2016 Best in the Core: How Two Entrepreneurs Dropped Everything for Fort McMurray

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On Monday, May 2, technology consultant Jas Panesar heard, like everyone else in Canada, that Wood Buffalo was under mandatory evacuation. The first thought to run through his head was, “Fort McMurray is coming to Edmonton.” When the downtown resident arrived at his 104 St. office, he turned to Sam Jenkins, who works from the Unit B Co-Working Space with Panesar, for help with what was to come. “Well,” replied Jenkins, “what do we do?”

Determined to be of some value to the emergency response eforts, they started sifting through their networks. For three days, they pestered Northlands—the central emergency shelter for the tens of thousands of evacuees—but kept getting the same response: they weren’t needed. Anywhere. Astonished and discouraged, the young professionals felt stuck. That’s when they saw a problem with the relief effort itself: The system lacked the organization to effectively use the resources available to it. Ever the IT guys, they set out to fix it.

It dawned on Panesar first. Walking home one evening, he noticed a barbecue on the typically empty sidewalk outside of the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society (EERSS) headquarters. An insufficient meal was being grilled for the relief effort volunteers inside. Prior to then, Panesar had hardly acknowledged EERSS, just two blocks north of his office, and thought it was just a tiny thrift shop. The door, after all, was always shut. Now, for the first time, it was open and he saw that it was filled to the doorway with bags and boxes of donations. It buzzed with people run of their feet. We can feed the volunteers, realized Panesar, peering inside.

He offered this service to EERSS volunteer Lloyd Skinner and was taken up on it. But when Panesar and Jenkins met Skinner, there was a change of plans. Skinner explained, “We just got the keys to an airplane hangar at the International Airport and people are working there 24/7.” In a matter of two days, the EERSS had grown from five part-time staff to 1,500 volunteers.

With a $17,000 operating budget funded by a single grant, plus modest revenue from its 104 St. thrift shop, the EERSS was built for small disasters. If a family’s house burns down, for instance, they can depend on the EERSS for toothbrushes, clean clothes and pillows. The 30-year-old charity was a big help on Black Friday, in 1987, when Canada’s deadliest tornado caused $330 million in Edmonton property damage, and again after the Slave Lake Fire in 2011. But those paled in comparison to the Fort Mac wildfires, which displaced 88,000 people. Still, EERSS was determined not to turn away a single one.

By Saturday, May 7, Panesar and Jenkins entered a hangar filled with thousands of boxes, hundreds of people and utter chaos. Nobody was in charge and it was completely self-organized. Everyone was a stranger to everyone. “We have to find food. And lots of it,” Panesar told his friend and colleague. They made one call to a pizzeria and 50 free pies were on their way. Subway soon became involved too. Another call to the Sikh Temple in Millwoods—which had an industrial-sized kitchen—and they were feeding over 1,500 people a dozen donuts at a time. But that was one day. Skinner asked them to commit to seven more days of coordinating meals for volunteers. The partners looked at each other and with little more than a nod agreed to put their companies on hold. (They each operate separate startups; Jenkins is co-founder of Wellnext Inc. and Panesar the CEO of NewEngage.)

New EERSS relief sites were popping up daily: a south-side warehouse filled with donations within eight hours, as did the Sikh temple and an old and emptied Target at Kingsway Mall. At each venue, donations of clothing, bedding, toiletries and more had to be received, organized, re-palletized and sent out. Every individual truck had to be loaded and unloaded by hand. “People were showing up and saying, ‘Just put me to work,’” recalls Panesar. And they all had to be fed. After two weeks, over 6,000 volunteers were working for the EERSS at a time, and over 20,000 meals—all donated through the young entrepreneurs’ contacts—had been served.

“It was unbelievable,” says Panesar. “Food was way beyond the scope of what I had imagined, and at times we felt like we weren’t doing enough. But we quickly recognized that armies march on their stomachs.” Jenkins adds, “In order to keep people going we needed to keep them fed.”

As it were, coordinating food was just the beginning. The charity didn’t have the funds for an operation of that size. While the donation reception and distribution tried to run smoothly, food had to be supplied, delivered, disposed of due to lack of refrigeration and replenished. Panesar and Jenkins made the latter possible but call it a “small contribution” compared to the bigger story. Before the first dollar arrived to support its ballooning efforts, the EERSS had already catalogued and served over 57,000 evacuees.

