Abby Gardens new operations director Ashley McAllister is excited at the opportunity work where she grew up. McAllister, who is a 2009 Haliburton Highlands Secondary School graduate, said her new job will enable her to engage with the community./DARREN LUM Staff

HHSS alumna assumes leadership of Abbey Gardens

By Darren Lum

Abbey Gardens’ new operations director will be a familiar face to some in Haliburton.

Ashley McAllister is a Haliburton Highlands Secondary School alumnus, who has been living in the area while working remotely the past four years. 

Although she wasn’t born here, she moved to and was raised in the area, having graduated from J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary School and then HHSS in 2009.

McAllister said the timing of this opportunity coming around was ideal following the conclusion of her seven year employment with the not-for-profit Lawn Summer Nights, which ceased operations in December.

“Because of COVID we just realized that we weren’t really sure mass in-person events were going to happen. We had 20 different tournaments running across Canada by last year. When you’re dealing with the different provinces and all the different restrictions, there was so much uncertainty that they decided to suspend operations. So, I was shutting that non-profit down and then at the same time Heather was kind of deciding to move on and bring her expertise to the Haliburton County Development Corporation,” she said. “I literally finished, wrapped up my last meeting with my team and then saw the job posting the next day. It was very interesting timing.”

Despite living here for the past four years with her family while she worked remotely for Lawn Summer Nights as its national manager, which helped to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis of Canada through lawn bowling tournaments with the participation of young professionals across the country, she never quite felt engaged to the community.

“I was saying the other day it felt like I was in Haliburton, but I wasn’t apart of Haliburton because I wasn’t working in the community. The job [at Abbey Gardens] let’s me do that,” she said.

McAllister hopes being an operations director will provide a connection she didn’t feel in her previous role. 

“I was living back home … I had my friends, my family, but because I was so busy on something that wasn’t happening in the community I never felt like I was at home as I guess I hoped to be. So it actually, for me, was a nice way to take all of my expertise that I had in my career and my experience fundraising and working in the non-profit sector and focus on something that is in Haliburton and serving Haliburton County. I think that was a big draw for me to be based here still, but actually working in the community and helping my neighbours,” she said.

McAllister’s first official day of work was on Tuesday, March 2. 

She said she’d like to focus on having more social event bookings such as weddings, which she believes has the potential for growth because of Abbey Gardens’ beautiful property.

“That’s an aspect that, while it exists, we haven’t really been able to focus on it  just because the other stuff has been so successful,” she said. 

She adds with the current restrictions related to the pandemic any such bookings likely wouldn’t be happening until possibly 2023, as weddings require a long lead time for planning. This down period without bookings will enable her the time and space to prepare. 

Past operations director Heather Reid, who started at Abbey Gardens in 2013, helped to train McAllister before she left. Reid wrote in an email she is proud of her past work but is excited about her new role as the program co-ordinator at the Haliburton County Development Corporation.

“I’m very proud of what our team at Abbey Gardens has accomplished while I’ve been part of it and I know they will continue to do great things for and with the community. Welcome to Ashley McAllister who is taking on the operations director position,” she wrote to the Echo.

McAllister graduated from Carleton University with a double major in history and English in 2013 after graduating from HHSS. She had planned on going to law school, however before her last year of university she became “hooked on doing events and fundraising” when she got a job with an old heritage mill during the summer before finishing university.

She ended up going to George Brown College in Toronto for special event planning and when she finished in 2015 she started working for the newly started Lawn Summer Nights. 

After training with Reid, McAllister said  the quality of the programming and the strength of the staff at Abbey Gardens is a credit to Reid, which established a great foundation to build from, McAllister said.

“It feels very easy for me to kind of step in this role because there is such a strong foundation really that is running this place and making it so successful. So my hope is just to build on what Heather’s already done and kind of expand our reach beyond the county, figure out ways that we can diversify our fundraising stream, [and] reach new people. Obviously Abbey Gardens still has its core supporters and I think there are lots of people out there, especially now, that are moving here who are definitely or could be interested in Abbey Gardens, so it’s just a matter of finding them,” she said. 

While in high school, McAllister admits returning wasn’t really part of her future plans. However, she gained a new appreciation for Haliburton County while away.

“I definitely found that once you go you kind of realize how the people are so connected and everyone knows everyone and supports one another. Our events are successful because you have the same people that are like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to support Abbey Gardens and I want to be there.’ That kind of community is hard to find outside Haliburton,” she said.