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Can community centres count on communities?

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It was last year, as Bourkevale Community Centre was preparing to celebrate its 60th anniversary, that club vice-president Tom Brodbeck -- yes, that Tom Brodbeck -- came upon a priceless treasure of documents.

At least the two historic club binders that time almost forgot were priceless to him. One was pulled from a filing cabinet in the canteen, near where a black-and-white photo of the 1957-58 Bourkevale Bruins Playground C provincial champions hangs proudly from the wall. The other was in a box in a basement closet.

When the man who's better known as the Winnipeg Sun's lead columnist blew the dust off, he discovered the minutes from the founding meetings -- page after loose-leaf page, handwritten at first, that detail the struggles of a post-Second World War St. James group of volunteers to create a place for area kids like me.

The binders also suggested something else Brodbeck already believed about Winnipeg's community centres.

As far as he knows, there's nothing quite like them in any other big Canadian city. Certainly not in his native Montreal, where the city owned and operated community centres. The difference is, in Winnipeg, the city offers a small grant, owns the land and building that Bourkevale sits on, but doesn't have a key to the clubhouse.

The real key is who does -- the volunteers who run the place.

That's what Brodbeck sees as uniquely Winnipeg. He recalls what it was like reading the minutes and newsletters from the late 1940s and early '50s, when community leaders were trying to find enough money and create enough interest to build a clubhouse for their children.

"You kind of feel like you're back in history, that there are people doing the same things we're doing," Brodbeck said. "Except they're pioneers."

Pioneers such as the late Bob Pyne, an area parent and war veteran who loaned the club the $500 that allowed the board to purchase a piece of surplus military housing that became Bourkevale's clubhouse.

Jim Carson had just turned six, but he still remembers that December day in 1952 when the building was towed from the airport to the foot of Ferry Road.

Today, Carson is the general manager of the Central Corydon Community Centre, an amalgamation of the River Heights, Crescentwood and Sir John Franklin centres, and what seems to be the new model of sports and recreation delivery the City of Winnipeg wants.

Carson, who will retire at the end of the year, fears for the survival of the volunteer model. Despite the astonishing support the three centres he oversees receives from hundreds of volunteers donating thousands of hours, he sees the overall number of volunteers ebbing more than flowing.

He says many people would rather pay to hire coaches and other community centre services than volunteer. Paying coaches, he believes, would change the nature of community centres.

"Everyone has a coach they fondly remember as kids," Carson says.

Gary Watkins, whose face when he was little is featured in the photo of the provincial champion Bourkevale team that hangs on the clubhouse wall, still remembers his coach, Dave Green, that way. But Watkins laments how empty the outdoor ice is now. What he remembers most fondly is the rink boards being lined with parents, cheering their kids.

I remember that, too, but now that I'm older, what I remember most vividly is Art Moir, the volunteer who flooded the rink late at night after we finished playing on it.

Carson, who has the same memory, worries about the future, particularly the potential move away from the original volunteer model.

"I think we would lose who we are and who we still are. In some ways, you lose the sense of community. My fear is what was meant to be is going to disappear."

Back at Bourkevale, Brodbeck remains optimistic, even as some clubs fail through lack of interest.

"I think they'll survive despite the challenges," he says of the volunteer model.

What gives him hope is the history he found in the Bourkevale binders, particularly the newsletters down through the decades and dire warnings of the club closing if more volunteers weren't found.

"You read newsletters from the 1970s and you go, 'Nothing has changed.' "

In a way, though, almost everything has changed. But what gives me hope is people like Tom Brodbeck -- and Bob Pyne before him -- who personify what makes this city and its community centres unique. Our seemingly never-ending spirit of giving. Our blood, sweat and frozen tears.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

 

For more photos and Bourkevale club history click here.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 B1

History

Updated on Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 11:35 AM CDT: adds website link

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