HEROES ON HOME GROUND
Across the country, Canadians are reaching out to make a difference in their own communities
MAIN STREET YOUTH CENTRE,
GRAND BANK, NFLD.
A hangout to call their own
The boredom drove them to it. The endless nights with nothing for the youth of Grand Bank, Nfld., to do but hang around the outport's one restaurant or linger on the streets. No wonder the liquor smuggled in from the nearby French islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon seemed so enticing. Routinely, 12-year-olds could be glimpsed staggering through the southwest Newfoundland fishing community. Until last month, that is. When the Main Street Youth Centre opened in a Depression-era building once used as a drying plant for squid and mackerel, local teens finally had a reason to stay out of trouble. And Newfoundland had a shining demonstration of how any motivated community can take control of its future. Stresses Peter Llewellyn, manager of the nearby Clearwater Fine Foods processing plant, and a driving force behind the centre: “If a small place like ours can build something like this, anyone can.”
It is a radical transformation. The 6,300-square-foot plant now houses a mini-gymnasium, a canteen and a 50-seat minitheatre with big-screen television. There are rooms for PingPong and pool tables as well as shuffleboard and air hockey games. The centrepiece: a sweeping dance floor, complete with stereo and fog and light machines. “It is totally cool,” gushed Angela Rose, 15. “A group of us have been trying to put together a drop-in centre for a long time. We never anticipated anything like this.”
What they needed was a boost from some interested adults. Llewellyn, a parent with two teenage children, grew motivated after spending a shift as a member of the local RCMP auxiliary: he ran across a 13-year-old in a back alley who was too drunk to stand. He and Bob Thorne, a local RCMP sergeant met with Rose’s Main Street Youth Committee and agreed to ask the town to open the longderelict squid plant. He called on suppliers and customers as far away as Japan and California to help cover the $400,000 in renovation costs. Townsfolk sold “May 4, 1996, Make it happen!” buttons, held $50-a-plate fund-raising dinners and
even a one-day “barn-raising,” which attracted 100 volunteers to finish off the construction.
On May 4, six weeks after that first meeting, 500 people showed up for the grand opening. Since then, an average of 200 youth have come through the centre’s doors daily, and the management has been turned over to the teens. “We’re responsible,” says Rose. “If we abuse it, we lose it.” Anyone with liquor on their breath is banished from the centre. So far, no one has had to be thrown out, and underage drinking has fallen off noticeably. As Rose stresses: “On Friday night, the youth centre is the place to be.” That is often all the motivation any teenager needs.
HELPING HANDS, STONY PLAIN, ALTA.
Altruism after school
Even if they were not so young, their dedication would be remarkable. But the eight members of the Helping Hands club in Stony Plain, Alta., are all 11-and 12-yearolds who have blended friendship and volunteerism in their dedication to good works. Club president Angela Dean and her friends, all now finishing Grade 6, visit residents at a senior citizens’ home every second Thursday after school. And they meet every Wednesday to plot new projects—which they organize themselves. In the past 18 months, they have collected garbage around town, produced plays for the seniors’ home and hosted a Halloween party for children at the University of Alberta Hospital in nearby Edmonton. Members have held bake sales and bottle drives to raise money for the SPCA, and they have distributed information cards offering to
do chores for seniors and families. Last year, Angela and her friends organized a summer camp for a few hours each week, for children under 6 in the Deans’ backyard. And this year, they are coaching baseball for kids the same age. In fact, this spring, Angela won a Leaders of Tomorrow award from the Volunteer Centre of Edmonton and AGT, a telecommunications company, for her volunteer activities. “Many times, I have had to tell her to turn the light off,” says Angela’s mother, Doreen Dean. “She would stay up late, thinking of ideas—trying to plan something.” But Doreen adds that all eight kids contribute ideas and work on the projects. “I really like helping people,” Angela says. “And I don’t mind missing playing time, because all of my best friends are in the club.”
EACH ONE, TEACH ONE, TORONTO
Teaching by example
It began with a sense of outrage. Two years ago, Michael Yarde, a sales manager with a cellular phone company, was incensed by news reports on a shooting spree in a Toronto café. “The media said,
Watch out for young black men in baseball caps,’ ” he says. Well, I was young and black and I wear a baseball cap— and I was thoroughly insulted.” But Yarde chose to vent his fury in an unusual way. The 27-year-old bachelor signed on with Each One,
Teach One, a unique mentoring program for the city’s black youth. For the past year, Yarde has played unofficial big brother to Richard Durant, 13, whose single mother was in despair over her son’s faltering grades and constant scrapes at school. Now, taking Richard to a Blue Jays game or Rollerblading along the lakefront, Yarde parcels out judicious advice about homework and life. “I’d rather put my time and money into something like Richard,” he says, “than see it spent building more jails.”
Begun in 1991 by Ebonnie Rowe, a 33-yearold Toronto legal secretary, Each One, Teach One grew out of her own horror at statistics showing skyrocketing dropout and crime rates for young Toronto blacks. Invited to tour a troubled public housing project, she found kids “looking at us like we were aliens from a different planet. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s because they have no black role models.’ ” Rowe set out to pair disadvantaged adolescents with blacks who were young enough to relate to rap and hip-hop. For many of the 300 teens she has matched with mentors since, the program offers the first glimpse of a middle-class dream so unimaginable that some even lack the vocabulary to define it. “One young man said he wanted to be an accountant,” she recalls. “But when an accountant took him to her office, he thought it was so boring. It turned out what he wanted to be was a stock trader.”
From its roots in Rowe’s apartment, where she juggled program duties around her job, Each One, Teach One has flourished, now boasting an office in Frontier College, a national literacy organization, and a full-time staff co-ordinator. Rowe herself plays mentor to one preteen, as well as to a monthly girls’ club. But she admits to occasionally feeling overwhelmed. In April, on the eve of a trip to New York City that she had promised four of the club’s essay-contest winners, her corporate sponsorship fell through. She gulped and put the $3,000 tab on her own credit card. “I couldn’t have looked those girls in the eye if I hadn’t kept my word,” she says. Like her, Yarde has opted to do more than the program asks. Regularly showing up at parentteacher meetings, he has hired Richard a math tutor and sent him to basketball camp. “Michael is like an angel from heaven to that kid,” marvels Richard’s mother, Zenaida Thompson. But Yarde shrugs off the accolades. “My payback,” he says, “will be Richard at 21, gainfully employed—and not in jail.”
