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Regent Park residents learn to change programs to meet local needs

Ibrahim Afrah, studying for his Bachelor of Early Childhood Leadership at George Brown College, is photographed at the TD Centre for Learning on March 10 2016.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It did not take long for Sureya Ibrahim to see how what she was learning at night could help her during the day.

Last fall, Ms. Ibrahim took a course offered at Regent Park's TD Centre of Learning, a community education hub in the revitalized east-end neighbourhood. The course, offered through a partnership with the University of Toronto, taught students how to evaluate social and recreation programs and how to improve them if they fail to live up to their billing.

Inspired, Ms. Ibrahim set about reform. Her goal is to increase the accessibility of the Regent Park aquatic centre, an enclosed swimming pool opened in 2013 that has been celebrated for bringing a modern facility to an area that for too long had been underserved.

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Behind the headlines, however, nearby residents feel the reality of the pool is quite different.

"When the pool was opened, everyone was very excited," Ms. Ibrahim said. But now many say they don't have the access to the facility that they expected.

Not all those who live in Regent Park have home computers, English language skills or the high-speed Internet connections required to sign up for swim lessons or other programs online.

So they line up at 4 a.m. to register in person.

"By the time you get to the front, you cannot get the time you want, you're on the waiting list," she said.

As a result, Ms. Ibrahim's son has missed a season of swimming lessons, much like other local kids.

"The people who need the program are not there, so how can you call it a priority neighbourhood?" she asks.

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Ms. Ibrahim is now working with other residents, and local councillor and deputy mayor Pam McConnell, to press for changes that could lead to a revolution in how Toronto residents register for city recreation programs.

Some of those changes will include modernizing the computer system, and a possible shift to Saturday registrations. The city is also studying how many people from local neighbourhoods access facilities nearby.

If the city really wants to respond to the concerns of residents in high-priority neighbourhoods, however, it needs to talk to them when it designs programs and then again as those programs roll out, said Patricia O'Campo, who led the course.

She is a social epidemiologist at the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael's Hospital and a U of T professor.

"My experience has been that the city does not necessarily do a great job of consulting broadly with community about what their needs are, or how they'd like to see services done," she said. "We were hearing there were services in Regent Park that were not functioning in the way they had expected or they wanted, [so] we would arm community residents with knowledge about doing evaluations – rebel evaluations, if you will," she said.

Some studies have shown that only 20 per cent of individuals are actually getting the programs that were designed for them, Ms. O'Campo points out.

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To convince city officials to listen, communities need to understand and use expert language, including things like how to calculate sample sizes and how to survey their neighbours.

The fall course had a waiting list of 100 people, so it will be offered again this spring. (It starts on March 24.)

Many of the students who registered took the course as a stepping-stone to higher education. Ibrahim Afrah, who ran an after-school math club for community kids, will be working toward a joint George Brown-Ryerson degree in early childhood education this fall.

"The course made me feel that I need to go back for more education, to learn how to design curriculum and how to implement lessons," Mr. Afrah said.

And, as in the fall edition, each spring session will end with a meal provided by the Regent Park Catering Collective, a group of residents that organized themselves into a social enterprise about two years ago.

One night they had mandazi, a Swahili fried dough made with coconut milk and flavoured with cardamom. Another, it was rice flavoured with korarima, a seed in the ginger family.

All the instructors who teach the course are donating their time. That makes the model difficult to bring to other communities in the city, Ms. O'Campo said.

"I like the idea of going into the community and giving the course there, [where] it's relevant for them. I would like to see more of this happen, I would like to see it supported more widely."

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