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The problems many neighbourhoods face seem overpowering — but some refuse to abandon hope

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DILLY Knol easily lists the problems facing her William Whyte neighbourhood.

Addiction’s the big one, she says, followed closely by poverty, lack of safety, gangs, poor housing and limited employment opportunities.

If you spend an hour in her cramped Andrew Street Family Centre office, a bleak picture emerges of a Winnipeg community under siege. Knol, the centre’s executive director, is blunt.

"People don’t have any money. The addictions have gotten really bad. The pills, the crack — it’s gotten really bad. It seems to totally overpower. They love their kids, but they love crack more."

Knol knows she risks giving William Whyte a permanent black eye by being so honest. But she’s a strong advocate for the neighbourhood where she lives and works.

She refuses to pull any punches.

Andrew Street offers the solace it can to the children and families of the area. Some of its methods are unorthodox. If it works, that’s enough for Knol.

A staff addictions specialist who quickly became known as "the drug lady" puts sheets of paper in bathroom stalls so people can anonymously leave her their questions. Answers are posted in the bathrooms for everyone to read. No one needs to know who’s asking what.

People don’t know why anyone is in the building.

They could be coming for a cup of coffee or to do their laundry. Maybe they come for the drop-in or the food club. No one knows."

Knol chastises government for not ploughing more money into addictions programming overall. She sees it as a problem that is already swamping the city. One of the drug lady’s clients drives in from Charleswood for treatment.

The food club is a successful Andrew Street program. Many corner stores in William Whyte still offer credit, attracting poor people who pay very high prices for their groceries.

When they get their cheques, they pay off the store and have nothing left over to shop at larger grocery chains. The cycle begins anew.

Andrew Street buys food, feminine hygiene products and diapers in bulk and sells them to clients in small amounts at cost. Last year, residents made 4,500 visits to the food club. The median family income in William Whyte was about $30,000 in 2006.

Twelve parenting programs are run by area volunteers.

In fact, all the centre’s volunteers (and 23 of its 28 staff) live in William Whyte.

"When we started in 1994, I got people to knock on doors and ask what people wanted this place to offer.

Then we asked if they wanted to volunteer. They’d say no, because they didn’t think they had anything to offer. I’d say ‘can you knit, can you babysit, can you paint, can you cook, can you hammer a nail?’ We wanted ownership from the community."

The gangs have left the Andrew Street centre alone, she says, because it belongs to everyone.

While the centre works with families and single people, it focuses a great deal of its energy on children. The Oshki Majahitowiin Head Start program gets aboriginal children ready to begin school. When parents are at the centre, their kids can come along and play. A respite program for parents provides children with age-appropriate toys, food and a safe place to hang out.

Knol is blunt about characterizations of her neighbours as lousy parents or welfare bums who just need to get a job.

"We have a lot of second-, third-generation residential- school families. They love their kids. They just lack skills.

"Some had their kids taken. They were never a parent. The kids never had parents. We give them tools.

That’s what we try to do."

Knol says many in the area are multi-generational social-assistance recipients.

"If you’ve never seen anyone in your family get up and go to work, how do you know what to do? Do you understand you have to go every day and go on time?

Do you understand that when they pay you, you still have to go back the next day?"

If you have a criminal record, few people want to take a chance on hiring you, she says. The Andrew Street centre will give you a job — provided you put in volunteer time and prove you’re reliable.

This isn’t the only program supporting inner-city kids and families. Cross the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge into the Centennial neighbourhood and the issues are pretty much the same. Many people are poor, there’s street violence, challenging home situations and kids who could go wrong without consistent, caring help.

Rossbrook House, a former church located just north of Health Sciences Centre, is a drop-in centre for kids and youth. On school breaks, it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When kids are in school, it closes at midnight.

Rossbrook House was founded in 1976 by the late Sister Geraldine MacNamara and a group of neighbourhood kids. Sister Mac wanted kids and youth to have an alternative to the streets. Some of her earliest participants went on to become staff members.

Some are still there.

Warren Goulet, now the organization’s operations manager, came to Rossbrook as a kid. He had a troubled home and personal problems he doesn’t discuss easily. Goulet started as a junior staff member and never really left.

"Sister Mac gave me a chance. She gave me a lot of chances," he says. "Today I can confidently say I know who I am, I know where I came from. She helped bring those qualities out in me.

"That’s what we still do. We offer safe sanctuary to kids."

Valerie Henderson, staff supervisor for the weekend and evening shifts, also started as a Rossbrook kid. She says many of the participants at Rossbrook begin with strikes against them.