NISGA’A ECONOMIC ENTERPRISES INC., NASS VALLEY, B.C.
They are a proud people, descended from traders. But like other native Canadians, the Nisga’a First Nation of the remote Nass Valley in northwestern British Columbia have faced some harsh realities. The four Nisga’a villages in the mountainous region, 800 km northwest of Vancouver, are among the poorest communities in the province: unemployment is estimated to exceed 65 per cent. But fortunes are beginning to look up. In March, the Nisga’a signed an unprecedented agreement in principle with the federal and provincial governments. If ratified, the deal will give the 6,000 Nisga’a control over 772 square miles of land, plus resource and fishing rights and $190 million in cash. Land claims aside, the Nisga’a have been diligently planning for their economic future. “We just couldn’t afford to sit around waiting,” says Matthew Moore, general manager of Nisga’a Economic Enterprises Inc., a community economic development corporation that earmarks company profits for reinvestment into new ventures, and whose shareholders are all of the Nisga’a people. “We decided to get out there and begin to pursue some development opportunities.”
According to Moore, a 41-year-old economics graduate of Simon Fraser
ALICEE JOAMIE, IQALUIT, N.W.T.
On a sunny afternoon, Alicee Joamie sits in her living-room, a calm presence in the seeming chaos of her daily life.
Doors crash open, then slam shut. Children rush in and out, briefly distracted by the rare sight of the 60-year-old Inuit elder sitting quietly. In Iqaluit, a predominantly Inuit community of 4,000 in southern Baffin Island, Joamie is a force to be reckoned with. The mother of seven and grandmother of 14 is an inveterate volunteer, visiting sick people in the hospital, counselling villagers about the AIDS threat, and helping to found Baffin Island’s first women’s shelter and legal aid | clinic. But most of all, Joamie reaches out j to try to improve the lives of troubled § children and teenagers. Lots of them.
Joamie smiles when she is asked how many foster children she has cared for in the past 20 years. After several rounds of counting on the thick fingers of her weathered hands, she decides on a number. Two hundred. Most of them were taken from their parents because of neglect or sexual abuse. Some stayed a few days or months, others much longer. One child is still with her after 11 years. Sometimes, parents whose children have been removed from the home lash out at her, but she takes that in stride. Joamie says they need to look at the environment they have created for their children, one often marred by alcoholism and domestic violence. “If we work from when we get up until we go to bed,” she adds, “children don’t get taken away.”
Joamie also works closely with Inuit teenagers who have run away from their families or afoul of the law. Last summer, she served as one of four supervisors who led 15 teens on a camping trip 100 km along Frobisher Bay.
She tried to teach them about hunting, sewing and traditional Inuit survival skills in an effort to provide a sense of cultural continuity. But the youngsters, many of whom were chosen because they were
considered high risks for suicide, brought their troubles with them. One threatened to shoot her companions with a rifle; another threatened to kill herself with a knife. At one point, when Joamie tried to break up a fight between two girls, one of them kicked her in the stomach. Joamie did not get angry. “If I had reacted in a negative way,” she explains, “they would have responded in a negative way.” Since then, many of the young people have become her friends.
Joamie has known hard times herself. Sixty years ago, her parents considered abandoning their premature baby daughter as they left their camp in northern Quebec in a desperate search for food. Luckily, they thought better of it. Joamie spent the rest of her childhood travelling with her family by dog team in pursuit of fish and game before settling in Iqaluit in 1960. But even in the harshest times, Joamie recalls, her mother helped others by sewing for them or doing what she could. “That’s where I learned how to help another person,” says Joamie. It is a lesson she constantly honors.
University, the corporation’s mission is to pursue opportunities in all sectors. Nisga’a Economic Enterprises—which initially received about $50,000 in federal grants—now has assets of about $3.5 million. “We started with basically nothing,” says Moore. “All we had were the support, mission, mandate and good wishes of our shareholders.” Since 1992, their first business, a logging joint venture with Rainier Canada, has generated about $4.5 million in profits for the Nisga’a and has employed, on average, 80 to 90 people—
90 per cent of them aboriginal. The Nisga’a also own a stevedore company, have just launched a seafood processing and supply business, and have opened a deluxe sports-fishing lodge called Wilp Syoon (Glacier House) at the mouth of the Nass River. When fully operational, says Moore, the four ventures should employ about 250 people. “The main objective is to ensure that those businesses are profitable and that they provide us with opportunities to train managers and create employment,” he says. “The focus on profit is mainly to ensure
the long-term sustainability of jobs.” Meanwhile, the operation has helped to secure bank loans for small Nisga’a businesses—everything from independent logging and silviculture contractors to bed and breakfasts—which have tripled in number over the past four years. It has also contributed some $350,000 to a postsecondary and employment-training initiative. And it has created Nisga’a Economic Development Services, a body ¿ responsible for monitoring and co-ordinat§ ing long-term strategic economic plan| ning. Future projects under consideration m include agriculture, financial services and the development of ecotourism in the region, noted for its breathtaking scenery and vast lava beds. “Basically, we are trying to build our people back up,” says Moore, “to give them the sense that they can do whatever they want They can go out and create businesses, they can be engineers, architects and accountants.”
PARTNERSHIPS IN EDUCATION, REGINA
Corporate volunteers in the classroom
In 1992, when the Regina public school board and the local chamber of commerce went looking for businesses to become active partners with city schools, Wascana Energy Inc. was among the first to step forward. The Regina-based oil and gas company was quickly assigned to Albert Elementary School. Located in the city centre, the school is surrounded by poor neighborhoods where graffiti-stained walls are not uncommon and gangs are a growing problem. Sixty per cent of the students come from single-parent homes. As part of the Partnerships in Education program, Wascana encourages its employees to volunteer at the school during company time. For up to 15 hours each month, they read to students, talk about careers and take them on field trips. “But this really is a two-way street,” says Nancy Johnson, 31, a Wascana business analyst who recently read aboriginal legends to 22 Grade 2 and 3 students. “It adds a human component to your work that can’t be measured.”
