I only recently met Mona Staples in person, which is surprising, given our paths have crossed many times, probably quite literally. I first encountered Mona through our local Buy Nothing group on Facebook (a platform where neighbours give away unwanted items or ask for items they need). She was collecting items to send to Northern communities, and I wanted to learn more.
Our interview began with Mona describing what she calls “my long love affair with Sandy Hill,” which started in high school when she would go to parties at a friend’s house. During her last semester of nursing school, she moved into her first home in Sandy Hill, a bachelor apartment on Wilbrod, from where she would commute by bicycle to her clinicals at the Ottawa General Hospital.
Since then, Mona has lived on several Sandy Hill streets; once jokingly nicknamed Dame Mona of Goulburn, she is now known as Mona on Mann.
She has long been an active volunteer and activist in Sandy Hill, beginning in 1992 with the battle to stop a liquor license from being granted to the new owners of the establishment where Nelson Drugs had stood for 40 years. She also fought to prevent the property next to hers from becoming a rooming house, cleaned up our parks, and led heritage tours as a member of Action Sandy Hill’s Heritage Committee. “When I became part of Jane’s Walk,” she tells me, “I used to say: ‘I am living as Jane Jacobs intended. I have never owned a car. I live, shop, and work in Sandy Hill.’”
After retiring from her long career as a nurse (including 18 years at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre), it was time to downsize. Mona says she felt like she won the jackpot when she was accepted into the award-winning Conservation Co-operative on Mann Avenue: “If I could do one thing in life, it would be to create more of this kind of housing. There are some issues, but it is a wonderful model for living. It’s a village with a full range of members, 30% in market-rent units, the remainder in subsidized units. As well as being founded on a plan for ‘living green,’ the co-op mandate includes housing for people requiring accessibility, single mothers with children, and hardworking immigrant families—all raising their children here in a safe place.”
How Mona came to collecting items to send to Northern communities was mostly serendipitous, fueled by her desire to help people in need and her interest in, and previous contact with, Inuit and Northern cultures. She found the Facebook group Clothing for Our Northern Friends and began donating by thinning out her own wardrobe. As friends and neighbours heard about what she was doing, things took off.
“It has been a great pandemic project,” Mona says. “Everyone is clearing out their closets and the need up north is great. The post office has remained open throughout lockdowns and donations are in quarantine for two weeks on their voyage north.”
The group works much like the Buy Nothing group, but with the extra challenge of organizing and paying for shipping. Recipients pay that cost, if they can afford it. Mona has raised money to cover some of her out-of-pocket shipping expenses.
“It can be heart-wrenching when you post something and over 50 women want it,” she says. “You really become aware of how difficult their lives are.”
She tells me that the administrator of the Facebook group sees this as a form of reconciliation-people of the North and of the South coming together. “I’ve had amazing conversations with people living up north,” Mona says. “It’s really heartwarming how appreciative they are.”
Still, the task is not without its challenges. Mona is extremely grateful that the Co-op Board of Directors approved the use of a common room to store clothing that was taking over her apartment! With over 130 boxes shipped and counting, she tells me she is ready to do other things. “I am really enjoying retirement. Being a nurse was a huge responsibility. It is a very gendered job, with a lot of inequity.”
Born in Moncton, which she still visits regularly with mom Florence, Mona says “If I leave Sandy Hill, it will be to go to New Brunswick only.”
It’s no surprise to me that a friendly, community-minded East Coaster would feel so at home in Sandy Hill. And of course, as we say goodbye, Mona insists I come over soon so she can give me a tour of the Co-op, and hear many, many more stories.