riverfront Jubilee and was busy in the summer and fall campaigning for her candidate of choice in the recent federal election.