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Simcoe Hall Settlement House: Oshawa’s steady helping hand

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

When one walks into Simcoe Hall Settlement House, they are reminded of what it is to need, as well as what it is to give.

Simcoe Hall was founded in 1935 by the Women’s Welfare League in response to the growing economic and health disparity of the Great Depression.

“Simcoe Hall originally started out to help those that were immigrating to Canada in high industrial areas,” says Liz Fernandes, executive director at Simcoe Hall.

A man that Fernandes called “Mr. Robson” donated the house in which Simcoe Hall can be found. He owned the local tannery in Oshawa.

Proudly, Fernandes states that one of the founders of the settlement house was Adelaide McLaughlin, as she was a member of the Women’s Welfare League.

She says McLaughlin would come down to the settlement house and help out by giving things to those who had recently immigrated to Canada, while also putting money towards the building

And while Simcoe Hall has quite a history, it serves as a rarity in today’s society.

“Settlement houses were started around the world,” says Fernandes. “There were 20 of them, and now there’s only two left. There’s ours and one in London, England.”

Fernandes doesn’t know if settlement houses were just no longer needed or if other ways have been discovered to service people in communities.

“Simcoe Hall did a lot of firsts which a lot of people don’t know about. We had the first Oshawa Public Library run out of here,” states Fernandes. “We had the first nursery school program, first seniors program, and we also started Eastview Boys and Girls Club – we built it.”

According to Fernandes, the Boys and Girls Club was originally called the “Simcoe Hall Boys Club” when it first opened its doors.

She says that they also started the Grandview Treatment Centre, and the centre is not located where it first opened, which was at the bottom of the hill originally, but due to flooding it moved to the top.

Originally, it was called “Simcoe Hall Crippled Children’s Centre” and Fernandes says that is not an appropriate name today.

“We started a lot of first things here in the community, which is neat to see,” she says.

The food bank behind Simcoe Hall was built in 1950 because the house became too small for the community’s needs.

While Fernandes wishes they could update the food bank, her favourite part of the building is the sun room, which is currently filled with toys for their food and toy drive, plus the gym, which has murals and a balcony in which people can watch from up above.

Interacting with the people who come through the door is her favourite part of working there.

“I worked in the food bank for seven years before I moved into the executive director position, and it’s just having that connection with them, and knowing that you’re making a difference in somebody’s life and helping them get that step up. I’ve always loved coming into my job.”

There are several different programs that Simcoe Hall provides, including the backpack programs, which takes place in August shortly before the school year begins.

“We have all of these companies that come in and give us the backpacks and they’re filled with all of the school supplies for the children. There are many companies that step up, but McGraw-Hill Ryerson was the one that started it off,” says Fernandes.

The program allows for students from Kindergarten all the way to university and college to receive backpacks filled with supplies.

When the backpack program began they only handed out 36 backpacks, but now they are up to around 1,000 this past year.

They also have their after-school program, with 45 children between the ages of six to 13 enrolled right now.

“They get to come here everyday and they get five suppers and five snacks per week, on top of what they do here, and they only pay $10 per month.”

She says a lot of the children are struggling at home because of parents with addiction issues or other problems. So they’ll often see children stuffing food into their pockets because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. She says that it’s their “survival mode.”

Fernandes says not all children have parents with such issues, as some of them are only there because their parents are at work and are unable to pick them up.

In the summer time they switch to a day camp that provides children with a place to go. Fernandes notes that this is very affordable as well, as parents pay $75 per week, for five weeks of camp, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“We try to take them to lots of places, as a lot of these kids have never even left Oshawa,” says Fernandes.

With a hint of laughter, she recalls when the Pan American Games were in Toronto, they were able to send some of the children to watch a volleyball game. However, when they returned they said the game was only “okay.”

The kids only wanted to be on the train, as most of them had never taken one before. “That was just the joy right there, was just going down on the train and coming back,” says Fernandes.

They have a seniors program, which Fernandes says is more like a club for them to go to.

Seniors get to come in and spend time together, while also getting a hot lunch for $5, followed by bingo in the afternoon.

“They just love their bingo,” laughed Fernandes.

The seniors also get to go on trips throughout the year, but they are only at the house from September to June.

There’s also a children’s skiing program. They go to Lakeridge for six weeks starting in February. They travel by bus, and enjoy a day of skiing. The skis are provided for them.

“Our mission is to help those people that are struggling and to help them get that step up in their daily lives,” Fernandes says. “So we change as the needs of the community change.”

