St. Christopher House is a neighborhood centre located in the downtown west-end of Toronto, and I worked there as the Volunteer Coordinator for 4 years, from 2004-2008. I learned SO MUCH from my time working there, at an organization that truly works from core community development principles.
St. Chris celebrated recently celebrated its 100th birthday, as it began on June 12, 1912. St. Chris was started by Sir James Wood, from the settlement house movement, and its roots are located in Kensington Market. Take a look at the 100th Birthday video – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMGda12CPPo!
So many people have been involved with St. Chris over the past 100 years, and I feel very privileged that I spent four years working there. I learned so much, and I want to share just a few of my learnings here:
1. A community centre can and should blur the lines between ‘client’, ‘member’, ‘volunteer’ etc. There is no problem with ‘clients’ volunteering within the center, and this model actually significantly shifts the power dynamics that are seen in traditional social service agencies. For example, the Meeting Place (a drop-in for homeless community members) ‘clients’ are called ‘members’ and take ownership in the space, of providing workshops to each other (sharing strengths), cooking food for each other etc.
2. Serious social policy work can and should be done within a social service context – it makes for ‘on-the-ground’ discussion and authentic community engagement. When I was there, we were working on two social policy projects – MISWAA (see http://www.stchrishouse.org/get-involved/community-dev/modernizing-income-work-adults/C) and Neighborhood Change/Gentrification (http://www.urbancentre.utoronto.ca/pdfs/curp/Bringing_People_Together_%20First_%20Final4.pdf). Working on these projects within a large neighborhood centre meant that many diverse community members got engaged and involved with the issues and leaders were supported from within this context.
3. Inclusive volunteer management is easier in theory than in practice. It is much easier to run a traditional volunteer management program where you recruit, screen and select the best, most educated easy-to-handle volunteers, who want to give back to their community. I was 100% committed to ensuring that ALL community members who lived in our catchment area, was given the opportunity to volunteer. I felt so strongly that we couldn’t call ourselves a community development organization and then turn community members away from getting involved. However, this is easier said that done. I had to convince all the program staff in the organization that it was their job, along with their regular job of running their program, to support volunteers who might face challenges. I feel very proud of the work that I did in this area (and I know this model is still continuing to this day) but it wasn’t easy.