Imagine 57,000 toothbrushes in a room. Now picture 57,000 of everything else you would need if you were forced to flee your home. That’s how many donations it took, that’s how many items had to be coordinated. Working as efficiently as possible, volunteers listed requests for specific donations, like diapers and pillows, on a poster board with a sharpie, photographed it and posted the image on Facebook. And to run the equivalent of a 24-hour business, with 6,000 rotating employees and little to no permanent management or scheduling, the IT friends used WhatsApp and 10 strategically-shared tablets that were donated to them by Microsoft on request. “

We witnessed the purest form of humanity during that time,” says Jenkins.

“Edmonton, as the integrated and whole community I know it to be, was completely represented through this,” adds Panesar. Sadly, despite the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society’s valiant efforts, it’s struggling to survive. Its lease expired on Oct. 31 and the provincially owned building, now up for sale, was deemed “at the end of its life” by the Alberta Infrastructure Minister. Though the agency can stay put until there’s a “sold” sticker on the For Lease sign, the organization that helped thousands of Fort McMurrians who lost their homes could have its roles reversed and be homeless itself.

Meet Mrs. Hut: The Teacher Who Teaches “Downtown”

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It’s 9:32 on a January morning, the first day back from the holidays. Rushing into city hall, I’m met with a troop of seven- and eight-year-olds from École J.A. Fife, a French immersion school in Lake District, venturing single-file into the pedway maze en route to Churchill Station. Many of them are about to take their first LRT ride, but they’re not the only ones. “I’ve lived in the city for 10 years,” says a parent assisting with the field trip, “and this is the first time I’ve been here.”

City Hall School is now in session.

Led by Linda Hut, a public schools instructor for 30 years, the civic education her students are about to receive quickly outstrips the average Edmontonian’s experience. Every year, about twenty-five elementary and junior-high classes spend a week downtown with “Mrs. Hut,” learning about Edmonton’s history, municipal government and urban infrastructure. Former councillor Karen Leibovici, impressed by a classroom in the Legislature, initiated the City Hall School in 2005. Similar schools have since been added to the Valley Zoo, Fort Edmonton Park and Edmonton Journal offices, but none immerse the students so completely in the city’s innards as this. Hut, who took over the program six years ago, now receives double the number of applications she can accept. By maintaining an even distribution among both Catholic and public school wards, she will, at least once, meet most of Edmonton’s student body by the time they’re in high school.

“I’m very fortunate to be able to work with over 600 students each year and plant seeds for the future,” she says. “Edmonton’s future is in good hands with these thoughtful, engaged, caring, socially active citizens.”

Before City Hall School, she taught grades 1, 2 and 3 at Westglen Elementary School in Westmount. “Although I miss being in a regular school and the rapport that you build with one class and your staff, I’m constantly rewarded when I see how students and teachers take City Hall School connections and build them into year-long experiences.” Hut keeps in touch with all 25 of her participating classrooms through her weekly newsletter, City Beat, which showcases city events and initiatives, such as the Winter City program, and offers suggestions for classroom discussion and activities.

Moselle Semeniuk, this Grade 1/2 split class’s regular teacher, appreciates Hut’s ability to make each week relevant to individual classes. “Linda is always looking to make new contacts to help students get the most out of their City Hall School experience,” she says, pointing to a visit from the City’s chief architect Carol Belanger. “It’s a wonderful surprise that she was able to find an architect that speaks French.”

After discussing his passion for public buildings, en francais, Belanger shows the class renderings of the new police academy, which everyone agrees looks like something from Star Wars. Hut then challenges them to design their own civic building: Junior sketches a city hall with towers that rival Tolkien’s fortresses. Morgan imagines a pet shelter shaped like a dog’s paw. Keeva draws a library. Maja, a soccer club. Under Hut’s direction, the students move from learning about cool buildings to showing appreciation for a civic service that touches their lives in an important way.

