Downsview teachers investing in the future of students

A few years ago at graduation season, William Wallace and his colleagues found themselves watching a familiar, yet despairing, scenario unfold. In his 15 years as an English teacher at Downsview Secondary School, Mr. Wallace watched students who were extremely capable, make the decision to forego pursuing a post-secondary education  because they simply could not afford to attend. This is despite having overcome significant challenges and still excelling academically.

“Growing up is hard. Throw in a bunch of factors: socioeconomic status, mental health, unstable housing, racial injustice… Stress and pressure on young people in those situations are far greater,” Mr. Wallace explained.

As students try to navigate post-secondary careers, those issues compound and they end up missing out on key university experiences such as getting time with professors outside of class to better understand course material or having to skip tutorials because they have to work up to 40 hours a week.

Mr. Wallace walked away from that scene asking himself, “Are we going to talk about the issues, or are we going to do something about it?”

While being a teacher commands a lot of time and focus, Mr. Wallace, along with faculty members at Downsview S.S. began to fundraise for what became the One City Scholarship Fund almost 4 years ago. They began by asking teachers to ask ten friends to donate fifty dollars and have slowly raised up to $500.00 in single donations; teachers have come together over the years, organizing socials and game nights to raise money. He has also found a community partner in the Esther Myers Yoga Studio in the Bloor Street West community and they have donated proceeds from book sales to the One City Fund.

After three years of fundraising, they were able to award four $2,500 scholarship last year to students who were eager to begin their post-secondary careers. The scholarship is disbursed over two years, $1,500 the first year and $1,000 is released in the second year. Mr. Wallace himself graduated from university in 1984, during a time where he was able to earn his tuition in a summer.

“The idea that I have any idea what students need is ridiculous,” Mr. Wallace said as he cited this privilege. He has convened a scholarship committee comprised of teachers and past students who have attended post-secondary education to help pick candidates and provide mentorship to scholarship applicants.

Mr. Wallace believes that the cultivated model of care existing in high school needs to extend beyond that space and the fund is also designed to help bridge the gap. The scholarship is “aimed at students who will benefit from money and mentorship.” Recipients will grow to become mentors to other post-secondary students.

Mr. Wallace contends, “Current insight is brought from recent graduates and those going through university is invaluable.” Candidates need to be academically successful, demonstrate financial need and a capacity to excel. Mr. Wallace describes the past and future recipients of the One City Fund as, “Someone who understands where they are from, where they are going and where they want to be.”

Applications for the scholarship opens on February 19, 2019 and welcomes students who are graduating from high school and entering their first year of post-secondary. Visit the OneCityFund.com to learn more about how to apply or donate. The Fund is trusteed by the Toronto Foundation and is distributed by the Toronto District School Board’s Toronto Foundation for Student Success.

‘I still use tokens’: Switch to Presto monthly passes reveals fare accessibility issues for residents

It has been a few weeks since the TTC discontinued Metropasses in favour of Presto monthly passes as part of their switch to Metrolinx’s cashless fare system. The change however has not been without criticism from some community residents.

Bobbie is one of several University Heights residents frustrated with the replacement of monthly TTC metropasses for Presto. When commuting to work on the 60 Steeles West bus she opts for tokens or cash. As Bobbie explained: “I take the bus from the intersection where I live to work. Between my home and workplace there’s no subway station or I have to find a Shoppers. I don’t do online banking so I don’t use Presto.”

Presently, Presto users’ options for reloading their cards are limited. Users can only add funds or purchase a monthly pass at Presto Fare Vending Machines in TTC subway stations, at a Shoppers Drug Mart or online at prestocard.ca. While users do not need to travel to load their passes online, the online loading presents its own issues. Funds can take up to 24 hours to be added to a user’s Presto card which may lead to them being unable to pay their fare if they need to travel immediately. Additionally, there are residents such as Bobbie who do not use online banking services making online loading a non-option.

Though Presto is designed with convenience and availability in mind, these remain primary issues for residents who have yet to make the switch. As Bobbie said: “I wouldn’t mind eventually using Presto, but it’s an inconvenience to me right now. I used to buy my Metropass at the lottery stand and I bought tokens because they’re more available.”

