Victoria Village: From lasagna to conversation
Consuelo Caicedo is more familiar with making her traditional Colombian potato and chicken soup, ajiaco con pollo, than lasagna and garlic bread. That is to say, she’s never even tried. But here she is, at a community kitchen group in Victoria Village, her hands deep in homemade dough. Caicedo wants to learn — and not only about food.
“I have to improve my English because I want to get a job,” says the 48-year-old mother of two as she spreads the dough on a baking sheet. “I want to go to college.”
It may sound like a lofty goal for a lighthearted cooking class, but at the Hub at Victoria Park and Eglinton Aves., you’ve got to start somewhere. And you need a place to do it.
This hidden hive of activity on the second floor of a strip mall just north of Eglinton Ave., at 1527 Victoria Park Ave., is one of four community hubs operating in the city’s 13 neediest inner-suburban neighbourhoods, chosen because they lacked services. Another four are set to open by 2012.
Operated by Working Women Community Centre and funded primarily by United Way Toronto and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Hub in Victoria Village was developed with input from residents through the Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC) initiative.
Since 2005, United Way has invested $9.6 million in 13 ANC sites across the city. The goal is to create a space for residents to meet, address priorities and connect to programs run by the seven community groups located in the Hub itself, such as Reh’ma for Muslim seniors.
From computer training to child minding, the community centre acts as just that: a place for any of the 16,000 or so area residents to gather and get to know each other — one pasta dish at a time.
“People really wanted a space in this neighbourhood,” manager Luanne Rayvals said as she zipped through the maze of offices and meeting spaces peppered throughout the pristine 1,200-square-foot Hub, which opened in December. “You don’t need to have a reason to come here.” But it helps if you’re hungry. It’s barely 11 a.m., and the ground beef is sizzling.
Laurie Poirier, who lives nearby, stands over dual gas stoves and instructs a handful of women on how to make pasta sauce for the lunchtime lasagna. For Poirier, also the creator of the soon-to-be famous homemade garlic bread, participating in the community kitchen gives her something to do.
“My son’s in school and I’m not working, so I just like coming in to talk to people,” said Poirier. The stay-at-home mom likes to teach the other participants, many of whom are newcomers, about Canadian culture and cuisine.
“It makes you feel like you’re contributing when you’re able to help others,” she said. The Hub serves a diverse community in Victoria Village and the surrounding Flemingdon Park. It’s a suburban area made up of low-rise apartments and well-kept bungalows, with a mix of renters and owners.
The neighbourhood has an immigrant population of 65 percent, compared with 50 percent in the city. It has a higher average of low-income people, at 33 percent compared with 23 percent, and a higher rate of unemployment, at 10 percent compared with 7 percent, according to figures provided by United Way. Throughout the course of the day, there’s a meeting of Afghan immigrants and a homework club for children after school.
But learning English is at the core of what the Hub is about.
At the afternoon’s conversation club, Kaladevi Karunananthan leads a discussion group of about a dozen adults, who sit in a circle at a communal table. Karunananthan came to Toronto from Sri Lanka more than a decade ago and couldn’t speak English. Now, she works as an outreach worker at the Hub and helps other immigrants, some of whom have already been in the country for years — learn the language that can help them find work, volunteer, or at the very least, get by.
“We have to encourage each other,” Karunananthan tells the group, made up of speakers from Sri Lanka, China, Palestine and Colombia. The outreach worker asks participants to introduce themselves and tell why they want to learn English. Fabiola Fonseca sits at the end of the table and divulges her reality: she’s a mother to five boys, with no husband or family in Canada.
The Colombian woman talks energetically. She expresses her difficulty with pronouncing certain words, but shows pride at having improved her speech. Before her turn is up, Fonseca sings a song from church in a loud, clear voice that resonates through this room of strangers.
At the Hub, she explains, everyone feels welcome. “It’s comfortable here.”
Story by Laura Stone, Staff Reporter. Published October 14, 2011; courtesy of The Toronto Star.