It starts with a smile.
For Francis Atta, a youth leader and mentor in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, that’s where community building begins.
Smiling at someone you don’t know leads to a hello.
A greeting leads to a handshake and that leads to communication, which results in community engagement.
“It all starts with a warm smile. That leads to communication and planning. A smile changes everything,” Atta said.
As residents look forward to new beginnings in 2013, community leaders such as Atta, Pastor Bill Sunberg and Jane Craig, executive director of the non-profit organization New Circles, said there are steps they can take to make their communities better places.
Get to know your neighbours, research the needs of your community and volunteer.
Making your community a better place starts with strengthening relationships, said Sunberg, the senior pastor at Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene, a volunteer pastor with Habitat for Humanity and the executive director of Ephraim’s Place community centre.
“We’re such a diverse city. Get to know your neighbours. I know that sounds very trite. (But) embrace the people around you. That’s where everything starts,” he said.
“Even when it comes to gangs, a lot of it is so charged with emotion and a lot of strong feelings but it often boils down to building relationships in neighbourhoods.”
Next, volunteer, Sunberg said.
Go into your local community centre or place of worship and ask what needs to be done or what you can do to contribute.
“With a lot of government cutbacks and the economy the way it is, a lot of organizations can use that,” he said, adding volunteering increases people’s sense of ownership in their communities.
“I think communities can survive (without volunteering) but I think the quality of life is not what it could be. It becomes about individuals doing their own thing. When we engage, we do things together. That is when pride of community goes up and quality of life goes up.”
Finally, if you are able, make a financial donation, big or small, to a cause you believe in, Sunberg said.
Craig is a big believer in people contributing their time to make their community better.
“Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. Clearly, volunteering is important to me,” she laughed.
North York’s New Circles, southeast of Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road, provides a variety of services to residents of Flemingdon Park, Thorncliffe Park and Victoria Village, some of Toronto’s poorest and most culturally diverse communities.
Of the 140 people who volunteer at New Circles, 80 per cent are clients,
“What they’re doing is giving back for what they’ve received,” Craig said.
The other 20 per cent of volunteers come from outside the community.
“We call them philanthropic volunteers, people who aren’t clients but want to help,” Craig said.
“It is amazing outreach for somebody living in (more affluent areas such as) Leaside or Forest Hill.”
Don’t underestimate the power of one person, as long as that one person wants to work as a team, Atta said.
The Jane-Finch community has traditionally had a bad reputation but there are now many positive initiatives coming from the neighbourhood, he said.
“It must have started with somebody. It’s amazing what one person can do,” he said.
“Mother Teresa did it and she involved other people. You need a team. You need a family.”
It all comes back to building relationships, Atta said.
“Treat the community like a family and everything will be easier and more attainable,” he said.
“Seeing the whole community work together is a beautiful movement.”