“Pivot” – one of the most widely used words of the past six months refers to what countless individuals and organizations have done to respond to the new COVID-19 reality. This article showcases three organizations that have been serving families with children in and near St. James Town — Reaching Out through Music, summerlunch+, and The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO). All three have modified their programming to adapt to the constraints of the pandemic to serve families safely. Children and youth, as well as their parents, are among the most severely affected by the pandemic’s physical distancing, especially when it comes to socializing, recreation, and schooling. These impacts are heightened in vertical or high-rise based communities.
Reaching Out Through Music
For seven years, Reaching Out Through Music (ROTM) has provided lessons in singing, violin, piano, ukulele, and guitar to over 200 youth in St. James Town, in collaboration with the TDSB and the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Their group choral classes have always been free of charge, and there is a sliding scale fee for private or small group instrumental and singing courses. As Executive Director Virginia Evoy puts it, the programs have “provided children with rich social and emotional experiences along with musical enrichment,” while serving to bring people together in the community.
This past May, ROTM moved its activities online. This meant teaching children how to record themselves so that their singing and instrumentals could be synchronized into a collective performance. Their online choral rehearsals led to a virtual recital which can be seen on their new YouTube channel, Reaching Out Through Music, and has also served as a fundraiser. Parents have been able to participate in an Advisory Group that was created before the pandemic and that transitioned to Zoom. Far from allowing the pandemic to reduce its offerings, ROTM’s success so far with its online pivot is bolstering their plan to expand programming into other forms of arts education. Virginia has said “for example, the addition of drama, dance, and story-telling” and also expanding into visual arts, in collaboration with other local partners. They also “plan to launch three new choir and ukulele video performances in the coming months”. Parents and kids take note: ROTM is currently welcoming new or continuing students. Interested families can contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2015, summerlunch+ started in Thorncliffe Park with 150 summer camp kids, in collaboration with The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO). By summer 2019, the program had reached over 1000 kids in six neighbourhoods. We spoke to summerlunch+ founder Susan Wright who recalls working with summer camp kids in Thorncliffe Park back then, she realized some children were attending without their own snacks or lunches. In light of the fact that over 200,000 kids across Toronto receive a free meal and/or snacks in school every day, she explains, there was a real need for a program that would sustain the nutritional gains of the September-to-June school year, similar to the way that summer camps work to retain learning in the summer months. This would “allow kids to get the most out of the summer camp experience” so that they would “return to school eager to learn.”
With no in-person summer camps on the horizon in the first months of the pandemic, summerlunch+ redirected its work to create an at-home version to accompany TNO’s virtual camps. For the first time, St James Town would now be served by the program, out of the Paint Box Bistro in Regent Park. Families picked up grocery bags with ingredients necessary to prepare the featured meal of the week. With participation from Ryerson University students majoring in Nutrition and Food, the program featured an eight-week curriculum with a new set of recipes each week, as well as instructional videos posted on YouTube and on their website.
Susan shared with us that the program far surpassed the expectation of simply being a “stop-gap measure” for the pandemic. In fact, “we’ve discovered that this program has more legs than our previous program.” Not only does it provide meals to kids, making it a boost to families’ food security in this difficult time, but the kids are learning the skills to make these meals, and are “expanding their palates”, since even the pickier eaters are “more likely to eat food that they prepared themselves.” While several corporate donors of groceries, including Presidents’ Choice, have been crucial to the program since its inception, smaller local stores stepped up during the pandemic to fill some gaps. For Susan, increasing their local investment was another “plus” of the program.
Families and kids take note: summerlunch+’s delicious, nutritious, and affordable recipes are available on their website, along with the code to their Google classroom videos.
TNO Summer Camps
Prior to the pandemic, TNO Summer Camps had been attracting hundreds of participants in Thorncliffe Park and St. James Town (about 400 in summer 2019) with its daily activities and highly affordable cost of only $10/child. The camps were offered in two three-week sessions in July and August, in both co-ed and all-girls camps of various ages. They featured trips as well as varied activities, encompassing athletics, arts and crafts, swimming to survive, and leadership.
Darcy MacCallum, Director of Family and Wellness at TNO, explained why they decided to offer the camps online this past summer, in what they called Camp in a Box. “The Youth Team felt very strongly about facilitating summer camps, especially during the pandemic where programming opportunities are limited. Summer Camp is an amazing time for our participants to learn new skills and develop new connections with staff and peers. The youth team wanted to create a unique program, giving youth participants the chance to be engaged, even at home.”
He also described how they made the pivot, focusing on children aged 7 to 12. “Youth Staff continued to provide support and assistance to youth remotely, by facilitating Zoom programs and workshops, daily check-ins with youth via text messages, phone calls, social media and drop in video game sessions. We planned adjusted hours for the program hours as kids can only engage online for so long. Activities were coordinated and supplies purchased. Each registered family received a box with all the supplies for programs and food for snacks that each camper used at the same time while on the Zoom camp session.” The activities including workshops in gardening, karate, magic shows, story-writing, and yoga, and of course, the cooking classes in collaboration with summerlunch+. In all, 480 kids took part, with a higher proportion from St. James Town than in previous years thanks to the switch to online. Darcy foresees a need for future online programming, and they have a solid foundation to build on. Surveys from participants indicate that the TNO Summer Camps staff, children, and their parents were very pleased with the experience.