The students also take occasional tours of the eight-storey Wascana head office. Last December, they learned firsthand about the world of business—and philanthropy—when they raised $300 selling school crafts at a
booth in the building’s lobby. And occasionally, students even spend time looking over the shoulder of president Frank Proto, who says his employees have developed a strong emotional bond with the Albert School kids.
Nowhere is that more evident than in a ceremony that unfolds each month in the school gymnasium, where all 227 students assemble to watch a Wascana employee announce up to three winners of the outstanding Student of the Month award, which salutes perfect attendance and academic dedication. The winners are given a framed certificate, and their names are etched on a plaque that hangs prominently in the main hallway of the school. “You can see on the kids’ faces what this kind of recognition means to them,” says principal Craik Wotherspoon, 42, a 20-year veteran of teaching. “It’s a great moment in their lives.”
BUNKY THE CLOWN, TORONTO
The best medicine
Twice a week, Bunky the Clown makes her rounds at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, wheeling through the wards on a bright yellow tricycle loaded with toys. In her wildly patterned outfit and oversized „ runners, Bunky takes seriously her I job as a part of the health-care team. 9 “I’m not there entertaining people,” says Joan ^
Bunker, Bunkos alter ego, a 50-year-old moth| er of two grown sons. Bunky is a therapeutic 5 clown—one of a new breed dispensing the § medicine of laughter along with balloons and u soap bubbles. She offers a diversion to hospital routine, using silly gags and mime to encourage a fearful child to accept an unpalatable treatment or a shy one to go for physiotherapy. “Our choice is to be silent,” says Bunker. ‘We are handing back control to the child. They lead the play—the clown is their friend, their mentor.” Clown therapy started in Canada a decade ago at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital. Although therapeutic clowns are few in number, hospitals around the world are increasingly recognizing the important role they play. ‘We see children forgetting their pain,” says Christine Puder, director of the child life department at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. Weekly visits by Paul Hooson’s goofy Doc Willikers—with his stethoscope that turns into a toilet plunger and his prescriptions for merriment—she reports, “distract the children from the sadness they are experiencing.”
clown. Then two years ago, after several months as an apprentice, Bunker invented Bunky. Now, she spends two days a week clowning and a third day raising funds to support—and build—the program. Last year, Bunky trained another clown who recently joined her at Sick Kids, and she hopes a third will join the program later this year. “Eventually, I hope to have a clinic of clowns,” says Bunker. But, she notes, there is a down side to working as a clown. “These are brave little people,” says Bunker. “But not all will make it—some of them die. Our role is to be there for them and to make it the best it can be.”
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
PINE TREE PARK ESTATES, SYDNEY, N.S.
Extending the family circle
NPO shared bloodline, no common surname. All the same, the five residents of the fuchsia-colored concrete corner property of Pine Tree Park Estates Ltd., on the outskirts of Sydney, N.S., seem as close as any traditional family—maybe more so. “I don’t know where I’d be without them,” declares tiny white-haired Agnes Cameron, 94. And it is as hard to doubt the absolute sincerity of those words as it is to be skeptical about Lucene MacIntyre, 56, when she hugs the older woman entrusted to her care and says simply: “I think of Agnes as my own.”
Pine Tree Park used to be an air force radar base. Then in 1991, New Dawn Enterprises Ltd., the country’s oldest community development corporation, paid the county of Cape Breton $1 for the rights to the abandoned property.
Created in 1976, without a dime of government funding, New Dawn is the vision of Greg MacLeod, a charismatic Catholic priest and philosophy professor at Sydney’s University College of Cape Breton. New Dawn’s mission is at once straightforward and ambitious: to create and operate ventures that make islanders more self-sufficient—while generating enough revenue to keep those endeavors afloat. “Control over the institutions on Cape Breton has always been off-island,” explains Rankin
MacSween, 45, president of New Dawn since 1989. “This is a chance for us to decide things for ourselves for a change.”
With an annual budget of $4.5 million, New Dawn has had to be selective. For many years, it restricted its activities to the building of affordable family housing, halfway houses for the handicapped and dental clinics. Pine Tree Park is a new departure designed to address a growing problem—the burgeoning ranks of the elderly. ‘We wanted to give seniors an alternative to an institution,” explains Mike Maroun, chairman of New Dawn’s board of directors.
That is where the radar base came in. New Dawn spent $3.5 million refurbishing the 30 bungalow-style duplexes. The design is standard: three seniors live in one-half of the bright units; in the adjoining half lives the family entrusted with their day-to-day care. Says MacSween: “I like to say that what we do is form o ‘intentional families.’ ”
2 Cameron, a widow who regales vis§ itors with stories about her days as a ^ candy maker, left a nursing home where monthly rates averaged $3,400; at Pine Tree Park, her costs fell to $1,600. Down the hall, ex-Canadian National Railways mechanic Lou Henderson, 94—who still keeps the books at the local Odd Fellows lodge—was busy on his electric saw building a new bird feeder. “If I lived in a nursing home, I would have no freedom,” he says from his wheelchair. “There’s no place like home.”
The neighbors agree. MacIntyre, who had been a registered nurse for 32 years before retiring in 1993, and who lives with her husband, Dougal, a contractor, and their daughter, Carole, is with Cameron and Henderson from the moment they rise at 8:30 a.m. until they go to bed 12 hours later. Yet she refuses to
describe as work the cooking and cleaning and help she gives the pair with everything from bathing and bathroom functions to taking them to doctors’ appointments and administering prescription medicine. “I’m from the old school of nursing where you look after people one-on-one,” she says. “These are not patients. They are more like my own parents.”
And as in any family, the closeness of the relationship presents its own problems. MacIntyre still has not gotten over the loss of Dan Maclnnis, the 97-year-old who lived in the seniors’ unit until last January when he had to be transferred to a nursing home after his health deteriorated. “You can’t help but fall in love with them,” says Carole MacIntyre, a 28-year-old secretary who helps her mother out whenever she can. At Pine Tree Park, the feeling is mutual.
