How some students spent their Reading Week
By Barrett Hooper
Textbooks and crowbars were the order of the day for more than 200 University of Toronto students who gave up part of their Reading Week to volunteer at the Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF) in Mount Dennis, one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Toronto.
The community centre was a hive of activity as hard-hatted students tore down walls to make way for a new 15,000-square-foot town square, just one of the dozens of projects they were involved with over the course of three very busy days.
"It's a chance to help the community, to become involved in a meaningful way, and it's fun," said Lily Kwan, a fourth-year life science student as she shovelled bits of drywall into a wheelbarrow. "It was very tiring when I started but when you start to see how important this project is to the people here, it gets a lot easier."
When construction is completed the town square it will encompass a large swath in the centre of the LEF building and include a cafeteria, a small stage for performances and a children's play area. A BMX bike ramp will be installed in May coinciding with a bicycle safety and a maintenance program and competition organized in conjunction with the Toronto Police Service.
"This will be a shared space, a bit of community within the community, and another physical resource to combat isolation, which is the toughest thing about being poor and new to Canada," said Peter Frampton, the foundation's executive director. "It would be impossible to build any of it without the help of the U of T students."
Of course, tearing down walls also took on a less literal but equally significant meaning during the event, dubbed Alternative Reading Week Days of Service: Building Community by the University's Centre for Community Partnerships (CCP), working collaboratively with LEF to organize the event. Quite simply, it was a chance to dispel some misconceptions and make some connections between young people the world beyond campus life.
"I only knew downtown Toronto before this," said Yuka Fukuda, a first-year life science student from Japan who spent the morning as a reading buddy for children and a conversation partner for adults needing to improve their English skills. "Before this, I thought, Canada is so rich, how poor can you get? But the poverty is different here. It's not about having clean drinking water; the poverty exists in a very real sense that you can only understand when you see it up close."
That eye-opening hands-on experience is exactly what the organizers want the volunteers to take away with them after a long day of tearing down drywall.
"Having the students working side-by-side with people from the community that they're helping, exchanging thoughts and ideas and getting to know them as people, as individuals, is a key part of the volunteer experience," said Karen McCrank, co-ordinator of co-curricular service-learning for CCP.
"There's a lot of strength in this community, vibrancy and energy that I hope the students recognize and appreciate," she said.
McCrank is also hopeful about the positive long-term impact the Alternative Reading Week can have on students. "We hope they come away with seeing a different part of Toronto than the area around the campus that they're familiar with and that they have a better understanding of some of the issues the community is dealing with.
"And hopefully they will they will be inspired to stay involved and become lifelong volunteers, whether here or in their own communities," she added.
This is the third year that CCP has organized an Alternative Reading Week volunteer program, although in the past it only involved 30 or 40 students who would work at one location. This year, to coincide with LEF's 30th anniversary, the idea was to expand things significantly, with students volunteering at the foundation and throughout the Weston-Mount Dennis community at LEF-related events and activities hosted by schools and church halls.
Not that LEF can't use all the help it can get considering the staggering amount of work that it does to improve the lives of area residents.
"We help more than 10,000 people a year, including 1,100 families," explained Robyn Hoogendam, the foundation's co-ordinator of research and community development, during a tour of the maze of offices and training facilities.
"It's incredible to experience things through their eyes," said Rizwan Azeem, a fourth-year engineering student, admitting that his own eyes were opened in surprising ways by the experience.
"It's an opportunity to interact with people who are so different than the people we see everyday -- students and professors and people around campus -- yet at the same time they're a lot alike. I realized that I really like kids. It was a discovery for me. Volunteering also gives you such an incredibly good feeling, like you have done something important or meaningful, that it's something I want to continue, to make LEF and volunteering a part of my life."