Dorset Park: Kick-starting a community

Suganthine Sivakumar and a friend received funds to start an English Circle in Dorset Park. The group teaches women language skills while providing free childcare. Photo by Emily Jackson of The Toronto Star.

Shouts and giggles fill the gymnasium as 25 young children squirm while waiting to do soccer drills. Without United Way, these children from Dorset Park, the Scarborough area that the agency deemed a Priority Neighbourhood in 2007, wouldn’t have a soccer team.

But a $10,000 grant has provided them with jerseys, equipment, gym time and a chance to play. Resident and organizer Abeer Ali pauses to kick an errant ball before she explains just how far the team sponsorship has gone to help the neighbourhood — an area where nearly 28 percent of families are low-income, according to Statistics Canada’s 2006 census data.

“We’re teaching skills, we’re building capacity inside our kids,” Ali says.

Hiring coaches locally also takes a bite out of the area’s above-average unemployment, she adds.

Since Dorset Park became one of United Way’s 13 focus areas, Ali and more than 30 other regular volunteers have helped the charity build a stronger community with organizations such as the soccer team. She pauses again to tell a mother who forgot the $20 registration fee, “It’s okay. You can pay next week.”

The mother doesn’t speak much English, but the women communicate through Suganthine Sivakumar, a volunteer and friend whom Ali refers to as her sister. Such language barriers aren’t uncommon in Dorset Park, where about 61 percent of people are immigrants, one-third of whom have arrived since 2001. Nor are they unfamiliar to Ali, whose memories of moving to Canada motivate her volunteer work.

When she arrived from Egypt nine years ago, Ali could neither speak English nor attend ESL classes — by the time she paid for her TTC fares and childcare for her then three-year-old daughter, they were far too expensive.

Dorset Park seriously lacked services back then, hence its “priority” designation, according to Laura Harper, the manager of community engagement for the neighbourhood.

“This is true especially to the north, where you have a diverse, densely populated area with very little services and infrastructure to support that population,” Harper says. (The south has more houses and townhouses.)

Dorset Park is bordered by Highway 401 to the north and sliced vertically by Kennedy Rd. Although there is a Metro supermarket and a Chapters bookstore near the apartments, the area lacks libraries, community centres, female doctors (many of the female residents are Muslim and won’t see a male doctor) and public space, Harper adds.

On top of the sprawling neighbourhood’s logistical and communication challenges, the city didn’t always provide programs that reflected the community’s needs, Ali says. But when United Way’s Action for Neighbourhood Change branch arrived in the community, residents were asked to think of “quick-start projects” that they could carry out inexpensively.

Ali liked the way residents were consulted and encouraged to make changes, she said. Since that meeting, her ideas have flourished.

In 2008, Ali and her friend Sivakumar were granted funds to start a group that teaches women English skills on Monday and Tuesday mornings, while providing free childcare for their children. More than 20 women and nine children make up the group this year.

With the language skills they learn at the English Circle, women can bank, do grocery shopping and travel by themselves, Sivakumar says: “They’re free.” She, too, speaks from experience. In 2000, she moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto, where she lives with her mother and 5-year-old son.

Sivakumar is especially proud that the women have become active community members, she explains as she walks from the evening soccer practice at the elementary school along a poorly lit, “intimidating” pathway to the community housing highrises where the English Circle meets.

After three years of efforts, the women have convinced the government to improve the path.

Across the street from the meeting place, one of United Way’s public space projects is under construction. The Dorset Park “hub” will be a one-stop shop for community services, as well as a place where residents can gather. “It’s like being in a positive family home,” says Margaret Brimpong-Djarnia, a coordinator with the community’s United Way branch.

Dorset Park faces “internal stigmatization” between residents in the predominantly Mandarin-speaking south and the Tamil-speaking north, Brimpong-Djarnia explains. Public spaces combat this by building shared experiences, especially since residents were consulted and have ownership in the project, she adds.

Behind the same highrise sits another United Way-sponsored public space project: a community garden. (The city and the local Home Depot also sponsored the garden.) With eight compartment gardens, the plot has helped bring residents together and break stigmas, Brimpong-Djarnia says.

As the sun sets, longtime resident Helen Clyke, 53, approaches the garden. She grows green peppers, tomatoes, celery, spinach and Thai basil in her plot. Clyke stops by a few times a week to water plants and pull weeds.

“I’ve always wanted to have a garden,” Clyke says. “There’s a pride with being in touch with the soil.”

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

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