Photo by Lizzie Derksen

Photo by Lizzie Derksen

Beside the classroom’s formidable Lego replica of city hall, Hut keeps a copy of On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz. The book is about observing the same environment from different perspectives. Likewise, Hut tries to open her students’ eyes to their own city by asking them to observe the urban core from the perspectives of people most familiar with it. A typical week at City Hall School might include tours of the Art Gallery of Alberta, CBC, McLeod Building and MakerSpace at the Stanley Milner Library, plus visits from aboriginal relations liaison Gord Stewart, city hall’s artist-in-residence Jennie Vegt or Kevan Lyons, “the Poet of Churchill Square.”

“Many children have never actually been downtown,” she says. “It’s such a pleasure to introduce them to the heart of their city and open their minds to all the possibilities that it offers—all the possibilities for connecting citizenship and career pathways through encounters and experiences with real people in authentic situations.

No week is complete without a visit to council chambers. Hut asks the J.A. Fife students to find the seat of their ward councilor, Dave Loken, and then steps up to the lectern to demonstrate the process for speaking as a citizen in a council meeting. She asks the children to vote on the question of whether smoking should be permitted on school playgrounds. They unanimously vote “no.” Hut turns to the class. “Guess what? You voted the same way that city council voted on this very same question!”

After completing their week at city hall, the students may not see Hut, or downtown, again until the year-end Citizenship Fair in June, to which the year’s participating classes are all invited. That’s when Hut asks them one fundamental question: “What is citizenship?”

Last year, the responses were, perhaps, all too typically Canadian, focused on being polite and rule-abiding. This year, Hut hopes her students will express an understanding that “citizenship is more than being kind, being nice.” For Hut, seeing her students develop even the smallest traces of participatory and justice-oriented citizenship is both the most important and the most exciting part of her job.

The full impact of the City Hall School stint often manifests after students have returned to their regular routine. Last year, for instance, a Grade 6 class from Belvedere Elementary that joined Hut in volunteering for the city’s homeless at the Mustard Seed started a Make Something Edmonton project called Calendars for Hope that raised money to help end poverty.

“City Hall School students recognize that they have a place and a voice in their city.” But they’re not the only ones. “I have always been a proud Edmontonian—born and raised here—but over the six years in this role I have developed a deeper sense of pride and belonging.”

A Film Series All About Your Core Neighbourhoods

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Rosvita Dransfeld

Catch a great flick with old friends and new neighbours at Downtown Docs at the DECL Community Space and All Saints Lutheran Church. The free monthly film series starts Sept. 28 and the league will take care of snacks and a cash bar. Just show up and get to know the community better through three movies by local filmmakers, like Rosvita Dransfeld. Director of Broke, the Gemini-nominated documentary about an inner-city pawnshop, Dransfeld will be in attendance to screen her 2014 lm Anti-Social Limited. We caught up with her to find how downtown influences her movies.

What is it about this city that keeps you making films here?

It’s really a world-class place. I think Edmontonians need to be prouder of everything they’ve accomplished. Some of the programs invented here [like Project KARE, or the Edmonton Food Bank] have been adopted internationally.

How has Edmonton’s inner-city inspired some of your films?

When I’m making films, I like to get very close to people with my camera. Because Edmonton has less of a ‘city’ feel, it’s easier to meet people from all walks of life and get to know them personally. There aren’t as many ‘uppities’ as you might find in other cities.

What is some advice you might give burgeoning Edmonton filmmakers?

It’s important to really find the story before you start filming. I tackle big subjects with my films, but if you find the right characters, or story, that will make a project successful.

The Kindness of Strangers


nadineNadine Riopel
Author of The Savvy Do Gooder: Giving That Makes a Difference

“When CityTV was still downtown, I was on my way in to do a TV segment one early morning and had a ton of stuff and a baby in tow, struggling along from the nearest parking spot a block away. A very kind passerby intercepted me and took my box of stuff, accompanying me all the way to the door of the studio even though it was in the opposite direction from where he was headed.”

oliviahughesOlivia Hughes
Arts student at MacEwan University

“Working as a Team Director for Homeless Connect, I see homeless people standing off and alone, ignored by others who are maybe too afraid to reach out and help, or who don’t know how. That’s why I tell everyone to carry granola bars in their bags. It’s a way to give, and a way to open yourself up to sharing respect with an equal. All because of a granola bar!”

RicardoBritoRicardo Brito
Realtor with Royal LePage

“My girlfriend Natasha continues to amaze me. Whether it is a homeless person or an elderly person, she always tries to help them. She truly believes it’s her job to spread love, kindness, and hope. This year, around Christmas, she took $500 from the bank, all in twenties, and randomly gave it out to anyone she felt was in need.”