A creative fight against juvenile violence
Twinkle the way, sudden, of juvenile on Rudberg devastating a cool violence autumn learned impact the evening about hard 24 years ago. The Montreal mother was driving with her husband, Daniel, from their home in prosperous Westmount to a dinner party downtown when they saw a barefoot youth dive out of the back seat of a parked car and snatch a purse from an elderly woman. “My husband intervened,” she recalls. “He jumped out of our car and chased the boy into some bushes. There was a struggle. Dan was stabbed. He died, almost instantly. The boy was a runaway, a kid with a drug history from a broken home in the United States. He was 14 years old.”
Not surprisingly, the incident changed Rudberg’s life. But it did so in a way that even she now finds a little amazing. “It has taken a while, but it led directly to all of this,” says the slim, dark-haired, 61-yearold, gesturing over her shoulder from the front step of the Montreal greystone where she is perched, towards a small room on the building’s ground floor where
a dozen teenagers of assorted gender and color are kibitzing. The room serves as headquarters of an organization Rudberg founded three years ago called L.O.V.E.— for Leave Out ViolencE. The teenagers are all enthusiastic participants in the program, an intriguing experiment designed to equip troubled youngsters with the tools they need to walk away from violent lifestyles. “Most of those kids have been defined as being at risk in some way by police and community workers,” Rudberg explains. “A lot of them are either victims of violence, or perpetrators themselves. Our aim is to help them develop a critical awareness of the issue, to understand the way things are and, most important, the way things could be.”
L.O.V.E., which is funded through private donations, has many facets but the centrepiece is a course in photojournalism. Twice a week for five months, the participants, aged 14 to 17, meet after school for a three-hour workshop in the photography department at Dawson College in downtown Montreal. Supervised by Concordia University journalism professor Brenda Zosky Proulx and Dawson
photography instructor Stan Chase, the students are given cameras and access to the college’s photo labs, and are assigned the task of documenting in words and pictures what they believe to be the causes of violence and their ideas about how to prevent it. In practical terms, the end result is an exhibit, as well as the production of a handsome book of the teenagers’ work. But along the way, something more profound is achieved. “Not only do they pick up a few practical, marketable skills but they are also given a voice,” says Rudberg. “And that tends to work magic with their self-esteem.”
The project is now in its second year of operation. A total of 39 teenagers have graduated and there are plans to expand the scheme to two other Montreal region alternative high schools. In addition, the students will soon take their work on the road, carrying their message to others across Canada.
As for Twinkle Rudberg herself, she has finally managed to find a measure of comfort in her husband’s otherwise meaningless death. “I’ve come round to the view that the boy who killed my husband was as much a victim as my husband,” she says. “I think Dan might agree with that.”
TZU CHI CHARITABLE FOUNDATION, VANCOUVER
Enlightenment through service
The soup kitchen just east of Vancouver’s scruffy lower Main Street is easy to find. Long before noon each day, the lineup of hungry men and women waiting for a hot lunch extends down the block and around the corner. The free meals are nutritious, but on most days hardly exciting: economical stews or macaroni and cheese. Once a month, however, the hungry and the homeless enjoy something a little different: spicy stir-fried vegetables and other fresh Chinese fare. And they also receive something even more unexpected: the gratitude of the dozen or so mainly ChineseCanadian volunteers who have prepared and served the wholesome food.
Explains Gary Ho, who organizes the monthly meal: “You find out you are fortunate to be able to serve.”
The principle is one that the cherubic, soft-spoken businessman has built his life around since coming to Canada in 1992. A successful real estate developer in his native Taiwan, Ho was also a practising Buddhist there. He followed the charitable teachings of Taiwanese Buddhist master Cheng Yen, whose 30-year-old Tzu Chi Charitable Foundation raises $200 million annually for charity in Asia. On Cheng’s advice, Ho has dedicated most of his time since moving to Canada to establishing a North American beachhead for Cheng’s ideas—as Tzu Chi literature puts it: ‘To serve the needy and enlighten the rich.”
There is certainly no shortage of needy in his adopted country. Ho’s example, meanwhile, has inspired an impressive number of other prosperous newcomers to share his vision of enlightenment through community service. Taiwanese-Canadians make up the majority of the 2,400 donors and volunteers who have raised more than $1.8 million in the 33 months since Ho launched the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation Canada.The causes that have benefited, however, know no cultural—
or religious—boundaries. Late last year, Tzu Chi donors bought and distributed warm winter coats to more than 100 Vancouver street kids. And in addition to their monthly appearance at the soup kitchen (run the rest of the time by the Salvation Army), the group’s volunteers also serve Chinese meals at four Vancouver-area senior citizens’ homes each week. Ho emphasizes that every dollar his members raise is spent directly on charity; members bear the cost of the group’s administration out of their own pockets.
Tzu Chi Canada’s most ambitious project will open in space provided by the Vancouver Hospital & Health Sciences Centre this October. The Tzu Chi Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine will provide the first setting in a major North American hospital for researchers to examine the effectiveness of such unconventional therapies as acupuncture, homeopathy and traditional Chinese and European herbal medicine.‘Traditional medicine has years and years of history,” says Dr. Wah Jun Tze, a pels diatric endocrinolo| gist who first sparked z Ho’s interest in file pro“ ject. “Common sense says there’s something there that we have an obligation to look at.” By early June, Tzu Chi’s donors and supporters—who include former B.C. lieutenant-governor David Lam, a Baptist—had already raised $3.1 million of the $6 million that Tzu Chi has committed to contribute to the new centre over the next five years.
But to Ho, simply raising money, even for such a worthy purpose, comes second to the ethic of personal enlightenment through service. That is why he encourages his members to volunteer time, rather than cash, to charitable efforts. It is also why, on the second Tuesday of every month, the millionaire investor can usually be found slinging stir-fry in a soup kitchen for derelicts. Because, he says, “when you just write a cheque, you won’t be touched.”
