Strengthening the fabric of community

By Etienne Kishibe

By all appearances, there is nothing special about the Debra Dynes Family House.

Certainly nothing to justify national attention.

Only a sign beside its door and advertisements in the window for various classes distinguish Debra Dynes from the townhouses surrounding it.

Even its name is deceptive.

No person called Debra Dynes is in any way affiliated with the house. Debra and Dynes are the names of two streets running through this community of about 200 homes, on the border of Ottawa and Nepean.

Debra Dynes is something of a success story, which has been advertised as a model community centre by Industry Canada and the United Way. It provides all kinds of social services, mostly for the 800 or so residents of the surrounding subsidized houses.

“They’re a very interesting model,” says Barbara Carroll, co-ordinator of Debra Dynes. She says family houses are valuable, “because ideally they are not a cookie-cutter model.”

“We’re the first level of contact with many people who need social services,” says Carroll. “We don’t know what people need when they come to us. We had a big immigration case that took 14 months to resolve, that no one else would touch . . . (or) something as small as a cake, if it happens to be your child’s birthday, can be a huge help.”

Thirteen family houses have been established around Ottawa, where they serve as small-scale community centres. The houses largely take on the chararcter of their community, hence programs such as Monday’s African drumming at Debra Dynes.

It’s not an easy place to operate. Just over half of the community is made up of recent immigrants, representing 25 different nationalities. Many others are single mothers.

What qualifies all of them to live in the subsidized housing is that they have families and limited incomes with which to feed them.

Still, Debra Dynes is a relatively stable organization. On offer are English classes, programs for children, a food bank, help for mothers and help for job-seekers.

People of all description, though mostly women and children, shuffle in and out of Debra Dynes. They go about their business and are generally unwilling to speak, politely advising visitors to “go talk to Barbara.”

Carroll is very much the voice of Debra Dynes and she is protective of the people there.

Carroll explains that the people at Debra Dynes have reason to mistrust, coming from places where government and the media are less than dependable. Many of the immigrants are frightened they may risk losing their status.

And some have had bad experiences here, too. “People have become more fearful, since the Ontario government, the one that’s not there anymore, came in,” says Carroll.

Carroll is a social worker. She is, in a word, a busybody. As she talks, her British accent picks up tempo and spills out figures, anecdotes, ambitions and accomplishments, in no particular order.

Carroll recounts that Debra Dynes’ food bank has been very successful. It now serves many people outside the community: a thousand people are served every month, from Nepean, South West Ottawa and some rural areas.

Carroll is also particularly proud of the fact that Debra Dynes landed a youth worker.

“Any (community house) coordinator would tell you getting a youth outreach worker would be a number-one priority,” she says. “To me it’s a no-brainer.” Carroll stresses that it’s necessary to stimulate youth in a neighbourhood like this one, where a police officer was shot in 1991.

Carroll takes about an hour to sit down and talk, a conversation squeezed in between, and around, the many other conversations she never avoids.

Carroll is especially passionate about mothers and becomes agitated speaking about them. “Some things you see here are terrible,” she says. “Just last Sunday, I got a call from a woman saying she’d never used social services before, but she’d just looked at her cheque and it was exactly the same amount as her rent.”

Carroll jokes that she desperately wants to get a hold of the fabled “runaway teenaged single mother,” that has somehow come to represent a demographic made up mostly of the working poor.

She says Debra Dynes is uniquely suited to help the mothers and children in its community. It’s completely non-bureaucratic, and easily adaptable to its community’s changing needs.

It’s also as intimate and inviting as possible, so that people like last weekend’s caller can feel comfortable asking for help. Carroll’s own office is as public as any of the house’s other rooms, and people walk in to borrow files, send faxes, or ask about programs.

Community members don’t always even have to come in to Debra Dynes.

Under one of their outreach programs, mothers of young children are visited at home. Carroll says that, among other things, her staff can identify children with health or developmental problems earlier than anyone else. This reduces difficulties for these children later.

The intimate feel is also aided by the fact that many of those working at Debra Dynes are members of the community. Parents set the agenda and serve as program organizers, providing a trustworthy face to new members of the neighbourhood.

All the skills needed to run Debra Dynes are, after all, already there. Some from the neighbourhood look after children, others teach computer classes and still others do whatever is required.

“We have a lot of people who are extremely skilled,” says Carroll, “but who have no ability to use that in this country.”

Carroll says almost everything at Debra Dynes comes from the community.

She is always on the lookout for new partners to secure funding and supplies. However, save for a few teachers, childcare professionals and social workers who come in to help, Debra Dynes is in the hands of its community.

But while it can be considered successful, this is at least partly because of the type of needs to which it must respond.Carroll makes clear that, despite being an integral part of its community, Debra Dynes is far from secure. There is simply no choice but to make it work.

“If we had waited for money, if we had waited for space, nothing would have happened,” She says.

“You just do what it takes to make it happen.” This includes a recent $25,000 building expansion.

Indeed, the inside of the house could be called a marvel of improvisation, its halls opening onto play areas, what look like a meeting rooms, offices and a multi-purpose computer room.

“Those computer tables are also sewing tables,” says Carroll. “If we had double the space again, we would fill it.”

Carroll says she takes funding anywhere she can get it. On the walls there are pamphlets for a grab bag of charities, community centres and church groups.

“The biggest single donor is Ottawa housing, because they provide the space,” she says.

Donations of supplies, such as computers, are of great importance to Carroll. She says long-term education and technology projects are the ones that will actually end up changing things because they address one of the most noticeable gulfs between poor children and their peers.

“Technology has a great ability to divide people,” says Carroll.

The house now has brand new computers, which are used by students and job-seekers. When getting them, Carroll says there were three conditions going in.

“We didn’t want your junk. All kinds of companies want to get rid of old computers, but we wanted new equipment, since there is enough evidence to say it is not cost-effective to use second hand equipment. We wanted technical support. Also, what we said that was so radical was: ‘don’t tell us how to use the computers.’ Using computers is all about confidence, and we have to let people use them the way they need to. It’s all a learning process, and single mothers need that process.”

Carroll says it’s particularly important for children to be able to use the computers, so that they don’t fall behind their peers at school for simple lack of access, and so they can improve their chances to succeed.

“I would never put food below computers, of course, but today they have to generate homework on the computer,” she says. “Food banks are not the answer, they’re the band-aid.”

Helping the neighbourhood’s children find ways to succeed is probably Debra Dynes’ most important purpose.

“What sets this community apart is the high proportion of children. And that doesn’t change,” says Carroll, essentially because parents no longer qualify for housing in the neighbourhood once their children have left. In a community of about 800, there are at least 500 children at any one time.

“We were very fortunate to get funding through the National Crime Prevention Program. Kids that are busy don’t get into trouble. And I think the police know that, too.”