Service clubs break new ground in urban problem solving: Goar
By Carol Goar, Toronto Star, November 6, 2012
You don’t hear much about service clubs these days. In fact many Canadians think of these civic organizations — Kiwanis, Rotary, the Jaycees — as a vestige of the ’50s when upwardly mobile young businessmen gathered at a local restaurant or hotel for a hearty meal, a speech by a public figure and a discussion of club business: the annual Christmas drive to buy toys for underprivileged kids; an update on arena improvements; a request for a slide at a new suburban park. The membership was entirely male, entirely white and solidly middle class.
There are still a few of those. The young executives of yesteryear — now grandfathers — go through the old rituals, trying to hang on to a Canada that is slipping away.
But there is a dynamic new model. The Rotary Club of Toronto is an example. It has 250 members — more than when it was founded. It is a microcosm of the city, a jumble of races and cultures with members of both genders from their mid-30s to their mid-70s. Today’s good works are neither bland nor predictable.
This is the club’s 100th anniversary. It is celebrating by donating $1 million to local and international agencies. Each month, it announces a $100,000 centennial grant.
The November recipient was a pioneering newcomer clinic, located in a social housing complex in the heart of St. Jamestown, the most densely populated area in Canada. Its 28,000 residents — many of them immigrants — live in severe poverty and deteriorating health because they can’t speak English, don’t understand the medical system and can’t afford good food or medications.
Rotary is teaming up with the Sherbourne Health Centre, which specializes in culturally sensitive inner city health care, to equip two new clinical rooms and a common space for flu shots, health education and disease prevention in a Toronto Community Housing Corp. apartment block at 200 Wellesley St. East. The health clinic will be part of a Community Corner that offers settlement assistance, English classes, employment preparation and seniors’ programs.
“You are providing a model for this city,” MP Olivia Chow, who grew up in St. Jamestown, told Rotary members at last week’s meeting. “You are reaching out to the people who are falling through the cracks.”
This project fulfils a dream of Suzanne Boggild, the president and CEO of the Sherbourne Health Centre. For years she has known that newcomers suffer from diseases such as tuberculosis and diabetes behind closed doors. Now she and her staff will be able to take health care to them in a familiar, unthreatening place. “It’s a rare privilege to launch a new initiative in these straitened times,” she said.
The clinic wouldn’t have happened without Rotary’s backing. No government would have paid for it, deep-pocketed donors seldom champion inner-city health and the United Way couldn’t have devoted that much money to one initiative.
The club’s October choice was equally innovative. Rotary donated $100,000 to the Philip Aziz Centre, which is building Toronto’s first hospice for children on the site of the former Don Jail. It needed two prohibitively priced warming cribs for newborns with life-limiting illnesses. These specialized beds mimic the warmth of a mother’s womb. They can clear fluid from the lungs, support intravenous equipment and allow parents to be near their infant as much as they wish.
Other centennial awards include a vocational school for landmine victims in Cambodia; a transition house for street people with mental disabilities; and a partnership with the Toronto Argos to offer six scholarships to kids with good grades but no means. Five awards have yet to be announced.
These projects are a far cry from the mainstream altruism of yesteryear. Rotary is stretching the boundaries of philanthropy, showing it is possible to break the cycle of poverty, ill health and underachievement. “We’re not your father’s Rotary,” says president Neil Phillips, 45. “We see ourselves as a compassionate catalyst.”
A few traditions endure. Rotarians still sing the national anthem as if they mean it. They still hold a huge Christmas party for kids with disabilities. They still stand four-square for community service.