This article was originally featured in the February 27 print issue
Deem Waham, Howl Staff
Many of you spent Reading Week sleeping, playing video games, relaxing, or maybe even – gasp – studying. But a group of brave souls ventured out from the comfort of their bed and off into the world of community service for three days.
Alternative Reading Week is the Centre for Community Partnership’s biggest annual event. This year, 43 community service projects took place, with 200 U of T students spread out all over the Mount Denis neighbourhood. As a Project Leader, I was in charge of organizing and carrying out a project with a group of 16 volunteers. Our project was a little bit different than most.
The TTC is currently working on the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown Project. The subway construction cuts through Keelesdale Park in the Mt. Denis area, and community members are subjected to the noise, pollution, and general inconvenience of construction. To maintain public access and protect the trees from debris, fences have been put up around the park. Plywood fencing has been installed around one particular tree that leads to a skating and hockey arena, which is still in use by community members. The CCP put me in touch with TTC liaison Franca DiGiovanni and the seniors’ photography club at the Eglinton Hill Centre, and asked us to work together to come up with a theme. Based on that theme, we were to produce six images that would be printed on the plywood fence.
To tackle our challenge, we split into groups with seniors and students mixed up all together, grabbed our cameras, and went outside with no real plan. That afternoon was beautiful, bright and perfect for taking photos. Herma, one of the seniors, wandered into a clothing store, and I later found several photos of the team trying on hats and skirts, making funny faces. We took a quick tour of a Jamaican restaurant and snapped some shots as the cook showed us which foods were his favourite. It was a strange, unexpected, awesome experience. As we went through our photos back in the meeting room, I was pleasantly surprised with what the seniors and students had come up with, many of them without much photography experience.
At this point, our theme was clear: community. We were a perfect example of Toronto’s diverse population, with different ages, cultures, and upbringings. One of my volunteers, Dexter, later wrote in an email: “Personally, I’d like to see the resilient spirit of Mount Dennis reflected in the images, images of young and old at local landmarks. Thus, the history of the community informs its aspirations.” The six photos we chose exemplified this attitude.
Although the six photos were what we’d set out to do, the real satisfaction came just before we left on the last day, when one of the seniors told us, “The door is open for you all whenever you want to come back.” At that moment, I knew we’d accomplished our task.
Ultimately, what was most important was the time our students spent interacting with the seniors, joking around and getting to know them. It was really nice to see our students so involved in a project that impacted a neighbourhood that wasn’t even theirs, and even better to watch them engage with the seniors as they listened attentively to stories of grandchildren and days gone by.
At the end of the day, I asked my volunteers a question. What was the best part of the experience? Not one person said that it was knowing that their photographs would be on public display. Not one person said it was putting on their resume that they volunteered at a seniors centre. No one said it was the free coffee either. The answer was always the same, across all sixteen students: getting to talk to the seniors, getting to hear their stories, and knowing how much it meant to them to have us there. One of my volunteers added, “Going into this experience, I really didn’t understand what community meant, and now I do.” And for me, that’s what this is all about.
A huge thank you to the volunteers for making my Reading Week experience a million times better than sleeping in late would have.