An agent of social change

United Way Toronto has set a record $116-million fundraising target. President and CEO Susan McIsaac is confident donors will step up to the plate. Photo by Carlos Osorio of The Toronto Star.

As she drives along Toronto’s busy streets, Susan McIsaac has plenty to think about. United Way Toronto has set a record fundraising goal of $116-million — a whack of money at a time when the economy is still iffy and many remain fiscally cautious. Meanwhile, frontline United Way agencies are being overwhelmed by escalating demands for health and social services for the city’s most vulnerable. There’s also an urgency to bridge the gap between rich and poor and tackle the root causes of social ills.

Despite the economic climate, the charity’s president and CEO is confident Torontonians will dig deep. “There are huge reservoirs of good will in our community,” said McIsaac. Donors know the score and research backs the facts, she added.

In response to growing and changing needs, United Way evolved organically from an agency that raised and allocated funds to one that is also a catalyst for social change, mobilizing and leveraging resources to support struggling communities. Seeds planted in long-neglected neighbourhoods are bearing fruit because of resident-led initiatives supported by United Way, as well as public- and private-sector partners. The establishment of Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC) has given residents a voice to decide what their communities need. Local ANCs are empowering people by connecting them to those who can help make their ideas reality.

In Weston Mount Dennis, women who loved to sew set up a micro-business, calling themselves the Craft Divas, after ANC connected them with the Toronto Enterprise Fund. They got seed money and professional expertise. “It’s a beautiful thing to see residents coming together,” said Cutty Duncan at ANC Weston Mt. Dennis. “We’re finally a place.”

In Rexdale, ANC helped establish the Panorama Community Garden in a local park. With support from the city, Rexdale Community Health Centre and Etobicoke Master Gardeners, residents designed, prepared and cultivated the plots. People were putting food on their tables, sharing ideas and getting to know one another. The garden has also become part of the World Crop Project testing exotic plants. Plans are to start a children’s garden. It’s the heart of the neighbourhood, said area resident Eleanor Jimenez, who works with ANC Rexdale.

A playground at a nearby Kipling Ave. high-rise complex, home to an estimated 2,000 people, was built with assistance from ANC, property management, the city, a non-profit group and tenants like Kwabena Obeng. He and 300 of his neighbours and Forester’s volunteers constructed it on the site of unused tennis courts. “Now we have a place where our children can go and be secure,” said Obeng, who loves his neighbourhood and wanted to make it better. “When I see it, it gives me hope and encouragement that together we can make a difference.”

A games area was also created where the apartment complex’s pool used to be. Children are now playing in their own backyard.

Small things may not be as visible, but they are having great impact and changing lives, noted ANC Rexdale manager Russ Mitchell. One of the keys to successful neighbourhood revitalization is consultation with the people who live there and know it best, he said.

Area residents are also having a say in programs and services available at emerging Community Hubs of United Way. Four of eight are already opened. Five will have health-care centres.

The Jane Street Hub has been busy since it opened in January. It has six agencies, along with dozens of programs, services and resources all under one roof. There’s also space for community groups, including a kitchen and meeting rooms. It all came together after residents were surveyed.

“The Jane Street Hub is an important community asset,” said Andrea Cohen, CEO of Unison Health and Community Services. Other partners are COSTI, Macaulay Child Development Centre, Midaynta Community Services, North York Community House, and Yorktown Child and Family Centre. The Hub offers what residents wanted and needed — one-stop shopping.

“This is the way of the future,” said Cohen, adding the Hub has grounded the community. “You can tell it’s successful by the number of people who come every day.”

Providing a space where people can meet and share ideas is as important as the services offered. “There’s all this capacity in the community,” said Hub community engagement co-ordinator Matt Brubacher. “We knew good things would happen working with residents. People are willing to give and are looking for a place to give.” Harnessing their talents and energy is making a difference, one idea at a time, added McIsaac.

Making strong neighbourhoods

Over the years, studies such as Decade in Decline and Poverty by Postal Code confirmed that poverty was growing in the city and concentrated in specific areas. United Way moved quickly to stop the erosion and address needs to improve conditions in areas that needed them. The charity became an agent for social change.

With support from all three levels of government, the Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force was created to develop plans to revitalize 13 identified Priority Neighbourhoods.

United Way and the federal government supported a pilot project in Scarborough Village called Action for Neighbourhood Change. The project was a key part of the charity’s Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy and highlighted the need to invest in areas where the population had grown and changed, but local services hadn’t kept pace. The ANC gave residents the tools to improve their communities. The pilot was a success and expanded to all 13 Priority Neighbourhoods where the ANCs have been highly successful. So far, 170 resident groups have been formed and hundreds of projects such as community gardens, social enterprise businesses and community kitchens established.

ANC’s Resident Action Grants, small one-time investments that fund local improvement projects identified by residents, were bolstered by United Way funding of $238,000 in 2009.

Momentum continues to build. United Way joined the province creating Community Hubs. The centres offer one-stop health and social services in areas that were lacking. Four of eight have been constructed so far and are becoming a focal point for communities.

The most recent report, Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty, found concentrations of poverty in inner suburb high-rise apartment towers. Revitalization of publicly owned buildings has already started at some complexes. Together with ANC, tenants are revitalizing their immediate neighbourhoods. Improvements include children’s playgrounds and games areas.

Story by Leslie Ferenc, Staff Reporter. Published October 14, 2011; courtesy of The Toronto Star.

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