MichelleMark.jpgMichelle Mark
Laboratory Coordinator at the Royal Alberta Museum

“My friend has a teenage son who recently ‘adopted’ an old man he met on his daily bus ride to school. He learned that he had almost no family in Edmonton. Since then, her son has had him over for a family dinner, and even took him out to a movie. It was refreshing for me to hear about a young person who cares, and who is brave enough to reach out to a total stranger.”

NeerajPrakashNeeraj Prakash
English professor at MacEwan University

“I was pumping gas at a station near MacEwan, when I saw a young, well-dressed man step outside with a plastic bag and a tray of four coffees billowing steam in the cold air. Without so much as a pause, he walked over to three men—possibly homeless—sitting on the curb and said, ‘I just got off a hard day of work, I have no plans and no one to go home to, and could use some company.’ For me, it wasn’t the shared coffee or fried chicken, but the talking and laughter that ensued afterward that brought warmth to my heart.”

Volunteer of the Season: Brett Hall

BrettHall - photo credit AJ Wall

“There’s always something you can do in your neighbourhood to make it a better place.”

Sage words from Meals on Wheels volunteer Brett Hall, an Oliver resident who’s been delivering groceries to the non-profit’s members since August. To his welcome surprise, bringing food to people in need across Edmonton and in his neigbourhood has become a kind of personal therapy. “I was looking to raise my confidence and find stability,” says the 35-year-old former nurse turned insurance agent. “Driving for [Meals on Wheels] humbled me and put my own problems into perspective.”

Hall has become somewhat of a guinea pig to test out Meals’ new Store-to-Door program for seniors and disabled people, which became an official program after a trial last fall. Twice monthly, Hall purchases and delivers groceries for an elderly man named Michael, who lives only a few blocks away, but can’t physically run the errands himself. There’s no cost for Hall and his mileage is reimbursed by the non-profit.

The project helps forge a connection to the neighbourhood for those who aren’t able to easily get out into the community. “Now we have a rhythm,” says Hall. “It’s nice to think that he trusts me enough to enter his home.”

If you would like to become a Store-to-Door volunteer, or pitch in on other Meals on Wheels programs, email emow@mealsonwheelsedmonton.org.

 

Connect the Blocks with the Abundant Communities Initiative

“Busy” is the new small talk. Instead of discussing the weather, we talk about how many things we’ve got on the go, and oftentimes the B-word has become the default response to “How are you?”

That mindset is why cities lack a sense of community, says Oliver resident Viraj Wanigasekera, who yearns for “the eye contact that you would make with strangers and the obligatory hello walking down the street.” To rediscover community he’s become a “Block Connector” with the OCL’s Abundant Communities Initiative.

The ACI has set loose enthusiastic people into the neighbourhood to combat social isolation—or, as Wanigasekera puts it, “to spread the gospel of citizenship participation.”

Susana Chalut is in the first stages of her role as a Block Connector. Like Wanigasekera, Chalut goes door-to-door in her high-rise, the Centurian Tower, to collect information about people’s interests, hobbies and skills for a database that will connect like-minded residents. Chalut, a writer who immigrated from Chile, wants to get to know her neighbours, to build community and to create a sense of belonging by connecting people and hosting events.

Wanigasekera feels the same about his condominium. “Community means people who live around each other, care about each other. I want to rouse people out of apathy and get people involved with one another.”

The Abundant Community Initiative is 100-per-cent volunteer driven. The OCL is looking for eager Block Connectors and Neighbourhood Connectors. If that could be you, email Angelika Matson at info@olivercommunity.com.

Volunteer of the Season: Sharon Yeo

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Lifelong Edmontonian Sharon Yeo has been a volunteer for almost as long as she’s called the city home. But after years of managing myriad community projects, this social worker, food blogger and serial volunteer is ready to take a step back from some of her extracurricular responsibilities, including the Downtown Edmonton Community League board, to take some old ideas off the back burner.

She reflects to The Yards on the initiatives she’s helped create and build.

What was the best part of volunteering with DECL?

I helped with the events we put on, such as the pancake breakfast and Corn Fest in the fall, which was a great way to connect with others who felt passionately about where they lived. It definitely helped me feel like a part of the community.

