Banff Avenue Community House, consisting of two social housing units thrown together to form a large community gathering place.
Sylvie Manser (left) shows Elizabeth Dale-Harris from IODE Laurentian Chapter around the pre-school playroom.
IODE Laurentian Chapter which has many projects, is making its mark at Banff Community House on the southern edge of Ottawa. Its contribution is especially visible in the education program where, for nearly 20 years, it has supported Banff Community House, it's summer program and bursary.
Less obvious than this financial support, says program director, Sylvie Manser, but just as important is the moral support given over the past 19 years to those working to improve the future for people living in one of Ottawa's social housing communities. "Mostly we have to go looking for help," she says. "But in 1998 IODE came calling. You had a real heart for us. You arrived on the doorstep and said, 'Here we are. What can we do to help?'"
In 1998, the Education Committee of IODE Laurentian Chapter had just received a donation of over 200 beautiful children's books. Learning that Sylvie Manser and her staff were directing a program for "at risk" pre-schoolers, they decided that Banff House was the ideal recipient of the books.
The classroom at Banff Community House.
The youth drop-in centre in the basement.
The Banff Avenue Community House consists of two housing units that the City of Ottawa joined together and leased to the community in 1974. In terms of space, the house is modest: it has a tiny office as well as a kitchen (the site of cooking classes), a playroom (where literacy is made into fun activities for pre-schoolers), a youth drop-in centre and a classroom (the site of countless community gatherings and programs).
The furnishings are equally modest. In terms of significance to the neighbourhood, however, Banff House punches above its weight. It serves as a meeting place for families who are working to escape poverty and homelessness. It provides common ground where residents come to share experiences, seek solutions and acquire knowledge and skills to improve their lives. It is a place where families can begin to put a history of homelessness, hardship and injury behind them and to realize themselves - perhaps for the first time - as part of a community.
Sylvie Manser works with a volunteer board consisting of residents and supporters from the broader community. Together, they plan a three-pronged program, consisting of education, recreation and social support. It is in the first area, in particular - the Pre-School Program, the Homework Club, and the Youth Group - that IODE Laurentian Chapter has provided so much steady, consistent support over the years. Sylvie has served as the director, the only full-time employee of the program, since 1989. In her first years at Banff House, she worked with a largely Somalian community, helping them through the period of adjustment that followed their arrival in Canada as refugees. By 2009, when the city decided to renovate the housing units from top to bottom, the residents had settled into Canada, they had jobs, their children were graduating from school, and they were ready to move out of social housing.
"Banff-Ledbury had some negative press in the beginning," Sylvie remembers, looking back to the difficulties that some of the young immigrants had as they attempted to integrate into Canadian society. The press reports of that day showed the workers at Banff House how much their programs were needed, especially the youth programs. Today, says Sylvie, the media sees much more to praise. "We get pretty positive coverage, due to the efforts of the residents."
Women from the community sharing dinner and a chat at the Banff Avenue Community House.
The children are also encouraged to read and do their homework, and here they are introduced to the ideas of responsibility and empowerment. "We work towards crime prevention among 10- to 13-year-olds," says Sylvie, "trying to show them what happens when you go wrong. We teach them how to say ‘no.' We work to build relationships and equip them with the necessary tools. The children also attend summer camps (another program supported by IODE Laurentian Chapter) where learning is disguised in the form of fun.
Sylvie and her team work with residents on the Tenants Association to plan programs that respond to real needs. "I love my job," says Sylvie. "I never know what's going to arise from day to day.
The police - whom many of the residents regarded, at least initially, as a threatening presence - are active partners of the Community House. "We couldn't do anything without our partners," Sylvie explains, "people from the local Health Centre, the nearby churches, Ottawa Community Housing".
Many new residents in Banff-Ledbury see education as key to getting them back on their feet. They know that, for their children in particular, it is education that will allow them to escape poverty and adapt to Canada. It follows that the education program is a core activity at Banff Avenue Community House and the focus of IODE Laurentian Chapter support.
"Children who have experienced poverty often have trouble in school," says Sylvie. "They can easily fall behind. There may be learning disabilities or behavioural issues. The teachers don't have the luxury of working with their students one-on-one. That's where we can help, either in the Pre-School program or through the Homework Club."
Next door to the office at the Community House is a large bright playroom, with colourful art decorating the walls. A couple of toddlers are sitting on the carpet, leafing through picture books from the community collection (assembled with the help of IODE Laurentian Chapter). The shelves are lined with toys, and there is a sandbox.
"We teach literacy through play," Sylvie explains, our job is to get them ready for school. We teach them how to deal with routine, working on what we call ‘transitions' - things as simple as getting dressed in winter clothes and lining up to go out at recess."
For older children, routine means homework. Banff Avenue Community House organizes a Homework Club for them, and as many as 46 children at a time gather to work on assignments. "We don't do the work for them," says Sylvie, "but we support the process, answer questions, provide a space and positive reinforcement. We are very big into positive reinforcement."
That reinforcement takes concrete shape in the form of posters, where coloured stickers celebrate every achievement against the names of club members. "As much as anything, we're trying to build self-esteem," says Sylvie. "We reward everything we can. You sat still for an hour? Great. You get a sticker. You spoke politely to another student? Wonderful."
Some of the learning at the Community House is more physical. Just about every Canadian child already knows how to skate when he or she arrives in school. That includes the kids from Banff-Ledbury, who take to the rink behind the estate with volunteer instructors guiding them through those first painful and uncertain motions. In summer, a sports field replaces the rink.
Banff Avenue Community House has programs for adults as well. It distributes food from organizations like The Ottawa Food Bank to those in need. It offers cooking classes to preteens to equip them with basic nutrition in the context of a tight budget. They organize chat groups for parents, with guest speakers to talk about everything from health to gay and lesbian rights to safety in the neighbourhood.
Sylvie Manser has been at the Community House for long enough now to be able to see the long-term effects of the program. "The kids are coming full circle," she says. "Children who took part in the pre-school program over a decade ago are coming back now to work as volunteers or as part-time youth workers. For some 15-year-olds in the neighbourhood, it's their first job."
Other youngsters are graduating from school and going on to college or university, and their community is behind them. "We have a bursary program to go towards the first year in any post-secondary institution" for 2 students each year.
Those are the achievements that keep Sylvie Manser and her staff motivated and energized. "I see the impact. We are making a real difference here. IODE is making a difference."