THE COMMUNITY EMPLOYMENT ACTION PROGRAM, OTTAWA
Help for the jobless
Parked next to a rack of religious literature in the small foyer of the Bilberry Creek Baptist Church in an Ottawa suburb, two middle-aged women sit behind a table covered with job search pamphlets as children pound out piano scales in adjacent rooms. The women nod their heads sympathetically when a man with greying hair saunters in and spills out his story. The 55-year-old office manager lost his job eight weeks ago and is depressed. Betty Stephens, a parishioner and volunteer, hands the man a registration form. His name will end up on a database of job seekers—one of hundreds of people who have turned to 12 Ottawa-area churches to help them find work.
The Community Employment Action Program is the brainchild of Bilberry Creek member Gunter Rochow, who found fellow members anxious about government layoffs when he returned from a trip abroad last year. “People were really deeply troubled,” says Rochow, an international human resources consultant. Last September, the program was born, with five different churches signed on. According to Rochow, the volunteers are encouraged to be the “eyes and ears” for job leads. His wife, Reinhilde, scans the database for matches. Volunteers hold regular registration sessions, offer counselling and stage seminars on topics such as coping with job loss and résumé writing. All this is free, except enrolment in the two-week intensive job-finding course. Of the 550 who have registered for help to date, Rochow is uncertain how many have found employment. But he points out that success is often measured in different ways: a person with a mediocre résumé learns how to write a winning one, a self-doubter gains confidence. “We hope to get people to the turnaround point where they say, ‘I’m going to make things happen.’ ”
THE TETRA SOCIETY, VANCOUVER
Vancouver city councillor Sam Sullivan, who gets to the office in a wheelchair, remembers how it was before Paul Cermak’s coat hanger. In 1987, a quadriplegic as a result of a skiing accident eight years earlier, Sullivan was living on welfare and desperate to become more independent and employable. But with limited use of his arms and no use of his fingers, he recalls, “I couldn’t use my toilet. I couldn’t open the curtains. I couldn’t get out the door because of the knob. How could I get a job when I couldn’t get out the door?” He remembers sitting in his room, “seething with frustration.” Finally, Sullivan wrote to the provincial Association of Professional Engineers, asking if its members could help him. Reply came in the person of Cermak, formerly an engineer with B.C. Hydro and now an independent consultant. The first problem he tackled was in the kitchen, where Sullivan could not hold open his freezer door and remove food at the same time. Cermak solved that with a custom-designed door catch, fashioned from a coat hanger. “Within minutes,” Sullivan says, “he revolutionized my life.”
Soon, Cermak and other volunteer engineers were finding similarly inventive ways to help other Vancouver-area quadriplegics overcome barriers to independence. Since then, the network of volunteer engineers and technicians making one-of-a-kind “assistive devices,” as Sullivan calls them, for people with disabilities, has blossomed beyond all expectations. Formalized in 1992 as the Tetra Society, with Sullivan as its executive director, it now has 37 chapters throughout North America. Last year, the society— whose sole subsidy is a $25,000 co-ordinator’s salary from the provincial government—undertook 1,200 projects.
Few were high-tech or expensive. An amber light with a button switch, built in Vancouver for about $20, allows a deaf fouryear-old with cerebral palsy to get her teacher’s attention without having to raise her arm. In London, Ont., volunteer biomedical engineering students assembled a specialized book rest for a woman with spinal injuries, using scrap wood and 79 cents worth of hardware. Says Harry Hardy, a retired Burnaby machine designer who recently completed his 20th project for the society: “I enjoy figuring out the problem and what they need to solve it. It’s always nice to see how happy a person is after it’s done, how they can do something for themselves that they couldn’t before.” It is a joy of accomplishment that Sullivan, who won his municipal office in 1993, shares and understands.
BELLEVUE MANOR, OTTAWA
Building spirit from the ground up
Moving 20 tons of sand using wheelbarrows pushed by children is probably not the most efficient way to build a park. But the residents of Bellevue Manor in Ottawa’s west end would not have had it any other way. For the past five months, hundreds of volunteers from the community, where roughly half the families receive public assistance, have held bake sales, dart tournaments, garage sales and car washes. Their goal: to finance a new
playground for their children. But the people of Bellevue wanted more than just a place for their kids to have fun. They also hoped to teach them a lesson in the importance of community service—by involving them every step of the way. “I baked banana muffins by myself for a bake sale,” says 12-year-old Meagan Robillard. In all, the community raised $34,000. Youth Service Canada, a division of the federal human resources œ department, kicked in another $23,000 g as part of a new nationwide initiative 5 called Neighbor Aid, whose goal is to i
NEECHI FOODS COMMUNITY STORE, WINNIPEG
Bartering for bannock
As she leans into the dough, kneading it on the heavy stainless steel countertop, Lydia Murdock smiles and says: ‘Tm getting so strong I could arm wrestle my old man, and beat him.” The Ojibwa woman started making bannock, a traditional native bread, more than 40 years ago for the men on her northern Manitoba reserve who would take it into the bush on their moose hunting trips. “Usually they would be gone for about two weeks,” she says. “But when they ran out of bannock, they would come home.” Now, Murdock makes up to 100 loaves each day in the Neechi Foods Community Store in innercity Winnipeg, which is owned and operated by Murdock and eight other aboriginals, who also take an active part in local community work. The store—which has yet to make a profit, and takes its name from the Cree word for “friend”—sells quality food, sometimes at less than cost, to the city’s poorest people. ‘Why should the big national stores take all the money out of our community without putting anything back?” asks manager Louise Champagne, who helped found the enterprise in 1989. ‘We want to offer something different for our people.”
And the differences are obvious. While Neechi sells the usual selection of meat, dairy products, canned goods and vegetables, there is also a bin of bananas, apples and oranges that children can buy at half price. A rack of aboriginal children’s books and handmade Ojibwa greeting cards stands beside a colorful display of moccasins, made by local craftswomen who trade them for food. About 100 families from the Wabigoon Indian reserve in Northern Ontario earn thousands of dollars each summer by gathering wild blueberries and shipping their pickings to Neechi.
Neechi’s owners have also worked to effect broader changes in their decaying neighborhood. With prostitution, drugs and gangs, this area turns into an ugly circus at night,” says Champagne. The staff has been working with police to organize frequent foot patrols, and Murdock recently led a successful campaign for better street lighting. “The people we serve are at the bottom of the economic scale,” says Champagne. ‘We’re just trying to make their lives better.”
encourage community volunteering among Canadian children.
