It’s a bit ironic that hundreds of people turned out Nov. 4 for Jill Taylor’s service, as those who knew her best agree she would never have wanted that much attention. 

Jill Taylor, a well-known educator and community leader in Hay River, passed away on Oct. 31 at the age of 52. photo courtesy of April Glaicar

“I think Jill would have been surprised,” her brother Shaun MacDonald. “But it’s really heartwarming. She loved the community so much, and everyone in it, and it shows that she touched a lot of lives. She had a kind spirit and helped a lot of people in their toughest times.”

The news hit Hay River the morning of Oct. 31 that Taylor had died at the age of 52.

As an educator and community leader she came into contact with a multitude of people every day, never mind the many whom she counted among her family and friends. Many of those people filled the concourse and second-floor balcony at Diamond Jenness Secondary School to remember her.

“She had such a diversity in her friends and yet she had time for everyone,” said fellow Interagency Committee leader and friend Bobbi Hamilton. “Whenever you needed her, whenever you just wanted to talk, she was never too busy.”

She recalled a time she had called Taylor, upset and needing support, and Taylor said she would be right over. After hanging up the phone, Hamilton went to the washroom, and by the time she came back, Taylor was in her office.

“I was just amazed that she could do the things she did,” Hamilton said, recalling the early days of the committee. “It was all about, ‘let’s not just say we’re going to do it.’ It didn’t matter what, if there was something to be done, she would find a way to do it.”

Skills honed young

From childhood, she had a talent for reading people, listening, and knowing exactly what they needed.

Taylor grew up with four brothers in a happy home in Nova Scotia. Her brother, Paul MacDonald, said the family was steeped in community spirit, not only from living in a small town, but also as a result of their parents’ involvement there. Their father often said, “If you lose, say nothing. If you win, say even less.” Paul said this was something Taylor had very much taken to heart.

“She was modest, generous, fun-loving, game for anything,” he said. “She was really fearless and courageous. If she saw something that needed to be done, she would work hard to see it happen.”

Taylor was an accomplished athlete and competitive basketball player in her youth, from which she took not only life lessons, but also lifelong friends.

She was an avid reader and took after her mother in musical ability.

“Jill had a wonderful voice. She loved the chance to sing, to join in at parties, that sort of thing,” Paul said.

Jill and her husband Mark Taylor moved to the North right out of university, working in Cambridge Bay and Norman Wells before moving to Hay River in 2005. Paul said no matter where they want, Jill and Mark embraced those communities and the people who made them. What had started out as a plan to spend two years or so out west became an increasingly permanent move, especially after the births of the couple’s children, Matthew and Michael.

Leading by example

Hay River Mayor Brad Mapes was one of Jill and Mark’s earliest acquaintances in town, as well as their neighbour. He said that over the years, when Jill had an idea or saw something that needed attention in the community, she would take herself across the yard to speak to Mapes, even before he was elected mayor.

“She was definitely somebody who inspired a lot of people to do better,” he said. “She definitely inspired me to make good on some ideas I wanted to do.”

In her work it was no different. After just one semester teaching at the high school, Jill was nabbed by the South Slave Divisional Education Council to be their inclusive schooling co-ordinator. As such, she was inundated with awards and recognition for her work across the region and the territory, but for her, it always came back to the individual students and what they needed.

Jill’s boss, superintendent Curtis Brown, said whenever she went somewhere or hosted a visiting delegation from another community, he would get emails and letters detailing how she had gone above and beyond for them. He said Jill was always the first to ground discussions on policies and procedures in the real-life needs of the ‘Little Muffins:’ the students for whom her efforts did the most good.

“It was the intangibles, the things that she does that you could never put on a resume or find in a job description,” he said. “That’s how she was.”

 Brown, Mapes, and Hamilton all agreed that Jill’s shoes would not be easily filled, not in the schools and not in the community. Diamond Jenness principal Lynne Beck said the same, but – like others – also noted Jill’s remarkable ability to show people their own strength.

“Jill had a way of making everyone feel important, valued, and believe that whatever their role was, they were more than capable of doing it well,” she said in her address at the service. “She had an uncanny ability to express compassion and empathy, while always challenging us to do better.”

The question now is how to move on, to continue honouring her vision and her work in Hay River and the territory. Beck said it will be difficult for many to get through the day without hearing Jill’s familiar, “you got this, hon,” or “that’s easy,” delivered with an encouraging smile, but that moving forward thinking about what she would have wanted is a good place to start.

Keeping the lights shining

Among the panoply of projects and initiatives of which Jill was the centre, the Lights On program is perhaps the most well-known and clearest example of her drive and philosophy. She knew Hay River youth face big challenges and pressures when it comes to drugs and alcohol, but instead of creating a working group and engaging with stakeholders and issuing a report, she asked her son what would help. He said to turn the lights on in the gym on Saturday nights.

Princess Alexandra principal Tara Boudreau was sold on the idea the minute she heard it and was eager to expand the program from the high school to the middle school.

“She really believed in the program,” Boudreau said. “It started so small and it went so big. The kids just flooded to it.”

She said Jill would get so excited every year when she learned the funding was there to continue running it. In fact, the family have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Lights On in Jill’s memory. As of this writing, a GoFundMe Campaign has raised more than $4,000 in one day for the initiative.

“She was a mentor to us all,” Boudreau said, explaining how when a student who was normally friendly started acting out, Jill would find out why. “There’s a reason. Pry a little. Talk to them, and find out what it is.”

Boudreau said Lights On is a place where students from whatever background can just be kids together without all the lines that divide them during the school day.

Two days after the community learned that Jill was gone, a student asked Boudreau if they were going to have Lights On this weekend. She thought about it, thought maybe with the service going on it might not be the best idea, that the wound was too raw. But then she thought of what Jill would want, and what the students needed.

“Of course there will,” she said.

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