"With the racism and the poverty, they know it’s really hard to be successful. It’s like a bottleneck, and everyone wants to get through.

"We try to help the kids. We let them know this is what we have for you."

While many kids get their first jobs as junior staff, hiring them can be problematic. They need social insurance numbers but before they can get them, they need ID. Rossbrook staff members understand they may not live with a parent or with the person who has the paperwork. They persist.

What Rossbrook has is a mind-boggling array of programs. Three schools operate either out of the centre or in satellite schools. Kids are taught the Winnipeg School Division curriculum and have a small ratio of teachers to students. Truancy rates are down, and more kids are graduating.

There’s a basketball league that brings together Rossbrook House kids and kids from IRCOM (Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba). That’s important, says Rossbrook House co-executive director Phil Chiappetta, because kids of different cultures get to know each other.

Their families also share cross-cultural evenings at Rossbrook, building bridges between the communities.

The centre offers music lessons, trips to the beach, a library, meals (called "healthy snacks" but generally more substantial), a young moms’ program, pool tables, a homework club and a variety of outings.

Between 60 and 80 kids eat there every day.

They’re about to open a state-of-the-art industrial kitchen in the basement. A number of staff and volunteers earned their food-handling certificates, something that may lead to restaurant jobs.

Although Chiappetta wasn’t a Rossbrook kid, he has been a staff member for 31 years. He started off driving the van, a means of getting kids home safely at night and a chance just to take them around town and get to know them.

The van ride is still popular, and all the younger kids are driven home. If there’s no one there, staff know them well enough to find alternative arrangements.

"I think this has always just been a place for kids to be who they can be, to be valued for who they can be," says Chiappetta. "Being important, being known by name, to be cheered along, to deal with the good stuff and the challenges. I think Rossbrook’s a place that gives them that, that nurtures them."

At its core, Rossbrook remains a drop-in centre and place of safety. Staff often quote from Sister Mac’s Order of Canada acceptance speech, given shortly before her death.

"No child who doesn’t want to be alone ever has to be," she said. That’s why Rossbrook House, Andrew Street and a number of other community organizations find the funds to keep the doors open. No matter which neighbourhood a child comes from, they have that right.


Beacons of hope

Rossbrook House

What it is: Neighbourhood drop-in centre and school for inner-city kids and youth.

Origins: Opened in 1976 by Sister Geraldine MacNamara and neighbourhood youth. The original building was a donated church.

Budget: $1.5 million Funding sources: All three levels of government, the United Way, foundations, private and corporate donations.

Staffing levels: 32 (20 full time). Nine people are junior staff.

How many participants: More than 5,000 annually.

Hours: 24/7 during the summer, on weekends and during school breaks. When school is in, 8 a.m. to midnight.

Philosophy: No child who does not want to be alone should ever have to be.


Andrew Street Family Centre

What it is: Neighbourhood-run centre offering family support (from free laundry to resumé writing), children’s programs, drug and alcohol counselling, aboriginal Head Start for kids aged two to six.

Origins: Opened in 1995. The building and previous programs were overrun by gangs. The United Way threatened to pull its funding. Dilly Knol and community representatives offered to take over the board, close the building and reopen with strong neighbourhood involvement.

Budget: $1.19 million Funding sources: All three levels of government, the City of Winnipeg, the United Way, the Winnipeg Foundation and private donors.

Staffing levels: 28. Thirty-six regular and 50 occasional volunteers.

How many participants: Youth drop-in averages 50 kids a day. The children’s program had 2,138 visits last year. The parent drop-in had 21,679 visits.

Hours: Youth drop-in is open every day between 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. during the summer; weekday evenings and Saturdays during the school year.

Philosophy: " Our mandate is to be a family resource centre that builds on its community’s strengths and encourages its individuals, children, elders, families and youth to reach their full potential through support, friendship and positive experiences."


What else is out there:

CLOUT (Community Led Organizations United Together) is a coalition of organizations working with children and families. In addition to Rossbrook House and Andrew Street Family Centre, CLOUT includes: Community Education Development Association (meeting educational needs in the community); Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre (support for aboriginal families); Native Women’s Transition Centre; Kihiw Iskewock Lodge (safe housing for women leaving the prison system); Ndinawe (shelter, recreation and education services for youth), Ndinawe housing and youth resource centre; North End Women’s Centre; Wahbung Abinoonjiiag (helping children and families break a cycle of violence); and Wolseley Family Place.

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