With the fund-raising completed, in mid-June 800 men, women and children rolled up their sleeves for five days of digging, hammering, drilling and painting. “I babysat, worked in the food court, and helped during construction—like handing stuff to big people,” says Amanda Moreau, 12. Most of the heavy machinery, including backhoes and trucks, and the professional services of designers and surveyors, were donated or “gotten at a very good deal,” says Connor Savage, a consultant for Youth Service Canada. The result: a spanking new park complete with swings, slides and other playground toys—and a community that has built for itself a sense of pride and accomplishment.
AMBASSADOR PROGRAM, TORONTO
Straight talk from the street
He left home and dropped out of school at 15, living in group homes, selling drugs to survive, landing in jail three times—for assault, possession of firearms and theft. But when one of his closest friends “got pretty wired” and killed someone during a botched robbery attempt last year, Lome Hampton, now 20, took it as a sign to head back to school and begin turning his life around. In the process, the tall redhead with a tightly clipped goatee and a gold nose ring has also been working hard to reverse the paths of other young people who may be flirting with a life on the streets. He does so as one of 18 students enrolled in the Ambassador Program, administered jointly by the Toronto Board of Education and seven local social service agencies, including Beat the Street and Youth Link.
Completing their high-school diplomas in the mornings, the “student ambassadors” spend their afternoons visiting senior elementary and secondary schools across the city, presenting unvarnished accounts of life as inner-city dropouts. “When we talk about drugs, I tell them there are mothers out there on crack who aren’t buying diapers for their kids,” says Hampton. ‘When they ask about gangs, I tell them I joined a gang because I needed people to care about me, but that when I went to jail, people forgot I ever existed.” Although their message is often sobering, the ambassadors offer encouragement as well. “So many young kids feel desperate and hopeless,” says teacher and program designer Linda Rainsberry. “The students we visit hear some pretty eye-opening stories, but they also meet three-dimensional proof of survival and hope.” For Hampton, that is reason enough to be part of the program. “I’m sure I don’t help every kid I meet,” he says, adjusting his Cleveland Indians cap and slouching in his chair, “but I think I help some of them, and you know, that’s pretty cool.”
ALBERTA ECOTRUST FOUNDATION, CALGARY
Partners in environmental preservation
It it: environmentalists. members may industry seem working of unusual in the Alberta But on tandem that the is Ecotrust face with what of Foundation have been doing for five years. The Calgary-based foundation recently topped the milliondollar mark in grants, having doled it out in parcels of $2,000 to $20,000, to fund 89 grassroots environmental projects throughout Alberta. On the corporate side, so-called sustaining members of Ecotrust—including Petro-Canada and the Canadian Pacific Charitable Foundation—agree to pay $25,000 a year for three years into the fund. The environmental member organizations agree to formally endorse Ecotrust for the same time period. Together, 10 representatives from each sector decide by consensus which projects should be funded. “It enhances relations between two sectors that are often at odds,” says Randy Gossen, the corporate sector co-chairman of Ecotrust and a vice-president of another sustaining company, Canadian Occidental
Petroleum Ltd. “At Ecotrust, we leave the baggage at the door.”
Among the groups that have benefited is the Cochrane Ecological Institute, based northwest of Calgary. Last year, Ecotrust gave the institute about $20,000 to develop and test a new system to count swift foxes—tiny animals weighing about five pounds—which were declared extinct in Canada in 1978. The institute, led by president Clio Smeeton, breeds the foxes for réintroduction into the southern Prairies. Smeeton’s group played tape-recorded swift fox mating calls in the wild and recorded fox responses, which they then digitized and analyzed on a computer to identify individual animals—all in order to tally fox populations. “And you can count them without trapping them, or handling them,” says Smeeton.
Other Ecotrust projects include environmental education and conservation programs as well as recycling efforts. Among the criteria for funding is that projects include a substantial number of volunteers. In 1994, Ecotrust funded the
Waterton Park Community Association Green Team, located in Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta, for a project that included the purchase of a trailer to collect household recyclables. The group recently won further Ecotrust funding for several smaller initiatives— including a composting pilot project, the hiring of two part-time field workers to
provide recycling advice to local residents and businesses, and the purchase of special containers to collect commercial cardboard for recycling. “With all the downsizing, it’s heartening that green initiatives are being recognized as important,” says Carol Watt, an obstetric nurse and the longtime chairwoman of the Green Team Committee. On Canada Day, Watt’s years of service with the Green Team and her volunteer work with other local organizations will be recognized: she will be among the first 15 people to receive the Governor General’s new Caring Canadian Award, which recognizes individuals whose unpaid voluntary contributions provide extraordinary help or care to families or groups in the community. Indeed, extraordinary people like Watt are turning Ecotrust funding into environmental action.
CORPO, VICTORIAVILLE, QUE.
On several counts, William Ninacs is an unusual fellow.
For a start, he is a transplant from southern Ontario who has managed to carve a considerable name for himself in southern Quebec, in a town where the population is not only 98 per cent francophone but 85 per cent unilingually French-speaking. That by itself is no small feat, never mind the fact that the 50-year-old former accountant is the victim of a rare neurological disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Syndrome that is gradually atrophying all the muscles in his body. But his reputation rests on something more than mastering the French language and having a crippling physical affliction. Ninacs is the principal architect of an elegantly simple yet effective experiment in community development. “Don’t try to paint me as some kind of hero,” Ninacs protests, “I was simply the guy in the hot seat at the time.”
The time was 1988 and the seat that Ninacs occupied was co-ordinator of the Corporation de développement communautaire des BoisFrancs, better known as the Corpo. A coalition of 60 grassroots co-operatives, community organizations and service groups, the Corpo was, and still is, based in Victoriaville, a town of 35,000, 120 km east of Montreal, where Ninacs has lived for 30 years. And despite his protests, it was Ninacs who helped to steer the Corpo down a new path, adding a hard-edged element of marketplace economics to the organization’s traditional social objectives. He did so by engineering the acquisition, for a nominal fee, of an abandoned 62,000-squarefoot Hydro Quebec installation in Victoriaville. “That gave us the equity,” he explains. ‘Without ownership, we could not mortgage.
