You still have time to donate to the Food Security program through the Christmas at Canada Place website. By donating through Canada Place before January 10th, 2010 you’ll be entered to win an all-inclusive trip for 2 to Jamaica.
This season I have partnered with Canada Place’s Christmas campaigns and as such, I have learned a great deal about their support of the Strathcona Community Centre.
I had the chance to speak to Recreation Programmer Ron Suzuki about Strathcona’s many programs and how they have built up such a strong bond in what is even referred to on Wikipedia as “Canada’s poorest postal code”. Working with the odds against them, they have cultivated an amazing support system in the Downtown Eastside, with the community centre at the heart of it all.
The Strathcona Community Centre has been around since 1972 and they operated 7 days a week, year-round. They have fitness facilities, basketball camps, floor hockey and piano recitals like most other community centres although they also host several specific programs to not only entertain, but help the entire neighbourhood, especially the children, learn invaluable life skills for themselves and their families.
The Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in which the Strathcona Community Centre lies consists of a “working poor” population where 78% are ESL (English as a Second Language) and 60% are single parents. This means they work to make ends meet and as such are just above certain income levels in order to get social assistance (although many would refuse this aid in any case). This also means that parents are working so much and so hard that they cannot be there to greet their children when they get home from school, and this is where the community centre comes in.
Fed by three public schools in the area the community centre is a place for children to hang out but also continue their real-world education. “The public looks to the Community Centre as the ‘safe place’ in the community,” said Suzuki who introduced me to several of their programs:
This isn’t so much as securing food for the children, it’s about giving them access to healthy food. Funding from Canada Place helps sustain the majority of this program, which began in 1999 (serving 75 children everyday). Connected to an inner-city school of 500 students, Ron said that as of last spring they have served over 250 breakfasts for children.
Once 3:00pm comes around, Ron says that “as many as 200-250 children are engaged in after-school activities that run until about 6:00pm.” During this after-school time, children tend to be hungry again so Canada Place’s funding also helps about 175 children with the “Healthy Snack” program.
Ron said it’s truly a community effort as the youth (usually grade 6 or older) learn how to wash and prepare the snacks to serve to the younger ones.
Holiday Safe Place
“The sad thing about children living in poverty or about children living in the inner-city is that the most vulnerable times of their lives are during Christmas and Spring Break,” said Ron. Right now is a crucial time for these children as parents continue to work yet they do not have classes to attend at school (or the school’s lunch program).
Teachers have referred about 120 students to the community centre who will receive a hot breakfast and lunch throughout the holidays. They also have about 35-40 youth volunteers who are helping out. Ron says this is such an important time of year as “hunger does not take a school break.”
Healthy Food Choices
The goal of the food programs isn’t just to make sure mouths are fed but it’s also to ensure that the children are eating right. It’s all about giving kids access to healthy food choices, not just “snacks” in general.
“We take parents, and we engage children with the parents about where to find good food, how to prepare good food and how to serve good food.” The community centre runs a “Cooking Fun for Families” program, also supported by Canada Place funding, that educates parents and children alike on where to shop for good ingredients, finding recipes, and looking at healthy and accessible/affordable options to eat right.
Ron drives home the point that “Food Security” also means access to good food and knowing where to find it. “It’s a lot of education,” he says, but it’s a journey well worth taking.
Programs at the Strathcona Community Centre are for all ages and their highest population in the Downtown Eastside actually consists of seniors. “Many are shut ins because they are afraid to get out of their homes,” says Ron. This isn’t because they cannot leave, it’s because it is a scary neighbourhood for them. Every Wednesday the community centre has a luncheon for the seniors and Thursdays are luncheons for senior stroke victims.
Showing the true community spirit, parents from the “Cooking Fun for Families” assist in preparing the meals for these events.
Youth Culinary Arts Program
Youth from about grade 6 and 7 are shown how to wash, cut, food and make simple meals through the “Youth Culinary Arts Program”. Ron said they also offer the “Youth Culinary Academy” where up to 25 young people from grade 6 to grade 12 get to work with a trained chef who teaches them how to make broth, sauces, and how to prepare nutritious meals. This includes shopping for the ingredients and menu planning. The program started about a year ago and they have also started a catering program where the food served at community centre events is prepared by the Youth Culinary Arts students.
The Heart of the Community
“We’re a little community centre but we do big things,” noted Ron. “None of the programs are advertised in our brochure. These are all programs that came about because of need. We reacted to social programs so these had to (sadly) be created.”
Even though the families live in “one of the scariest communities” in the country, they look out for each other. “You will never meet a more appreciative, kinder, community than the people at Strathcona,” Ron adds, making sure to give credit to the parents that are doing their best.
“These are the best parents in the world,” says Ron. Working 15 hour days 5 or 7 days a week just to make sure your children are clothed and fed is enough of a task but all everyone wants is to have their child grow up safe, strong and healthy. Ron says he would actually challenge other communities to see if they are feeding their children food that is as healthy and nutritious as Strathcona’s.
The Strathcona Community Centre has a great collection of generous sponsors as they need sustainable funds to keep these programs running. I hope others can recognize the value in their initiatives so that they can feed, educate, and help many more children grow.
“We care for one another,” says Ron. “The strength of our community centre is a community and even though we serve so many people and so many families — even though the community doesn’t have a lot of material — what the people in the community have is that sense of community.”
The people of the Downtown Eastside live, work, play and do the best to live their lives to the fullest. They are children, parents, and families who are creative, dedicated, and fortunate to have each other through the Strathcona Community Centre. “No one should feel sorry for them,” Ron told me. If anything, it’s a sense of support, camaraderie and community that I think we would all be very proud to be a part of.
If you would like more information about the Strathcona Community Centre or would like to inquire about being a sponsor, you can contact them through their website.
You also still have time to donate to the Food Security program through the Christmas at Canada Place website. By donating through Canada Place before January 10th, 2010 you’ll be entered to win an all-inclusive trip for 2 to Jamaica.