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Last year we shrank our budget to about half the previous year’s, wishing to go slowly. This year we put on an extra push again. The winter of 1996/97 led us to a determination to work more with the youth who come to the park, so that was also the winter of a lot of funding application.
Our application to the Federal government’s Youth Service Canada program went unacknowledged for two months and then repeated phone calls finally turned up the information that our proposal didn’t fit the guidelines. That experience made us realize that we were out of our depth, as a small community group, trying to get funding from such a huge organization.
So we applied instead to the municipal government, the Maytree Foundation, our local Canada Trust branch, and the Trillium Fondtion. Because all these funders came through for us, this past year we were able to try out some new ideas, and some old ones too). Here Are our main preoccupations at the moment:
Our project in the park was born, five years ago, out of an interest and an anxiety about the young people of our community, and that concern persists. Since our last report in early 1996 we have spent $19, 965 f the funds we raised to give odd jobs to more than fifty young people, at different times as the opportunities arose.
Because of the variety of projects and activities here, the park is full of useful work that can be done, and so the odd jobs workers added a lot of small and large improvements to the park and to the programs going on there. Just as important, having them work for us gave us many different chances to get to know them, and to make our expectations known to them and to their friends. We also made time for some fun outside of the work schedule. The project worked well enough that we hope to continue with it, using odd jobs as a way to make connections with local youth.
The two worlds (of youth and maturity) seem to be almost invisible to one another, at least in public space. The odd jobs, because they took place in a park, tended to be quite visible to passers-by, and so older people had a chance to be introduced to the good work and energy of young people in the park (rather than be angered or scared by some of the young people’s behaviours).
At the times when some of the youth in the par give us a headache, we often take comfort from the smallest users of the park. They’re starting fresh. Their parents are forced out of their houses and into the park by the relentless desire of their small children to explore the world, and the park gets the benefit of their presence.
Rearing small children is often tough, and we determined we would set aside one day a week that was particularly satisfying and fun for parents and young children. Word of our parent-child drop-in spread quickly. Because we had so many people come, we hired some people to help out (with the help of a private donation from a midwife) and when they came to work we were reminded of another important fact: almost all young people (even those who are pretty rough) respect, defer to and delight in babies and little children. It seems to be an ecological law: nasty behaviours, rude language, bad attitude – all diminish when little children are around.
Now we have two days when parents and their young children are at the forefront. This winter it’s out aim to make the rinkhouse/clubhouse so convenient and inviting for young families, all the time, that they will want to be there a great deal. We believe that the more we can let young families become our social matrix, the more the older youth who come to the park will have natural cues for good behaviour that go beyond our adult rules. A mix of all ages can be good and interesting for everyone, and it’s only natural.
Some of the fundraising we did was for youth programs, and some was for the off-season wages of our coordinator. The Parks and Recreation Division does not presently have a job category called “park coordinator.” But having such a person seems to work best for us as we try to get the most out of the park as a resource for our community. Our coordinator’s work is to varied for any existing job description we can thin if: she troubleshoots in the park during high-vandalism times like school lunch periods (four large schools are located within a block of the park); she arranges all the school visits, summer camps, skating classes, parent-child drop-ins, ESL group visits, and neighbourhood clubhouse events; she keeps the clubhouse clean, with help; she helps weed the gardens, and organizes bread-baking, pizza, and winter cookie-making; she lends an ear to lonely people; she contacts the various Trades when (often) something needs fixing; she supervises our coop student and works with volunteers; she supervises and schedules summer staff and winter staff; she comforts children when they have troubles; and she’s a familiar person who can introduce neighbours to each other. This job description would make her a kind of park mother.
Because the park and Recreation Division has a budget to run programs in our park both summer and winter, we have had to raise money only for the other two seasons. Of all the things/ideas we’ve experimented with here, our versatile coordinator is what everything else rests on, and so we’ll make any effort to keep her with us.
To their great credit, almost all the city staff who have contact with our coordinator are friendly and cooperative, even as they might raise an eyebrow about this unorthodox kind of worker, with one foot in a city department and one foot in the community. City staff joke about our ability to penetrate their bureaucracy and get what we want for this park; but it’s equally true that in their dealings with us, the city staff (from the people who cut the grass all the way to the director) have very often shown remarkable enthusiasm and kindness in helping us achieve what we want. We feel fortunate to know them.
Jan Duncan, a partner with the law firm of Fasken Campbell Godfrey, is currently working on incorporating our group as a non-profit organization and getting charitable registration for us. She’s doing his work as a kindness to us, pro bono, while on maternity leave. In the meantime, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society allows us to receive our funds by channeling them through their charitable organization. They have never yet complained to us about the extra paperwork. Myron Sookraj, the director of their western region in the city, says that activities like ours decrease their work in the long run, and so it’s worth it for them. We’re grateful for their unbureaucratic helpfulness.
On the last day of February a man called from New York. He had found out about our work in the park on the internet. Was it true that we had immigrant women sewing clothes for their children on treadle sewing machines in the park?
I said it wasn’t true.
We think it was a species of cybernetic gossip, a weightless substance that floats easily from websites into meetings and onto websites again, changing its details as it goes. It’s propelled along the information highway by wishful thinking. An example might run like this “…I’ve heard that there are some community gardens; maybe there are a lot of them; maybe they’re all over the place; maybe they enlist dozens of volunteers, maybe even hundreds…I’ve heard that some of the volunteers are children; maybe they’re very troubled children; maybe they’re gang members who exchange their weapons for garden hoes and grow their own food. I’ve heard that those gang members are mentoring young children in their homework; they get them to stay in school; maybe they’re even cooking for old people in a community kitchen, and writing a cookbook for teenagers…”
Whole (virtual) villages can be constructed in this way, housing various kinds of magical social reform stories. The building materials are faxes and e-mail and overheads at meetings – all of these devices delivering fast, prefab messages structured in “bullets.”
