I don't understand this question. Will you help me?" This question is often heard in St. Simon's Anglican Church on Bloor Street, the new home of a homework club operating for children from St. James Town. The club, which has 16 kids ranging from junior kindergarten to Grade 7, has become a major focus of RPC's involvement in that community.
The program was begun last year by a young community resident, Chiara Lara, who responded to requests from a number of parents in the community who were looking for something different from other community after-school programs. Most of those programs have a large number of kids putting in time with a minimal amount of adult supervision.
These parents wanted a program that focused on homework. Many of them are first-generation immigrants, and are not confident enough in English or familiar enough with the school system to help their children themselves. However, they know that education is crucial if their children are to get ahead. Ideally, they hoped for "one-on-one" attention to help younger children learn to read and to provide the older ones with enrichment and computer skills.
The club began with about fifteen children, from junior kindergarten through Grade 6, in a room in the sub basement of one of the apartment buildings in St. James Town. The children shared the room with several other community groups, and space was at a premium. Leaks were a problem because the building's laundry room was on the floor above. The parents paid $5 a week for the children's snacks -- hot dogs, noodles or pizza, fruit and juice. Several of the mothers helped with the snacks; a few helped with the program. No one was paid.
About the same time, a group of women from local churches involved with St. James Town began to meet together. Sandra Denison, Sandy Johnston and I are the members from RPC. Another member is Gene Lara (Chiara's mother). She is a vigorous community activist and an active parishioner at our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Sherbourne Ave. Through her, we met Chiara and heard about the after school program. In May of this year, another member of the this group, the Rev. Andrea Budgey, assistant curate at St. Simon's Anglican Church, asked Chiara to go with her to the annual awards dinner of a foundation supporting inner city youth. At the dinner, high school students from various inner city neighbourhoods received awards for community service, including bursaries to continue their studies, many matched by Ryerson University. None of these young people came from St. James Town.
Chiara told our group that this illustrated the need for clubs such as the one she had started. Children in St. James Town need help to develop to their full potential, both academically and as community leaders. She believes it is important to start when they are young, and just as important to follow up with them after they enter high school. They continue to need encouragement and opportunities, and they can help mentor younger children.
The ecumenical women's group agreed to do what it can to support Chiara's vision for the program. St. Simon's has made a room available for them; RPC has advanced the money required to get the insurance necessary to meet the Anglican Diocese's requirements. The program started up again in September with many of the same children as last year.
There are still challenges. This is a "one-room school house" situation and it is hard for one or two people to meet the needs of children of all ages. Two of the older girls, now in Grade 7, have been given access to a computer in the St. Simon's office, and while this has been wonderful for them, Chiara misses their help with the younger children. Two of her helpers from last year, Muslim women, are thus far unwilling to make the transition to a church location.
On the plus side, three of the members of the ecumenical women's group are going in regularly to volunteer, and two girls from Jarvis Collegiate are helping out to obtain their credits for community service. Several members of RPC have responded to our call for volunteers. Soon we will be able to set up a roster so that Chiara knows who will be coming in each day.
A drama student is coming in each Wednesday for an hour to teach the kids mime. We hope that when this ends, one of our RPC soloists will go in to lead a music program in the same time slot.
This is a good start but we are only at the beginning of putting the program on a solid footing. We are working on applications to foundations for financial assistance. This is a formidable and ongoing task, if the program is to carry on year after year. We should be able to cover the basic operating costs - insurance, supplies, etc., and we must be able to give the leader some sort of salary. In the meantime, we welcome donations of money, (given through RPC), art materials, and good children's books (early grades). Of course, more volunteers to help with homework are very welcome.
These are great kids. We want to help them achieve their potential, and provide a little hope in a challenging neighbourhood.