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Opening doors for Vancouver's marginalized residents

Allan Olsen, a volunteer IT facilitator and student at the University of British Columbia's Learning Exchange in the city's Downtown Eastside, works with students at the stie in Vancouver on Friday, Dec. 16, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Allan Olsen describes himself as a "blue-collar, trades" kind of guy. He trained as a millwright and has largely worked in construction. There was little in his past to suggest the 45-year-old resident of the Downtown Eastside might one day want to become a teacher.

It's now an option. Mr. Olsen muses about it over coffee while sitting at a table in the place that put him on that unexpected path.

The Learning Exchange has been the University of British Columbia's outpost in Chinatown for the past 11 years. It offers free academic programs, computer access, ESL training and many other educational options, mostly to residents of the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and nearby Strathcona.

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Mr. Olsen taught computer skills in an alcohol recovery program he successfully completed. He remains clean and sober. He has lived in the Downtown Eastside – one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods – for six years. "It was the only place I could afford," he says.

About a year ago, he came to the Exchange to volunteer and brush up on his skills so he could find work. Lately, he has been teaching basic computer literacy.

"It's kind of opened my mind to other opportunities I never thought of – classes in teaching – things I thought I would never do before," Mr. Olsen says of the Exchange.

He's thinking about teaching trades or technical skills, or maybe some kind of related coaching, to adults or young adults. It helps that he is surrounded by UBC students who work on various neighbourhood programs, through the Exchange.

"You have that interaction with people I wouldn't normally meet in a workday world," he says.

The Exchange nurtures intellectual transitions like the one Mr. Olsen is experiencing, director Kathleen Leahy says. "When people are coming in, we let them decide what they want to do here, but over time we're also trying to support people to go out of their comfort zone a little bit," she says.

There are other centres in the area for food and shelter, she says: The Exchange is about intellectual opportunities.

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"We're not a social-service agency. We're not handing out food. We're not providing shelter. Organizations that do that are doing phenomenal work. It's really important, but it's not what we're doing," Ms. Leahy says.

"We're an educational space to provide personal and educational opportunities to people who live and work in the Downtown Eastside and surrounding neighbourhoods."

Computer access is key for many patrons because they lack such equipment at home. "The ability to access that and have someone to support it is a very, very important support to the people in our community," area MLA Jenny Kwan says.

Other offerings include ESL programs, which drew 900 students in the last year. About 90 of those students ended up being trained as facilitators for the programs, helping to sustain them.

The Exchange has an $800,000 annual operating budget. All programming is free.

It's not all austere class work. There's a big-screen TV on the wall, hanging near a robust, decorated Christmas tree. On the nearby wall are photos from a skating party for patrons at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver. In front of the TV are armchairs.

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The feeling is bright, airy and informal. In some respects, it feels like a public library, but Gail Knight, a Strathcona resident, who came for computer training and stayed to become an ESL facilitator, says it's a lot better. "It's a warm, kind of cozy place. It's not like the library – Be Quiet! And the librarian is too busy to talk to you because she has got bigger fish to fry."

Ethel Whitty, director of the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings, says the Exchange complements the work of her facility, noting some Exchange computer-program graduates have come to teach at the centre.

Ms. Whitty also praises the Exchange's attitude. "They haven't come in with a curriculum and decided this is what folks here need to learn," she says.

Mr. Olsen has yet to find full-time work, although skills he has sharpened at the Exchange have led to some interviews. And there are other unrelated rewards.

"I've experienced a lot of personal growth with my association here – getting involved in the community, giving back. This kind of helped provide a little bit of stability. Of course, you get a reference."

What it is

A three-storey storefront centre of the University of British Columbia, located on Main Street in Chinatown. The Exchange provides computer access and lessons, ESL training and a number of other programs to residents of the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and nearby Strathcona. All programs are free.

How it works

Patrons drop in to the 7,000-square-foot venue that has the ambience of a public library, community college and community centre combined. It's all sustained by an $800,000 annual budget. The Exchange is the outgrowth of an effort, launched in 1999, to figure out how the university could have more of a presence in the neighbourhood.

Programming includes an ESL Conversation Program that last year had 900 students in a total of about 25 classes each week. More than 90 people were trained as facilitators of the ESL groups.

There is also crucial computer access. Basic and advanced computer-skills training is provided to about 300 people a year. There's drop-in access to computers as well, with instructions as required.

The Exchange is also something of a classroom for UBC students and faculty. At least 50 students have been involved in the past two academic years. Their efforts include workshops to help patrons use social media to network, a drawing workshop and a science program.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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