As a new year begins, Sel Burrows reflects on changes in his community, but acknowledges there is still much work to do in the coming months.
Burrows, a resident of Point Douglas and president of the North Point Douglas Seniors Association, marvels at the turnaround that has occurred at Barberhouse 55+ Centre, which re-opened about a year ago, as an example.
What was once a burned-out "hulk" of a place now has new life, serving as a senior’s centre by day and community centre by night. In a neighbourhood which once had few seniors services, the house now offers table tennis, quilting clubs, arts and crafts and even income tax workshops.
Adjacent to the building is a daycare operated by SISTARS (Sisters Initiating Steps Towards A Renewed Society).
Point Douglas has historically been plagued by crime, but efforts to remove those negative influences from the community have enjoyed great success over the years. Burrows sees Barberhouse as a metaphor for change in the area— a "phoenix," as he puts it, rising from the ashes to newfound glory.
"The dream was that it would be a community hub," he said. "We call it our phoenix, saving the community from a drug-ridden crime centre to become a healthy, vital, alive community that cares about its people. And it’s worked."
These days, Burrows and his various associates in the community are tackling two other issues, including finding ways of keeping kids in school.
"The principal of Norquay School (Nancy Dyck) is one of our partners... She recognized right off the bat that kids coming out of Grade 6 into Grade 7 were dropping out of school," Burrows explained.
The school’s principal determined part of the problem was that students who would be moving on to attend St. John’s High School would have to travel by bus each day. Because some families might not be able to afford a bus pass for their child, Dyck decided to raise money to purchase passes for graduating students.
The benefits of the plan will be twofold, Burrows said: Not only will it get kids to school, it will keep them in contact with their old principal, who will be able to check up on them when they come in to get their pass.
Another major priority for the association is finding work for young, unemployed men in the community.
"We’ve got this underclass of guys who have no attachment to the workforce whatsoever," Burrows explained, adding that strategies to tackle that issue are still being devised.
After years of battling a tide of drug dealers, crack houses and crime in general, these are merely the latest in a string of problem areas which Burrows and his companions, including the anonymous, invisible COWS (Citizens On Watch) and a network of local professionals, government sources and business people, have waded into in their efforts to improve the community.
More recently, they tackled the problem of constant, raucous parties on Prince Edward Street. PowerLine distributed leaflets along Prince Edward and other nearby streets alerting residents to the problem, and encouraging anonymous tips.
"That was in September, and there hasn’t been a party since," Burrows noted proudly.
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether or not efforts like these are making a difference, but Burrows can see evidence on his own doorstep: When he moved into the area years ago, he and his wife would be lucky to get 25 kids at Halloween.
"Last Halloween there were 125, minimum. That’s a symbol of a healthier community," he said.
"We still have a lot of people with issues in their lives... But we’ve basically taken (away) the bad guys’ control of the streets."
Making sure the neighbourhood sees the good guys are winning is critical, Burrows said.
"No matter how good the programs are, if (kids) go back onto a street where drug dealers are wearing their gold chains... it’s very hard," he said.
"If the tone of the neighbourhood is that the bad guys are dominant, these programs don’t work."
And so the fight goes on.