By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
The reputation of the city’s south end has always been a topic of conversation.
The area south of Bloor Street is often the butt of jokes, and ridicule, both in the community and on social media.
There are arguments that the south end is full of crime and some of Oshawa’s less upstanding residents.
But for people like Warren Edwards, there is more to the area than the reputation that sometimes preceeds it.
“I was one of those people who lived in the south end who had that stigma. It took me moving away to another province to really appreciate the south end,” he says. “The south end is beautiful, and filled with lots of beautiful people.”
Edwards was a teenager when he moved to Oshawa in 2000 and attended G.L. Roberts Collegiate and Vocational Institute (CVI), located at Chaleur Avenue.
He admits that things have changed in the area he once lived.
“I grew up here in the 2000s, and you really didn’t hear about the robberies, and people getting stabbed, or shootings,” Edwards says. “Those things didn’t really happen when I grew up here.”
But to Edwards, there are reasons why things have taken a wrong turn for some of the local youth.
While he was living in Nova Scotia, he became aware of what was happening in his old neighbourhood.
When he returned to Oshawa in September of last year, he wanted to take action.
“I decided I needed to do something for the youth in the south end, because I was trying to find things [for them], and there wasn’t a lot of options for youth,” he says.
Working with youth is the career Edwards has chosen, so this is not new ground for him.
“My past experience is youth often, especially in the south end, get skipped over. So I wanted to create something where those youth who were getting skipped over have the opportunity to thrive like other youth.”
He started researching and says he found the biggest gap was for those in the high school age range.
“For kids six to 12, there are lots of resources. As kids get older, it is harder to find those things,” he states. “There is nothing, what I would call meaningful – teaching the youth life skills, or teaching them positive interactions.”
He believes a lot of teens in the south end have “a lot of time on their hands,” because “there are no options.”
With this in mind, Edwards started Project Impact Youth Programs, with the goal of closing some of the gaps he has identified in the south end.
“I wanted to do things the right way. I wanted to provide the youth the same opportunities that I had growing up.”
So where exactly have those opportunities gone? According to Edwards, it’s not a simple question to answer.
“From my research, I found that there are a lot of individuals doing a lot of good work. What the root cause is a lot of services are being offered outside of the south end,” he notes. “Residents need to leave their community to access services. In all honesty, some people don’t have the means to get there, or the relationships aren’t being built.”
While Edwards says he doesn’t feel the south end is being purposely ignored, he feels some residents are hesitant to put their trust in others.
“They are very hesitant. So like I said, they are living in the community, and they don’t see people there very often. When people do come around, they say ‘what are you here for’ or ‘what do you want from us’, especially when the opportunities aren’t always presented,” he says. “It’s always something that is negative that is done first, and then it’s something that is reactive instead of proactive. So a lot of them are defensive.”
As someone who has walked in some of the same footsteps as the youth he works with, Edwards says this allows him to be relatable.
“It does help more if they can relate to you,” he says.
However, it can be a fine line to walk.
“I always have to be careful myself. I’m older now, I have things. I have to be careful where they might see me as not necessarily understanding what they are going through,” he says.
To this point, Edwards explains the key is to listen, instead of always talking.
He thinks sometimes voices from outside the community will come in and try to dictate what is best.
“I think the people who know what is best for the community are those living there,” he says.
That is why he says the programs he creates must include feedback from those using them.
“I can create something that is a staple, but it’s not real if it doesn’t relate to the people you are delivering it to.”
Edwards does believe if people from outside the south end want to help and are willing to listen, they too can make an impact.
“If there are people who are genuine in what they want to do, and aren’t just coming into the community and saying they know what is best, it’s different,” he says.
There are some factors that attribute to the sometimes negative stigma surrounding the south end.
A few years ago, the Region of Durham introduced its Health Neighbourhoods program.
The program maps out 50 Durham neighbourhoods identified as having some deficiencies in the health and well-being of its residents.
Neighbourhoods are monitored on 80 key indicators including education and income levels, early age development, chronic and infectious disease rates and smoking rates.
Of those 50 neighbourhoods, the seven with the lowest-income levels received priority status, including five in Oshawa. Lakeview, a prominent south end neighbourhood, is one of those.
Earlier this year, health department staff told regional council there has been great improvement in some of these areas.
In Lakeview, for example, the number of vulnerable children dropped from 55 per cent to 41 per cent.
Edwards, who also lived in what he called a “priority neighbourhood’ in Scarborough, says the term causes resentment among some residents.
“I can’t speak for the whole neighbourhood, but I do know there are people who are working to get out of those neighbourhoods,” he says.
He tells youth that are making questionable choices that there are others who are trying to distance themselves from those situations.
“I really feel there are people in those neighbourhoods [and] they don’t necessarily want to be there. Because of certain circumstances, they are there for now.”
While development is exploding in the city’s north end, leading some to label it “Poshawa”, Edwards says there are problems everywhere.
“No matter where you go there are going to be issues in every community. Some aren’t highlighted as much as those in the south, but it happens everywhere,” he says.
Through Project Impact Youth Programs, Edwards has developed numerous programs.
At G.L. Roberts CVI, he started “The Bro Code.”
“I ran the group for boys who were ‘high needs’ in school,” he says.
Topics discussed during the seven-week program included anger management, respect, and forming relationships.
“I’m feeding them leadership skills and appropriate behaviours,” he says.
It was highly successful, Edwards says.
“The youth loved it. The principal and teachers said how appreciative the youth who came out to it were. Some of the kids would skip school, but come specifically for that.”
Earlier this year, the organization received a $3,000 grant from TD allowing for new programming.
Throughout the summer, Edwards, along with partner The Grounded Bird, has hosted “Project Battle Ground.”
This project has seen south end youth participating in games of dodgeball, manhunt and capture the flag.
In all, about 45 youth have participated.
This fall, Edwards will launch Let’s Get Active, a program aimed at girls.
“It’s almost pretty much the same thing as The Bro Code, they will learn about leadership skills, and issues in the community,” he says.
Participants will also receive information on financial literacy and take part in outings.
Bigger plans are on the horizon.
Edwards has applied for a two-year, $400,000 grant, along with The Grounded Bird, to create a program to teach students about food, and provide them with employment and leadership skills.
“It would put them on par with everyone else who gets those opportunities.”
Secondly, he is seeking a $2 million, five-year grant through the federal government’s National Crime Prevention Strategy.
This would go towards case management and other resources to curb youth violence in the south end.
As ambitious as these plans sound, Edwards reveals he wants to keep a stringent focus.
“For me, I don’t want it to be something that is huge, and I don’t want it to jade the vision, the message, and the help we provide,” he says. “All youth do need help, but for now, our focus is the south side. When things get more positive in the south, we can reach out to other areas.”
For more info, visit projectimpactyouth.ca or visit them on Instagram at project_impact_youth