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Women's shelter executive director retiring after over a decade at the helm

Noreen Cotton is retiring from her position after 11 years as executive director at the women's shelter in St. Paul.

ST. PAUL - Since 2009, Noreen Cotton has been at the head of the women's shelter in St. Paul. For 11 years, she's been leading the staff, she's taken charge of a large expansion project, and has helped and encouraged a variety of new programs aimed at supporting women, men and children.

And, after what has no doubt been a challenging year for the Capella Centre, Cotton has officially announced her retirement from the organization. On Nov. 17, during the Capella Centre's annual general meeting, a presentation was made to Cotton in honour of her retirement.

Cotton began work with the centre as a frontline crisis intervention worker in 2007. Two years later, she would find herself in the executive director's position.

"I dare say that she has done every job in the place and has been a role model for all our staff," said Corrine Wieler-Harris, vice-chairperson of the board of directors, as she spoke about Cotton on Tuesday night.

"Noreen’s dedication and work ethic are exemplary. Her relationship with her staff is the thread that ties everything they do with success - hers and theirs and ours," said Wieler-Harris. She noted that Cotton knows her staff like family, and not only checks in on them professionally, but personally as well.

"Noreen is the team leader and the cheerleader."

Wieler-Harris recently asked Cotton to describe her greatest accomplishment with the women's shelter. Of course, Cotton noted that there were many - but she soon began speaking about her relationship with Rick Makokis. The St. Paul shelter is the only Women’s Shelter in Alberta to employ an Elder.

"Rick and Noreen have been able to persevere through differences and divergences with respect for each other, understanding of trauma and human needs, listening with open mindedness, in exclusion of an oppressive system and with willingness to serve families," said Wieler-Harris. "They support and trust each other so that the system, as it is, can be used to provide space for safety and healing for traumatized women and children, and men."

Cotton is also known across the province for her work with the Danger Assessment tool. She was one of the first to be trained with the tool, and went on to train others.

"The tool is fundamental to keeping women safe and alive. Through her work, Noreen is highly regarded and respected in our province and beyond," said Wieler-Harris.

During her time at the shelter, Cotton also helped create a number of programs - including a school that is housed at the shelter, to allow families to continue learning, while they are seeking services.

"Today, ours is one of six shelters in Alberta to house a school because Noreen made the calls and did the consequent work to achieve her goals."

The shelter also went through a large expansion project over the last few years.

"Noreen is the one who encouraged the expansion, the one who wrote the proposal and made the grant application on our behalf," said Wieler-Harris. "Then, after we had been approved, she supervised the build . . . She worked with the general contractor, assisted with hiring sub trades and juggled it all with the constraints on regular programs and services."

She also credited Cotton with building relationships in the community, that have translated to a variety of support from those groups.

"Capella Centre is cared for by St. Paul and the surrounding areas. We benefit from funding and donations from all levels of government," said Wieler-Harris.

Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters was able to attend Tuesday's AGM via Zoom, and spoke about working alongside Cotton. She noted that many women's shelters envy what St. Paul has been able to accomplish.

Reimer says she reached out to Cotton's colleagues and asked them to describe Cotton. Words such as: wise, innovative, dedicated, leader, and more came up as responses.

"Noreen is a building," says Reimer, who also noted that the Capella Centre is seen as a leader in serving Indigenous people. She described Cotton as someone who is always learning, and had the knowledge that things could be better. These skills have allowed the entire community to benefit, says Reimer.

"I'm really going to miss you," said Reimer, speaking directly to Cotton.

While giving her annual report, Cotton shared a few thoughts about her time at the women's shelter.

"Working front line for two years was certainly challenging, but rewarding. Having the opportunity to hear personal stories from women and children is truly a privilege," said Cotton. "One of the biggest learnings I experienced was that women are the experts of their own lives, and that we are their cheerleaders, their supporters. Most of everything there is to learn about domestic violence is taught to us by the individuals we serve."

As executive director, Cotton says she continued to learn by listening.

"This has been such a journey for me, and I know in my heart that Capella Centre is in good hands and will continue to grow and thrive in the future," said Cotton.

As the evening wrapped up, a presentation was made to Cotton. A unique piece of artwork created by local artist Herman Poulin was made for Cotton. The piece was named 'Loving Hands' and was made using a variety of symbols and thoughtful touches.