Fernandes says Simcoe Hall has evolved as the years have gone on.

Fernandes says that the people they see now aren’t always on social assistance, or the Ontario Disability Support Program, but are families where both parents work and have steady jobs.

“We’re even noticing now that most of the people coming through the door are what we call ‘the working poor,’” says Fernandes. “They both have a job, they may have a mortgage, but they just can’t make ends meet.”

According to Fernandes, despite the fact that the settlement house is located in Oshawa, they serve all of Durham Region.

“We don’t just service Oshawa,” says Fernandes. “Most places just do their own towns, like the Salvation Army. So, we probably see close to – in the food bank alone – up to about 10,000 clients there per year because we see over 800 clients every month.”

She says that at Christmas time, those who come through the door are getting their food, but are also getting what she calls “Christmas hampers.”

During the holiday season, Fernandes says this is the most utilized program. She also says that they sponsor local families, and ended up delivering 79 hampers last year.

“What that means is that, if they come in and we heard that they’re in a crisis or in a critical state, then we will take them aside and say ‘We’re going to sponsor you for Christmas.’”

This means Simcoe Hall will match them up with a company or a family that will get them everything they want for Christmas so that all they have to do is get their food.

“So on Christmas morning they can just wake up and everything will be ready to go for them,” says Fernandes.

Fernandes points out that Christmas isn’t the joyous time for some that it is for others.

She wants the public to know that Christmas can have a bleak outlook for some because they are living in poverty, which can be especially hard for children.

Fernandes says the number of people who use their services can go up by another 40 or 50 per cent around the holiday season.

“It’s not people that normally come to our place,” she says. “It’s just people who are finding it really hard at this time of year to make ends meet.”

The Christmas toy and food drive aims to provide families living in poverty with donated toys to give to their children, as well as food to help with a Christmas dinner. Some of the most needed items include canned meats, canned vegetables, and infant items such as formula, diapers and wipes.

She also notes that one of their biggest needs in regards to food is peanut butter. She points out that, despite once being a cheap and easy solution for a meal, it has gone up in price and is no longer as readily available.

Simcoe Hall also needs hygiene items such as shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products and toothbrushes and toothpaste for their teenage clients.

In terms of toys, there is a need for donations of Lego, crafts, and games for those who are 12 and under. For those between 13 and 16 they ask for remote controlled cars, helicopters and drones, as well as age appropriate learning and activity toys for those who are under three years of age.

They also ask for wallets, watches, alarm clocks, manicure sets, and gift cards, especially for teenagers, as Simcoe Hall generally receives donations for younger children more than they do teenagers, according to Fernandes.

For those who are hesitant to use their services, Fernandes wants them to know, “We all could be in the same position where you’re sitting right now. Nothing is a guarantee in life anymore and we’re here to help you out.”

She says that they try to help meet all of their needs, not just what is provided at Simcoe Hall.

“We will not only help them out with just food and things like that, but if they need other resources in regards to housing or problems with their electricity bill, things like that, we always plug them into those different resources so that all their needs are met, not just what we provide here.”

 

BEHIND THE WRITING

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

When I first moved to Durham, I admit I had preconceived notions. I thought that it was just the place I’d be finishing up school. Was I ever wrong.

I ended up laying the groundwork for a future here, and because of this I wanted to get to know the people more and those that are looking to help the less fortunate.

So, whenever a story idea passes by my desk that involves a charity or a company helping out the community, I’m quick to jump on it. This is what happened with my story on the Simcoe Hall Settlement House.

Originally supposed to be a simple article about being aware of those who are less fortunate around the holidays, it quickly became something more. It became this week’s Fourth Estate.

When I walked into Simcoe Hall, I have to admit I was surprised by the number of people there. I was later told it was because they were there to register for the Christmas hampers, but it was still a bit of a surprise.

The reason that it was a surprise for me is because I come from a very proud family who won’t often accept the help they need. It’s probably because we’re British and German. Too stubborn for our own good.

We also had my grandparents to baby-sit my brother and I when we were kids, and my parents both had steady, well paying jobs.

But I’ve always been more willing to accept help than the rest of my family. At least in my opinion. So, to see so many people stepping up for their kids was heartwarming.

As Liz Fernandes gave me a tour of the settlement house and its properties, I could see how much everybody cared, and how much they wanted to help.

Honestly, going into the settlement house and seeing all of these people working there, volunteering or being there for their kids made me very proud to call this region my home.