Without the ability to mortgage, we could not obtain fi§ nancing. And without financf ing, we simply had no control | over our own destiny.” g
Ninacs, who is currently 5 completing a PhD in social Ninacs: adding hard-edged economics work at Laval University in to traditional social objectives Quebec City, stepped down
as co-ordinator of the Corpo in 1990, but remains a member. “I’m still not sure why,” he muses. “But that’s the year my mother died, my father died, and my sickness finally put me in a wheelchair for good.” The former Hydro Quebec building, however, has blossomed into a going financial concern. It now houses the offices of 35 communitybased organizations including a wicker furniture plant employing handicapped workers, a soup kitchen, a job counselling centre, an AIDS advocacy group and three recycling operations, including one that recycles used clothing. “That store’s revenues are now approaching $250,000 annually,” Ninacs proudly notes. “That’s a lot of 50-cent items.” And a lot of financial clout for the Corpo.
ABILITY ONLINE, TORONTO
Dr. Arlette Lefebvre’s voice falters, remembering her first encounter with a young patient named Laura. The Grade 3 student had contracted meningitis and—to save her life—doctors had to amputate her legs. “She was a figure skater,” says Lefebvre, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children where Laura was treated. “She woke up without legs—she was depressed, she didn’t want to live, she didn’t want to eat. I thought,
‘How can I give this kid hope that there is a life without legs?’ ” To help Laura deal with her loss, Lefebvre hooked her up to Ability OnLine, an innovative electronic support group she had established a year earlier.
“One good role model is worth a thousand shrinks,” Lefebvre contends. “I put her in touch by computer with Carlos Costa, a wonderful swimmer without legs. Now, she is Rollerblading with her prosthesis legs.”
Ability OnLine—the first service of its kind in Canada—handles about 1,200 calls a day across Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia. The free e-mail link allows chronically ill, disfigured or disabled children to communicate from their homes or hospital beds with others who have a disability, as well as with friends, family, classmates and volunteer mentors. “We’ve just had our millionth call,” says Lefebvre, who started the program six years ago with a single computer. Her first attempt to put patients on-line ended in disaster when some of the children were flamed— or insulted—on a commercial bulletin board. “Get a kid with a severe disability, and someone says, You idiot, you don’t know how to spell modem,’ ” says Lefebvre. “The kids got discouraged.”
But Lefebvre—a former Montrealer, affectionately called Dr. Froggie by her young patients—had glimpsed the potential of an electronic support group and she refused to give up. In 1992, she
realized her plan for a “friendly on-line environment” with the help of Brian Hillis, a retired firefighter and computer wizard, a corps of volunteers and donations from private sources. Ability OnLine now has more than 5,000 current users, but Lefebvre is determined to expand. “My dream is to have a laptop in every [hospital] room,” she says. The service operates without government aid. ‘We don’t fit any category,” says Lefebvre. “They said, ‘How many of your users are disabled?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t ask.’ One kid had been logging on for a year before he said, ‘By the way, I have cancer,’ ” says Lefebvre who spends five hours every evening answering children’s e-mail messages. “Putting people in touch with each other,” she says, “is my main goal.” With Ability OnLine, Dr. Froggie found a way to do just that.
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
RESO is the organization’s name, a play on réseau, the French word for network as well as an acronym for the Regroupement pour la relance économique et sociale du Sud-Ouest of Montreal—the corporation for the economic and social revitalization of Southwest Montreal. A coalition of business, labor and community groups, RESO is dedicated to the rebirth of a once vital neighborhood on the fringe of the city’s downtown. As the current decade opened, business was in wholesale flight from the crumbling factories that line the banks of the old Lachine Canal. At the same time, creeping gentrification was threatening to displace the population, as factories were being turned into expensive condominiums. RESO was created in 1990 in response to both trends. “All of us gradually realized that if we did not do something to help ourselves, nobody else would,” says the organization’s executive director, Nancy Neamtan.
Since RESO was created, it has provided managerial and mar-
keting advice for more than 200 local businesses, principally in the food, transportation and printing sectors. As well, it has provided training in such skills as job-search techniques and computer literacy for close to 2,500 unemployed area residents. Of about 1,000 people who turned to RESO in its last fiscal year, roughly 200 have secured jobs. Another 300 returned to school; 100 found apprenticeships.
The organization has achieved its goals through a combination of innovation and common sense. Lobbying by RESO has kept further factories from being zoned residential. And it helped save 600 jobs at a glass factory by discovering that functional illiteracy among production-line workers was standing in the way of modernization. To address the problem, RESO helped establish a literacy program, getting the union, company and a local literacy group to work together to resolve the situation. As a result, many workers are now able to maintain advanced manufacturing equipment and use personal computers. “Most problems have solutions,” notes Neamtan. “But you can’t find them until you identify the real nature of the problem. That is what RESO is all about.”
VANCITY COMMUNITY FOUNDATION, VANCOUVER
Helping the homeless
In an age of record bank profits and soaring service charges, the Vancouver City Savings Credit Union has managed to make community activism as important to its mandate as the bottom line. Now in its 50th year, it was founded by 14 individuals who between them contributed $22 to create an institution to provide loans and mortgages to people denied financing by traditional banks, especially in Vancouver’s working-class east end. Now Canada’s largest credit union with roughly $4.5 billion in assets and 223,000 members, most of them located in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, VanCity, as it is commonly known, turns a portion of its annual earnings—usually about $500,000 a year—over to the VanCity Community Foundation, launched in 1989 with seed money of $1 million. The foundation, whose permaLyotier: grassroots nent endowment has since recycling initiative for risen to $4.5 million, rethose on the street
ceived $900,000 in 1995, a third of which will go towards establishing the VanCity Place for Youth, a proposed drop-in centre for street kids in downtown Vancouver. Other beneficiaries have included a counselling service for prostitutes wanting to get off the street, affordable housing projects for seniors and the disabled, and a pre-apprenticeship program for young prospective auto mechanics. The foundation also lends money—sometimes interest free—to community-based nonprofit groups to ensure their “longterm self-sustainability.”