Scenes from these hastily constructed virtual villages can appear like mirages at conferences and in communications with funders. The larger the funding agency – in our limited experience – the more influence such magical scenes may exert. But they make us shudder. Such incredible things rarely happen where we live. In order to get funding, do we have to pretend? How do we all avoid becoming liars?
All parks in Toronto have grass and trees and some benches. Some have flowers as well, and maybe a field house or a lawn bowling club or something extra. Usually there are squirrels to watch , and little children, and different kinds of dogs, and sometimes teams are playing sports. At the same time, most of them are comfortably predictable, generic.
But a few Toronto parks deal in surprises. Our park has that character, sometimes. When someone comes upon the bake-oven for the first time, they walk around it, look in (if a pizza fire is burning), rub their eyes – it’s still there – walk around it again, look around for someone to confirm it – yes, it is a bake-oven, much like the one your grandmother baked in…It gives a little gift of the unexpected.
It’s the same with the gardens, and the puppets and the music. In the early evening, people walk back and forth among the flowerbeds – look at this one! Come and see over here! And in front of the field house, when Clay and Paper Theatre’s huge puppets are laid out all over the grass for mending, or a jazz trio is practicing under the linden tree, people settle themselves on the grass, looking around. Where did these things come from? Why are they here?
It’s surprising to see trilliums and violets under the maples in early spring, when there were never any there before. It’s surprising on Wednesdays to see smoke curling up through the tees, and come upon a Guatemalan lady and some children who are making donuts over an open fire. Is this allowed?
One day, soon after David Anderson had Nuno Cristo’s big wooden xylophone installed in the ground near the music circle, at lunchtime we came across six African high school students drumming intricate, energetic rhythms on the xylophone and singing in their language. They laughed and danced and sang, while we and their schoolmates just stood there and grinned in astonished admiration.
The delight that accompanies such surprises is probably very good for your health in the long run.
This past summer more people than in previous years came to the park and had picnics, birthday parties, volleyball games. The children would make sand castles in the sand pit, and sometimes their parents would build things too, or the adults would just talk while the children ran off and returned from time to time, until the sun sank low. The more the park becomes a good place to gather family and friends together, the more there will be scenes of friendly sociability played out in public space: an inspiring sight.
To help park picnics be as easy and fun as possible, this fall we want to put together a picnic cart. It will be a little cart with wheels that will carry all the tools picnickers need – can opener, knives, dish towels, cutting boards, cutlery, cups, etc. That way no picnic has to be made pre cumbersome because something was forgotten. Parents with young children, older people, people who don’t have all the things they may need at home, can rediscover the art of the picnic without being stalled by complicated preparations. Picnickers may want to use our pizza oven or just spread their own meal elsewhere in the park or even make a campfire for special occasions. We’ll stock the cart mostly from garage sales, and probably charge a dollar for each use.
A young boy who worked for us stole out coordinator’s purse, and shared out her money among his friends. Someone saw them, and told us. The friends apologized, and worked to make good their theft, but the ringleader wouldn’t, or couldn’t, keep any contract he made. When we finally had him charged by the police, we tried to find a way to say something about his sentencing in court. But we couldn’t get there. The theft was too small (compared to a bank robbery), the boy was too young, the witness was too scared, the crown attorney was too busy, the police officer was away on a course, and on and on, until it seemed that we were in a maze with no way through. The boy, wise in the way of the courts, knew this, and sometimes came back to taunt us. His taunts are brave and empty, considering where he’s headed. We talked to his school, to agencies who knew him. Everyone stood empty-handed in the face of this troubled, illiterate boy. How powerless are grownups in the face of worldly-wise children growing up poor and mean and tragic? We’d like to probe this question in more detail over the next few years.
When the local Home Depot manager decided to give us $1000 worth of the halogen track lights we hoped for, to fix up the clubhouse at the park, he gave gift certificates to five other groups as well. He decided to give these gifts on St.Valentine’s Day. One of his staff had made big red valentine cards, and the manager gave a little speech in the middle of the store. The staff served us muffins and juice. It was a gentle ceremony, without big claims.
And again: I sent the Maytree Foundation a card with a painting of a country dance, showing a woodstove. We wanted such a stove for the rink, and we asked Maytree if they could help. Without requiring us to calculate the precise therapeutic or social value of this stove, they gave us the money for it. More school classes began to come to the rink to skate and sit around the fire afterwards. Also more families came, and often parents read to their younger children by the fire, while the older ones were skating out on the rink. The old men moved their card games near the stove, and said they were finally warm enough.
And again, when Pat Mackay gave an unexpected donation, we thought her gift ought to move beyond out group. We decided to divide it into five portions and make a ceremony to honour five “unsung heroes,” local people who had helped out in various (often hidden) ways in the parks and the schools in the west end. The Hon. Hilary Weston, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, said she’d like to present these awards (since she had wanted to come and see the bake oven anyway). We invited some classes from Queen Victoria Public School in Parkdale to come on the day of the ceremony and bring their steel band. They came, and the children set up the steel drums, and when Her Honour arrived they played the vice-regal salute (their music teacher, Vince Fraser, conducted). Then they played another song, and another. During the speeches I told the audience that Pat MacKay has been a bit like a fairy godmother to our group. Later, when the crowd was milling about, the children in the steel band kept playing. They really didn’t want to stop making music. Some of them took a break to make pizza and then went right back to the drums again. So it happened that for much of the afternoon we had the gift of their music, floating through the park.
When everyone was leaving, a group of children spotted Pat MacKay getting into her car. “Good bye fairy godmother, goodbye” they called to her, and waved until her car was out of sight.