Such concerns over Presto’s accessibility reveal potential service gaps that can disproportionately affect some residents using public transit. As the TTC continues their plan to phase out tokens and tickets later this year with Metrolinx’s proposed single-fare Presto replacement; they must ensure the Presto-based replacement is as widely available as their current fare system. Otherwise, Toronto’s public transit may inadvertently be made less accessible for more vulnerable groups such as low-income residents and seniors who will have to go out of their way to accommodate Presto’s limited availability.

 

Community responds to inadequate support for local shelter residents

On the morning of Saturday December 8th, around 23 volunteers gathered at the Black Creek Community Health Centre in Sheridan Mall. They convened in response to a call to action by Jill, a certified housing support worker committed to supporting and working with our most vulnerable populations on and off the clock. In mid-November, Jill’s volunteerism led her to the Toronto Plaza Hotel which is currently being used as an emergency shelter space by the City of Toronto. While she was only there for a brief visit to pick up donations, her observation of the hotel premises left her feeling disheartened. She was especially saddened as she realized that there was an overrepresentation of Black individuals and families seeking respite in the shelter space. This was compounded by the inadequate accommodations. “The common areas are filthy, the dining areas are unsanitary, the rooms are cold,” she recounts. Jill left the hotel reflecting on how the housing crisis plays out as yet another example of how one systemic inequity feeds into the next and asked herself, “In what ways can we make room for a holistic intervention?”

Her call to action, which was shared with the Black Toronto Community Support Group that connects 25,000 of the Black community across the Greater Toronto Area via social media, urged members to check out the emergency shelter space, rent rooms to shelter residents and to donate goods such as clothing and sanitary napkins.

The charge was taken up by Noella Charles, a local caterer. She visited the hotel to try to coordinate a drop-off donation space within the shelter. After learning that external groups were not allowed to distribute donations to shelter residents directly, she got in touch with the executive director of the Black Creek Community Health Centre who was very supportive of an initiative to support residents. The executive director provided staff to do outreach and offered space for community members to drop-off donations over the week long period before the clothing drive and even made the kitchen available for the Community Support Group to host a breakfast for shelter residents. “I donated about 80% of the food and one other volunteer provided a few dozen eggs and bagels,” Noella mentioned.  Up to 140 plates were provided to shelter residents who attended the clothing drive.

The spirit of the gathering was one of infectious compassion. Noella connected with a resident that she was able to offer a casual employment opportunity. “I am in a position to help. I own my own business and can offer people a job if they need it.” This was said as volunteers were huddled off into a corner planning their next steps- specifically how they could create a community pipeline to respond to the challenges that precarious housing poses to the community. Shelter residents expressed the exact sentiment of volunteers to maintain a connection to the community.

One expectant mother, a newcomer from Nigeria, expressed the following, “With the accommodation problem in this city, the more information we can get, the better we are able to support ourselves and our families.” She continued, “It is hard to live on the stipend from the government and also try to save for the new baby.” She further shared her surprise that she was able to get a crib at the clothing drive.

Jill was overwhelmed as she watched up to 150 families and individuals enjoy breakfast and leave with basic goods and then some. Still, more can be done. “A lot of men came in today seeking adequate winter gear such as boots and jackets. A lot of men left disappointed today.” As she was checking in with those who attended the drive, she learned that many had come from across the city- even from as far as Scarborough. Noting the recent changes by the provincial government to freeze the minimum wage increase, coupled with the changes to Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program, which are made worse by the stoppage of rent control legislation, Jill is weary of the ways these instances of negligence will continue to strip community members of their agency.

“Poverty is unfortunately a systemic experience and not an individual one,” she mulled on this point. Shelter residents carry diverse narratives- they are parents, children, they are fleeing war, they have been trafficked, balancing mental health challenges, are seniors, or have learning disabilities. Jill does not believe that she has the right to speak on behalf of shelter residents but concludes that, “We have an obligation to look out for our most vulnerable.”