As they devour their meal at the Michelle Heights Community House, the little girls squabble about their favourite characters from a popular TV show.
“I like Fatim,” one girl says between bites. “I like Teddy,” says another.
No one would guess that this is their first and probably their only real meal for the day. The girls come from various places in Africa. Only minutes earlier, they had joined with other children to scrape ice off their basketball court, in just one of their attempts to give their neighbourhood a facelift.
Many people associate Michelle Heights, south of Carling Avenue in the Britannia area, with crime and violence. But rather than crawl under their beds to hide from all this, little Jazmine Ismail and her friends have chose instead to change their community’s image.
We want our neighbourhood to look really pretty— Jazmine, student
“We want our neighbourhood to look really pretty and we are removing ice on the courts because the boys want to play basketball. We all love basketball,” Jazmine said, flashing a toothy grin.
Removing ice is not all they’re doing. The children are also clearing garbage and putting up bird feeders.
“The kids decided there were some things they wanted to change about their neighbourhood,” said Bill Robinson, a volunteer at the community house. “We helped them do this by organizing this and bringing in students from Bell High School and Mackenzie High (in Deep River) to help out.”
The kids decided there were some things they wanted to change about their neighbourhood— Bill Robinson, Michelle Heights Community House
Robinson says the children particularly complained about garbage cans being too close to the houses. In the summer they overflow and the smell is unbearable.
Robinson said the children decided the problem could be solved in three ways – by picking up the garbage, creating awareness and educating the public.
“So far, the children have written to the west end councilor Alex Cullen about the garbage problem and hopefully that will have some effect,” Robinson added.
Another volunteer, Ben Fleming from Mackenzie High, said that with media attention on this week’s project, the young people might not have to wait that long for change to set in. Mackenzie sent a team to Ottawa for three days to help with the project.
We are trying to change that at the community house and we have projects lined up for the children. We are trying to give these children self esteem because most of them are victims of labeling— Russell Borden, Michelle Heights Community House
“Yesterday 12 garbage cans were emptied by the garbage collectors and yet they usually pick up the garbage on Fridays, so maybe they heard something on the radio,” Fleming said.
Euihyun Yang, another student who gave up time from his March break to help as a volunteer, said he enjoyed working with the children, especially because of their enthusiasm. He went on to say that he was not afraid to work in the neighbourhood despite its bad reputation. It’s a rep he thinks is exaggerated anyway.
But one of the girls, Helina Germa, said there are some bad people in her neighbourhood. She said she used to see some of them standing in a parking lot near the community house, drinking and smoking.
Russell Borden is the co-ordinator of Michelle Heights Community House. He noted that many people in the area cannot afford much, and must deal with the stigma of being on assistance.
“We are trying to change that at the community house and we have projects lined up for the children. We are trying to give these children self esteem because most of them are victims of labeling,” Borden said.
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“Some are called poor, black, Caucasian, and most of these labels make them hate school and you know what happens after that. A lot of them can’t even afford meals and we thus give them food after every program.
“But we can boast of success stories – I am a success story,” said Borden, who was raised in the neighbourhood and later returned to become the community house co-ordinator.
An important part of the neighbourhood facelift plan, dubbed “Who is Nobody,” is a faceless, colourless doll that the children decorate after every successfully completed project. The doll serves as a constant reminder of the work they have done in the community” said Borden.
This article was published in The Ottawa Citizen Newspaper on March 19th 2009