Female-led business broke the mold

By Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Published 10:28 PST, Thu March 5, 2020

Last Updated: 2:13 PDT, Wed May 12, 2021

While the 2020 business world is filled with strong and capable women, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

No one knows that better than Linda Shirley, founder of The Arts Connection.

Located in Steveston, Shirley’s business provides childcare and extracurricular activities for kids of all ages. The Arts Connection offers music, dance, and visual arts programs as well as before and after-school care. She is also the founder of a companion program, Renaissance Kids, which is an academic and art based daycare program for kids between the ages of one and five.

Thanks to her hard work, The Arts Connection turns 30 this year. A longtime dancer and pianist herself, Shirley began her business in 1975 as what she calls “a home-based music studio in Steveston.” 

Once the organization outgrew Shirley’s home, she moved into her first facility in Steveston.

“It was located in what is now the back section of the SOS Children’s Village Thrift Store,” she says.

After her initial success, Shirley was faced with another early struggle.

“My husband lost his job (of 32 years) when the school was just three years old. This prompted me to grow it into something that would help to support my family,” she explains.

Fortunately, her husband is a visual artist, a skill that was hugely beneficial to The Arts Connection. Their two daughters taught music, and one went on to get an early childhood education certificate after working in the original pre-school facility.

“Over the 30 years it was a huge struggle to keep going,” says Shirley. “Women in business in the 1990s did not receive the acceptance they do nowadays. I had to fight for everything.”

Despite this challenge, Shirley’s business survived, grew, and then thrived. They were able to move into a single facility after years of construction and planning.

Now that the projects have calmed down, Shirley highlights her childcare program as a particular point of pride. She saw potential in offering childcare that also allowed kids to experience extracurricular activities, rather than simply a snack and free play time. 

“While they are under our care after school, the students are able to take classes in our Schools of Dance and/or Music, or they are able to participate in graphic design classes, cooking classes, visual arts and theatre programs, robotics, leadership classes, and more,” says Shirley.

The success of The Arts Connection and Renaissance Kids—and support from those around her—has led Shirley to give back to the community.

 “I believe that teaching children empathy through example is very important,” she says. “This is why we engage them in various social awareness projects to help instil that sense of giving and caring.”

Shirley’s chosen causes include an annual PJ Project for Jeremy's Memorial Foundation against Domestic Violence and a program supporting students from Vancouver’s 

Downtown Eastside, who are brought in for a full day of programs each month.

In addition to community outreach, Shirley also works to provide other resources to families. 

“As part of our program of family services, we have a registered counsellor who is available one day a week on site,” Shirley says. “There are times when you have to go that extra mile (as a teacher) to provide a listening ear, another level of support to them or their family.”

And opportunities for support go beyond the available counsellor: several years ago, Shirley stepped up to provide a meeting place for family members of people who struggle with addiction.

The Boundaries Family Group meets once a week, facilitated by a counsellor.

 “There are virtually no services for the family members who are struggling with and worrying about these loved ones who are in crisis,” Shirley explains.

For her many contributions to the community, last year Shirley received the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s Business Excellence Award in Leadership.

When she’s not busy managing her two businesses, Shirley is also an arts enthusiast in her personal life. 

“I love to attend symphony concerts, chamber music, ballets, and opera. I regularly attend with my husband, or maybe I’ll take a student of mine along with me, or my grandchildren.”

After 30 years in business with The Arts Connection, Shirley is clear about her inspiration: it’s the kids who participate in their programs despite busy schedules and other outside pressures.

 “I am inspired to try to give them the best possible opportunities,” she says.

And sometimes, former students give back. 

“Quite a few students of mine now work for us, teaching music or dance. It is wonderful to have been able to mentor them,” she says.

They’re paying it forward—just as Shirley continues to do.

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