The foundation is clearly not afraid to take risks. Just ask Ken Lyotier. From 1989 until 1994, the selfdescribed 49-year-old alcoholic and “full-time Dumpster diver” combed the alleyways and garbage bins of downtown Vancouver—which has no blue-box recycling program in high-density buildings—for bottles and cans he could return to local retailers. Problem was, there were limits on how many each would accept. Lyotier and other street people in the city’s Downtown Eastside—the neighborhood with the lowest per capita income in Canada—decided to begin a grassroots recycling initiative. Predicting that they could gather five million bottles and cans a year at a central location, pay cash to the collectors, and then return the containers to manufacturers for deposit and a small handling fee, they approached VanCity. The foundation agreed to give them an interest-free loan of $12,500— and extended a further $12,500 line of credit, personally guaranteed by an anonymous VanCity member. In 1995, United We Can opened in a storefront on Vancouver’s East Cordova Street.
According to the soft-spoken Lyotier, now sober and general manager of the facility, which employs four full-time sorters and four part-timers, up to 400 people a day bring in bottles and cans for cash. Hauling their spoils in shopping carts and green garbage bags, many are homeless, have problems with substance abuse or suffer from mental illness. In just 18 months, United We Can has not only met its commitments to VanCity, but has also paid out nearly $600,000 in cash to the collectors—and has provided a much-needed environmental service. In a special fund-raising initiative last Christmas, the nonprofit organization set aside a box in which its gatherers, some of whom have nothing, could donate an empty container or two. The proceeds—$197 in all—went to a child-care centre across the street. “These are some of the most wonderful people you could ever meet,” says Lyotier. “They have lives that can make you weep and jump for joy at the same time.”
A-WAY EXPRESS, TORONTO
Finding a route to independence
In a second-floor walk-up above a Toronto dry-cleaning shop, a poster on the office walls asks: “What do Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Gustav Mahler and some of your friends have in common?” The answer: “Depressive illness.” That reminder has more than the usual resonance for Laurie Hall, the sunny 34-year-old executive director of A-Way Express Courier Service. From the age of 19, Hall was in and out of psychiatric wards with a mystifying range of diagnoses that kept her dependent on mind-numbing drugs. Finally, her doctor advised her to quit her job as a veterinary technician. “I remember going to a bank trying to open an account with a welfare cheque,” she says, “and they laughed at me. I was so humiliated.” In 1991, after a stint in grim rooming houses and living on the street, Hall attempted suicide—swallowing her month’s supply of medication in a single gulp. When she woke from a coma, she discovered a chunk of her bowel had been cut out. “That was the very bottom,” she says. “Absolute hell.”
But, inching back to health, she suddenly found a reason to get up each day: a job she landed as a part-time courier at A-Way, a delivery firm launched in 1987 by former patients of mental institutions who dub themselves “psychiatric survivors.” In AWay’s common room, she met others who had endured the same devastating struggles. Now, Hall serves as the $42,000-ayear executive director of a nonprofit company that is entirely run by psychiatric survivors, from its 40 couriers to its office staff of 17, which includes dispatchers and bookkeepers. Fresh from celebrating its ninth anniversary last month, A-Way has been hailed as a model of its kind both in this country and abroad—an innovative attempt to tackle the estimated 85-percent unemployment rate among those with a history of mental health problems. “A-Way was a matter of life and death for me,” says Hall. “It made the difference that helped me survive.”
The notion grew out of the trend to de-institutionalize psychiatric patients. But once released, most found their lives a meaningless round of rejection and boredom, and they usually landed back in the hospital. “No employer was going to hire a psychiatric survivor,” says Hall. “There’s still such a stigma attached. People have a real fear of mental illness.” But one group decided to take the problem into its own hands. With a grant from the Ontario ministry of health—and advice from a board member who ran her own delivery company— they settled on a courier business where the messengers, each outfitted with a two-way radio and a public transit pass, travelled by foot, bus and subway instead of bicycle g or car. That gave those barred 2 from driving because of their medication a chance to work. Unlike g other businesses, A-Way tailored is its modus operandi to meet its em| ployees’ needs, allowing leaves of absence for treatment or relapses.
Paying each courier a 70-per-cent commission on each delivery, it started out with a handful of government and social service agency accounts. Now, its roster of 1,000 clients includes hospitals, credit unions and architects. A dozen couriers a year move on to other jobs, and like the ones who stay, they belie the conventional wisdom that those pronounced unemployable cannot work. For many, the sole restraint on their enthusiasm is the cap on their social assistance benefits that allows them to make only $160 a month extra before being subject to deductions. But half of A-Way’s couriers opt for that penalty—and staying occupied. “You can get out of the house and bring a cheque to the bank that isn’t a welfare cheque,” says Hall. “All that self-esteem stuff—people are paying for that.”
Last year, A-Way made a 10-per-cent profit on $120,000 in billings, but it has not been without turbulence. Occasionally, a courier gets disoriented and has to be bailed out on the road. And three years ago, a ministry of health oversight team discovered the company’s bookkeeping was in disarray. Ironically, that situation arose when professionals were in charge. When they left, Hall applied for the executive director’s post—one of only a small number of psychiatric survivors among 40 applicants. A-Way’s incredulous staff was delighted when she won the job. “It was one thing to be couriers,” says Hall. “But if s really a big thing to say we can run it ourselves.”
A-Way has inspired other psychiatric survivor businesses— among them a seven-year-old Toronto cleaning service called Fresh Start Cleaning & Maintenance. But none could exist without provincial operating grants, which are scheduled for further cuts next year. Still, Mari Créai, a psychiatric survivor who is Fresh Start’s co-ordinator, has come up with an argument for continued funding from a survey of her own staff. Before being hired, most averaged 48 days a year in hospital; afterward, it dropped to four. Calculating the bill for such a stay, she estimated the cost to taxpayers had plunged from $580,000 to $51,000 for Fresh Start’s 30 employees. But the real benefit remains beyond the reach of the bottom line. “I was told I was incapable of working,” says Créai. ‘What’s important about these businesses is that the lives of some of the poorest and most marginalized members of society are greatly enhanced.”