31 January 2013

New city policy puts Vancouver community centre programs at risk

Opinion: Majority on park board wants to radically alter what has been an enduring partnership. By Eric Harms, Special to The Vancouver Sun January 29, 2013

 Let’s call her Marietta. When she arrived in our community, Hastings-Sunrise, as a recent immigrant from her native Trinidad, she brought along her aging mother, her two-year-old twins, and a burgeoning addiction to prescription painkillers. If that weren’t enough, the twins were both suffering from and undiagnosed developmental condition that rendered them non-verbal and physically aggressive.
When Marietta’s mother turned up, twins in tow, at the Hastings Community Centre’s Family Enrichment Centre one day, she was, understandably, near the end of her tether. What she found there was truly a place of refuge, where staff took the time to welcome her and her young charges. On subsequent visits, staff acquainted Grandmother with available social service assistance, including assessment of the twins’ condition and a recommendation to attend the Hastings preschool, renowned for its work with special-needs children. As well, and in their own time, they checked in with Marietta, helping and encouraging her in her struggle to put her life back on track.

Of course, this account (with identifying features changed), while true, is an extreme case. Even so, every month scores of young families make use of the Family Drop-In and the parent-and-tot gym, making important social connections in an environment that encourages parent/caregiver participation, creative play, socialization, Healthy-Child Development, with health professional visits, parenting education, language development, and nutrition programs. All of this, at $2 per family per visit.

One might very well ask how it is possible for an organization or agency to provide such a valuable program for so little; how could it possibly pay for itself?

The fact is, it doesn’t. This year, our family drop-in will end up around $35,000 in the red; up from about $27,000, due to a significant cut in the social service grant that helps support it.

Happily, the Family Enrichment Centre — as are all the programs at our community centre — is operated by the Hastings Community Association, a registered charity which has for decades run the community centre in partnership with the park board.

I say happily because our association board, recognizing the incalculable social value to single parents, immigrants and young families represented by such a program, is able to underwrite this loss to our bottom line. We can do this because we have a history of quickly acting on a recognized opportunity, sound business acumen, and prudent investment. Plus — let’s be honest — a little bit of luck. These are the ingredients for an annual surplus.

We at Hastings are not unique; all of Vancouver’s community centres have associations that provide programming and ongoing capital improvements to facilities, overseen by volunteer boards. The vast majority of those sitting on these boards actually live in the community they serve. They are your neighbours who, until now, have made manifest the idea of local control over local resources and interests. And they do it for free.

I say ‘until now’, because the present majority on the park board want to radically alter what has been an enduring partnership — in our case at Hastings, one approaching 80 years. Under the proposed new regime, all program and rental revenues (other than a very small, as-yet determined stipend) would accrue to the park board. In most cases, including ours, we would end up with a tiny fraction of the monetary resource we currently have. This cash-grab would have the obvious effect of stripping every volunteer board of the ability to make informed decisions and respond to local needs. We would be reduced to writers of grants. And then, we would be obliged to spend the grant money on programming in which we had little or no say.

Ostensibly, the reasoning for taking all the revenue is to address inequities — taking from the ‘haves’ to give to the ‘have-nots’. But, in giving his briefing on the proposed changes to Killarney’s board and user groups, the general manager of parks and recreation said, ‘It’s all about power. And the money is the power’.

Senior park board staff would have us believe that implementation of the new ‘agreement’ will be seamless; that no patron will notice any difference. But, when pressed, the park board’s recreation director allowed that continued use of our funds in our community centres could only be guaranteed for two years. In other words, until the end of the present election cycle. Subsequent civic administrations might divert some (or all) of the funds to pet projects. Worse, a bean-counter at some far remove might see the red ink generated by our Family Enrichment Centre, and be unable to see the inestimable value of that place to the lives of our neighbours.

The mayor’s chain and mace have changed hands 20 times since our association was founded in 1934. Countless civil servants have come and gone since we signed our joint operating agreement with the park board. Regardless of which way the political winds have blown, the boards of Vancouver’s community centre associations have been intrepid in assessing and responding to the needs of our local communities. It would be a shame to squander such a resource.

The Mariettas of our city deserve better, too.

Eric Harms is president of the Hastings Community Association.

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