Celebration at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre lets visitors forget troubles (poverty, homelessness, mental health challenges) for a time.
By: Marta Iwanek Toronto Star, Published on Sun Dec 21 2014
It began with a serendipitous conversation at the drop-in hall of the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) many years ago.
Members thought it would be interesting for the space that provides social support, meals and assistance everyday to people in the Parkdale community, to stay open all night, for one night.
Staff took up the members’ challenge, opening at dawn and closing at dawn, filling the day with different activities on the longest night of the year — the winter solstice.
The organization’s mission, says Bob Rose, PARC manager, is to create “a community where people rebuild their lives, so gathering of the community is the first step.”
Friday’s Winter Solstice Celebration was shorter than its early years, opening at 9 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m., but the way it brought its members together remained the same. Nearing its 35th year, PARC — which helps those in poverty, with mental health challenges and homelessness — grew out of this gathering space, a large tabled hall with artwork of members filling the walls.
After a day of bingo, dominoes, gift-giving and hot meals, it was the live-music that brought the evening to an end. On Wednesdays PARC hosts music jams, with the band led by Zepheniah “Zephi” James and Paul Denison along with members and volunteers. On the solstice, members go up to perform song after song. Some go solo, some go in groups, some belt out tunes, others softly sing.
When there was no singer for “Feliz Navidad,” Laura Lesser went impromptu on the stage decorated with blue and white paper snowflakes.
“I’ve always been shy of singing and I might not sing perfectly, but I make people happy,” she says. It’s also Hanukkah for Lesser, who received a card from another member who remembered she is Jewish.
Lesser found the music makes her feel gutsy and empowered. “And the comments that I get when I get off stage really makes me feel like ‘Wow, they enjoyed me.’ ”
“In the field of mental health it’s not all about doctors and nurses and social workers and case managers and physiotherapist and occupational therapists,” it’s also about creating positive relationships, says Rose. He can remember many examples of people who had difficulty co-operating with others, but through the jams learned about sharing a stage and sharing music and transferred that back into their daily lives.
Throughout the years, the solstice celebration emerged as one of the most important events for PARC. “Normally, Christmas for people who are homeless or under-housed or poor or separated from families, can be a painful time of the year,” says Rose. “(M)embers really believed that it belonged only to them and that this celebration of the longest night, somehow it took the sting out of Christmas.”
For Ann Lapenna, it feels like spending time with family. She first came to PARC around 2000, struggling with her mental health challenges. “I was sort of not myself, period,” she says.
The people and staff made it worthwhile to come back time and time again. She sits with her friend Alice, whose son and grandson she calls “nephew.” Her mother-in-law sits at the table next to hers. Ann met her husband at the centre, too.
It was the drumming circle that brought PARC member Shelley La Hay to the centre 10 years ago. She also came struggling with her mental health. “I connect with people at PARC — people who are going through a hard time. I get them and they get me.”
She couldn’t make this year’s solstice celebration because of a broken wheelchair, and the thought makes her tear up over the phone. She describes it as a big family-like celebration, noting that since beginning use of the wheelchair, she has found it difficult to visit relatives that live out of town.
“That sense of belonging is important. And you know there’s lots of times you can help other people, it’s nice.”
This article was taken from Toronto Star (website).
You can also find the article in the Toronto Star newsletter (pdf version)