Executive director retires from Langley’s public school foundation

Susan Cairns, the Langley School District Foundation executive director, mingled with guests at last years gala. (Langley Advance Times photo)Susan Cairns, the Langley School District Foundation executive director, mingled with guests at last years gala. (Langley Advance Times photo)
Susan Cairns, executive director of the Langley School District Foundation, flashes gift cards that will help feed local families amid COVID-19. (Susan Cairns/Special to the Langley Advance Times)Susan Cairns, executive director of the Langley School District Foundation, flashes gift cards that will help feed local families amid COVID-19. (Susan Cairns/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
In adition to literacy programs, technology support, specialist assessment, and other projects, the Langley School District Foundation has food programs to tackle student hunger. (Langley School District Foundation)
The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)The Langley School District Foundation has food programs, and supports schools with scholarships, technology and more. (LSCF/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Susan Cairns was doing professional development for the Langley School District with a project “off the side of my desk” about a body that could help fund things government doesn’t for local public schools.

“The foundation was kind of percolating along,” she said.

Hospital have foundations to fundraise for them. Communities have foundations that fundraise for causes.

So why not a school district?

“We received an endowment in a will, and it was for $295,000 and that was what we started with,” Cairns explained.

Incorporated in 2001 as a charity, the Langley School District Foundation now has a balance of $4 million that is invested in various areas and which funds a variety of programs, initiatives and capital purchases.

“It doesn’t cost the school district anything,” she said.

She receives some in-kind help from the school district which handles the foundation’s financial records and the staffing is her and a part-time person.

When she took on the task of executive director, Cairns was adamant that the foundation be self-sustaining.

“I also had a philosophy that once a program got started, you couldn’t really stop it because people come to rely on it,” she said.

Cairns joked that if she had known she would be working for the foundation since it’s inception, she might have approached it differently.

“If I had known then what I know now, I would have had a bit more trepidation,” she chuckled.

The foundation has its own board of directors. She’s worked with several over the years, as well as with several school superintendents. She wrote the foundation mission and goals, and said it remains committed to making learning unforgettable for every local student.

“I think the highlight for me over my time working with Susan was planning the annual Grand Prix Gala,” said board chair Alison McVeigh. “We had such great committee members, and there was so much enthusiasm for what we were doing. Everyone rolled up their sleeves, the ideas flowed, and the community was so generous and supportive of our efforts. Susan did such beautiful and creative writing to promote the events and worked really hard to help bring all the details together – we truly had a lot of fun.”

School superintendent Gord Stewart said Cairns have been vital in local education, noting that her fundraising during the pandemic has helped many at a time when families are struggling financially.

“The Food for Thought program was a great source of support for so many Langley families,” he said.

What has kept Cairns in the job is the ability to help children.

“I think it’s always something new. It’s very gratifying,” she said.

It can range from getting new technology that helps students with particular learning difficulties to getting specialty assessments for students to ensuring any student who wants has nutritious food in their stomachs to start the school day.

“It’s an amazing feeling to look at their faces and see the joy that they feel in learning,” Cairns said.

• READ MORE: Fundraiser buys new pianos for Langley schools

• READ MORE: Langley School board reaches fundraising goal for rainbow crosswalk

The foundation administers local scholarships and one of its committees also oversees PaMoja, a project to help provide education in Kenya.

The foundation spends about $40,000 monthly for its Food for Thought program in the various schools and receives community support from local charities, businesses, and individuals.

“Whenever they hear about kids that are struggling, they rally and come through,” she said about the Langley community. “I’m gonna miss it.”

A key job since the foundation was created has been explaining to people that the government does not fund all aspects of public education. Cairns said her unfinished business with the foundation was that she would have liked to have been better at social media and marketing the foundation so more people know about its work.

Still, she’s been the go-to. Despite the many upsides of having a school district foundation and no real downsides, few districts have followed suit.

“I’ve had a few calls from different school districts asking me how to set one up,” Cairns said.

The biggest challenge of her time as executive director has been COVID-19.

She said it forced a change in the way programs and services could be delivered, particularly when schools had to close.

“We had to change our whole way of thinking and how we were going to support kids,” Cairns said.

With school closed, the kids didn’t have access to the food programs.

“That was something that concerned me right off the bat,” she said.

Since COVID, the foundation has been providing support. There are about 650 families that receive grocery store gift cards per week to help them keep food on the table.

Highlights over the years have been the foundation events, such as art shows, the grand prix horse show and more.

While they were fundraisers, their most important role may have been to help educate people about the foundation and its work. Cairns said she would have also liked to have done more presentations for schools, principals and parent advisory councils.

At 68, Cairns is turning over the leadership of the foundation to a new person who will bring fresh energy and ideas to the role.

Cairns career is coming full circle. She was trained as a teacher and worked in Burnaby before getting a journalism degree. She and her husband, Ray Brown, then travelled the world – her writing and him taking photos for travel articles.

Their plans are to return to travelling the world.

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• READ MORE: Long-time learning advocate takes over as head of Langley School District Foundation


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