United Way Day of Caring volunteers give back to the community

Armed with garbage bags, a group of nine volunteers from York’s University Relations Division set out early in the morning on Thursday, May 13 to help clean up Derrydowns Park, a community park located just south of the Keele campus.

The enthusiastic group braved blustery winds and cool weather to take part in the United Way’s Annual Day of Caring. They were at the park as part of an effort organized by the United Way of Toronto to pick up litter and clean up the parks, trails and public spaces in the City of Toronto. At regular intervals during the year, Day of Caring events take place in throughout the City of Toronto and encourage employees to volunteer, get involved in local neighbourhoods and learn about the United Way.

Participating in the United Way Day of Caring were: Sheelagh Atkinson, manager of convocation & ceremonials, Office of University Events & Community Relations (UECR); Clay Browne, account director, Account Direction; Richelle Matas, alumni event coordinator, Alumni & Advancement Services; Melanie McLean; manager, alumni affinity & business services, Alumni & Advancement Services; Farayi Mundangepfupfu, visitor & community relations assistant, UECR; Yvette Munro, manager of community relations, UECR; Jenny Pitt-Clark, communications coordinator and YFile editor, Publications; Connie Tomaso-Romano, administrative assistant, Alumni & Advancement Services; and Lisa Webb, account director, Account Direction.

Prior to their setting off for their volunteer work, Jennifer Sloan, vice-president university relations, spoke to the group and thanked them for their effort on behalf of the Jane-Finch community. "I am very proud of each and every one of you," she said. "Volunteering is very close to my heart. You are working hard to make the park cleaner and more beautiful for the community. Thank you."

Above: York’s Day of Caring volunteer team. From left, Melanie McLean, Connie Tomaso-Romano, Yvette Munro, Richelle Matas, Lisa Webb, Jennifer Sloan, Clay Browne, Farayi Mundangefupfu and Sheelagh Atkinson. Behind the camera is Jenny Pitt-Clark.

From 9am to 12pm, the trusty volunteers walked the winding five-kilometre trail, scrambled up hills and navigated mud to scour the park for litter. In the end they collected and removed nine extra-large bags of trash from the community park.

Right: Munro navigates through brush and mud to pick up garbage

As part of this year’s event, Anne Erickson, resource development manager for the United Way, delivered a talk about the importance of the United Way and the Day of Caring event. "What we hope you gain is some insight into the neighbourhood and satisfaction in knowing you have contributed to something worthwhile to the neighbourhood," said Erickson. "Many of you have heard about the challenges in the Jane-Finch area of Toronto.

"You might have some ideas about the neighbourhood based on the stories you’ve encountered in the media," she said. "Jane-Finch is one of the priority areas that the United Way identified in our research report published a few years ago called Poverty by Postal Code. What we found in this research is that in spite of the overall economic well-being of Toronto, there are intense pockets of poverty where as many as 50 per cent of families and individuals are living under the poverty line."

Left: The York crew stops for a moment to show some pride

Unlike some cities in the United States, where these pockets of poverty are located in the downtown core or the inner city, said Erickson, in Toronto these pockets are located in the former suburbs, in places like North York, Scarborough, East York and Etobicoke. Many are in neighbourhoods that were originally designed by urban planners in the 1950s to be middle-class suburbs. 

"Dad would head off to work in the morning, mom would stay at home with the kids and everyone had a car to get to the grocery store," she said. "Along with the intense pockets of poverty in these neighbourhoods, there is also a lack of support. In the downtown core, there is a vital network of support to deal with the need. In places like Jane-Finch, Scarborough and Etobicoke, there are very few places where people can go for help."

Right: Hard at work

The network of agencies to help families and individuals, explained Erickson, has not grown with the need for support. That is why the United Way has identified Jane-Finch as one of 13 priority neighbourhoods for the charity. Seventy-five per cent of new money raised through workplace campaigns like York University’s annual United Way Campaign goes into these neighbourhoods to help the communities catch up with the downtown.

"Money can’t be taken from the downtown, but we really need to strengthen these priority neighbourhoods," she said. "We fund the agencies that provide urgent human needs support to help young children, seniors, abused women and their children, youth and newcomers. We are also working on establishing eight community hubs in eight priority neighbourhoods. This involves finding a location and retrofitting it to provide space for a group of agencies, government offices and community health care centres – a one-stop shop for a range of supports. The people who need these services don’t have cars."

Left: A job well done

The importance of cleaning up the Derrydowns Park, said Erickson, speaks to engaging residents in their community and empowering pride in the area. "This is a visible and important part of what United Way is doing in the community."

"The United Way Day of Caring offers an important opportunity for University community members to learn more about the services their donations support," said Munro, who is also York’s employee campaign chair.

"Funds raised each year through York’s employee United Way Campaign help the city’s most vulnerable, which include youth, the homeless, seniors and newcomers to Canada," said Munro. "The need is very great and your support is important. Look for York’s 2010 United Way Campaign to start this fall."

Staff teams interested in participating in future Day of Caring volunteer opportunities should contact Munro at ymunro@yorku.ca or ext. 77529.