Oak Park Neighbourhood Centre & How it Grew

Submitted by Michelle on February 2, 2013 - 10:10am
And answers to all the other questions you guys asked...

               

OPNC started 12 years ago in November, 1999. One lady who had just moved into the new urbanism Oak Park community was concerned that with winter coming she would be stuck alone in her home with her child for the next few months. She started inviting people into her home once a week for a play date. My youngest was born January 2000 and I joined the group shortly after he was born. By this time there were already about 25 women getting together once a week and the group was meeting in the builder's sales centre. The group grew quickly and so did the infants. We got to the point that it was clear the ladies alone could not provide the snack, the craft and run a circletime while also watching children who were now running circles around us. We received three years of funding to to hire a staff person for three hours a week to help us. Since we met at the sales centre, only people who lived in the immediete area of Oak Park were allowed to come so we started to help other local families start their own groups.

We helped four other groups start and developed a manual to assist them in starting up. One of the groups combined with us later on when the sales centre closed for awhile and we expanded to two days a week. The other groups all stopped when the main organizers went back to work. The fact that we continue to run 12 years later is something that we have pondered. Is it because many of us who moved to this community with garages in the back and big porches wanted to be in community so made the effort?

Even though only about 20% of the original purchasers still live here, it continues to be a community where people like to walk and  people say "hello" when they pass on the street. Certainly there have been times when one large funding stream was ending and we didn't know if we would be able to stay open, but everytime another funder has stepped up. There was one year in particular when we figured we had enough in the bank for another three months and within a week we had all the funds we needed to continue.

                       

I believe in God and at the risk of affending some, I have to say that for me the simple answer to why we continue is because we are supposed to. There are too many miracles with no earlthy explaination at our centre for me to discount the role God plays. Our longevity can also be explained by the fact that we listen to the people who walk through our doors rather than waiting for StatsCan to tell us who lives in our community & what their needs are.

When a number of Spanish speaking families told us many years ago that they were missing their sense of community we were able to offer them space, cover the group on our insurance policy and support them with materials and marketing so they could grow. At the time statistics didn't show a very large population of Spanish speakers in our community. In fact they wouldn't show up until the next census report came out. We were asked by other agencies where were all our Spanish speakers coming from, "were they from Mississauga!?" 

Since we listen to our community and try to find solutions to challenges together every week, we continue to be relevant.  We limit staff roles so that the community shares their gifts & talents and we keep our costs down. We believe that all of us have times in our lives when we need support and we all will have times when we are able to support, regardless of our ecomomic situation or challenges that we face. We had a teen mom join us early on in our journey and she stayed with us for about a year before moving away. Several years ago she emailed me to tell me how she was doing and asked for my help so that she could set up a similar drop-in program up north where she now lived.  

To get back to the bricks & mortar stuff, seven years ago the sales centre was changing to prepare to sell new condos and the interior was no longer suitable for children to play. We received some Trillium funding to move into a small space (1100 sq ft) in a strip plaza. We divided the space into two rooms and made the best use of that sapce by using fold up tables & chairs. Having very little on the floor so that the centre could be used for a variety of uses. We started renting space to help cover our costs and move towards sustainability. Our goal was to generate at least 50% of our income through rentals so that we were able to plan ahead for budgetting and were not reliant on funding that tied our hands as to what we were able to provide for our community.

                 

Last year we were called by the builder in our community to tell us that they were done with the sales centre and did we want to purchase it. This started an amazing journey that involved over 240 people in every single aspect of the eventual ownership of the building. The only way to get people to come out and help is to be in relationship and to be doing something that reflects the needs of the community.  Then they tell two friends & so on! People have to be passionate about it.

The guy who we asked to find a driver for our back hoe was passionate about what we were doing so when he called his buddy that passion sparked a curiosity and was passed on to the new guy (see Michelle's other blog on this story). People want to be a part of something bigger and be in community. So, although we have moved away from relying on our neighbours I believe many people would like to take back their neighbourhoods so when you present an opportunity they are curious and if they have a friend connected to the project they will often jump in.  It also goes back to all the John McKnight important stuff: Know who the community leaders are, know who meets where and what they know about their community. Listen to complainers. Learn what your neighbours gifts and dreams are. Spend time in the community and listen, but don't keep listening so long that you don't get off your but to do somethign about what you have been listening to!  

So my rather blunt belief is that if people aren't helping out than: either they don't know what you are up too, or you aren't doing something the commuinty thinks is needs. So stop and ask some more questions and make some friends.

The back hoe volunteer- yes he is still involved at the centre. A number of the local guys who pitched in to help in the renovations of the centre have formed a handyman support group for the centre. They presented their committee guidelines to our board of directors this past week.

Trillium gave us $104,000 towards renovations, Charis gave us $17,000, and Community foundation gave us $8,000,the other $42,000 was contributed by local individuals. We now own the centre- well we have a big mortgage! Our hope is to pay of $30,000 a year for 10 years so we are mortgage free in 10 years. Our new home is more than double the size of our old space and it is only $10,000 a year more in overhead when we factor in additional heating, taxes, snow plowing etc. This additional cost is covered by our new renters.

The programs over the last seven years have grown from one day a week to seven days a week and we are now open pretty much 9am to 9pm everyday ...  Spanish, Japanese, Filipino & South Asian programs, programs for children with challenges, speech therapy, food bank, community garden, utility bill payment, divorce & settlement support, resource library, info & referral, infant, toddler, preschool & school-age programs, and affordable preschool classes. In addition we provide space to la leche League, Habitat for Hummanity, Scouts, YMCA, a local church and Halton Downs Syndrome. Most of our programs are drop in to reduce barriers & we ask for those that are able to contribute $50 a year whcih is fully tax receiptable.

Who we Serve:

65% were not born in Canada compared with 30% in Oakville.

25% live below the poverty line compared with 7.5% in the surrounding community

19% are new immigrants to Canada compared 4% in Oakville.

52% do not speak either official language most often in their homes compared with 11% in Oakville.

(Oakville statistics are from the 2006 Census, Statistics Canada.)

 Our mission & objects are A welcoming community of families supporting each other through diverse programs & resources to build friendships, strengthen our children, & create healthy neighbourhoods. Our objects are to relieve poverty, provide parent support and to provide educational, recreational and social opportunities for people of all abilities.

                

Comments:
Thanks for sharing

Hi Michelle,

Wow! Thanks for pouring so much time into writing this. I felt blessed listening to how this all began and seeing how it grew. It agree with you- there is definately a clear reason and purpose in why it continues to exist!

What sorts of challenges come in the way of building authentic community- as Oak Park Neighborhood Centre seeks to do?