Many know you as co-founder of the wildly popular food festival What the Truck?!. How’d it get started?

About five years ago my now-husband Mack [Male] and I went to San Francisco to attend a food truck festival. I remember thinking, ‘Why don’t we have something like this in Edmonton?’ So we took a leap and tried to make it happen here at home.

Our first event in 2011 had only seven trucks. Last year, during our biggest event yet at Telus Field, we had about 30 trucks around the diamond, while thousands of people played catch or picnicked in the outfield. So many have supported it that I’m able to step away and watch the event flourish.

Who helped you along the way?

Honestly, I was not prepared for how the people of Edmonton would open their arms to my idea. I reached out to the community leagues, which were incredibly helpful in terms of attaining space and licensing and other things I was then unfamiliar with. They were the reason I was able to make my vision a successful reality.

Now that you have fewer existing commitments, what are you hoping to do with your extra time?

I still want to work on my blog, Only Here for the Food. And I’m thinking of revisiting my idea of managing a Night Market in Chinatown, or updating a website Mack and I put together a couple of years ago called Blink.com, which is a place where we’re trying to re-imagine some of Edmonton’s empty spaces. But mostly, I’m planning all kinds of peaceful summer walks!

Volunteer of the Season: Angelika Matson

CEYC Wall portrait1Angelika Matson stood before a stranger’s home, on a doormat that literally read, “Go Away,” and knocked anyway. She was accompanied by Howard Lawrence and Danny Hoyt, key members of Abundant Communities Initiative, a multi-community project connecting neighbours with the hope of creating a more supportive and inclusive neighbourhood on a person-to-person basis. Turning around would defeat the purpose.

She says, “Even a single connection feels like a triumph.” It’s a sentiment confirmed the moment a smiling face appeared from behind the door, and repeated each time she meets another Oliver neighbour.

Matson is one of Oliver’s designated Neighbourhood Connectors working diligently to, in her words, “link the people who need help with the people who can give it.” As a Connector, she tries to build ongoing relations with people all around the community and encourages them to independently reach out to other neighbours in their buildings. Matson believes it’s the most effective way she can inspire social wellbeing: the more connectors, the more social connections. That’s how Lawrence’s vision for ACI began, in 2013, with an idea for promoting community growth one knock at a time.

“It combats isolation in the midst of a big city,” says Matson, a former Red Deer resident and a social media manager. She’s also a mental health advocate who promotes positive body image and mental health awareness on YouTube.

In 2013, she shared her experiences of being bullied with the One Project to create #EraseBullying, an interactive art campaign that partnered with Lush Cosmetics to encourage bullying victims to speak up. But Matson, who volunteers for the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton and sits on the City of Edmonton’s Youth Council, also knows the value of face-to-face interaction to improving personal well-being. She’s witnessed it in herself. And if it can change a person, it can change a city, she says.

Angelika’s hopeful that neighbours young and old will rise to the challenge and “open their door to a stranger.” They could become a good friend. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Are you passionate about community? Become a Neighbourhood Connector for your area. Email for more information.

Made in Oliver

Jamming poolside with DJs and roasting marshmallows with hula-hooping fire dancers aren’t typical weekend activities, but that’s all the more reason to get behind the micro-granting pilot project Make Something Oliver. Inspired by Make Something Edmonton—the campaign and website that’s helped support over 600 projects since 2012—the Oliver Community League’s version recently awarded four people or groups with $1,000 to fund a community-focused project. The inaugural year was so successful that the OCL will continue the project into 2016. These winning 2015 proposals give you an idea of what’s to come.

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Keith Andony


Decks on Decks
Every Sunday in August, from early afternoon to late evening, local DJs brought their decks to the deck of the Oliver Outdoor Pool and replaced the regular radio. “What we saw was a new take on a traditional and established part of the community,” says Decks on Decks organizer Keith Andony, a medical professional. He felt the pool was a great but underused neighbourhood amenity that could benefit more residents by welcoming artists and making the most of those long summer nights.

 

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Justin Keats

Light the Night Oliver
You may have noticed, one late September night, Peace Garden Park alight with paper lanterns. That was the brainchild of Justin Keats, who’s also the OCL’s garden director. Throughout the day, families partook in lantern-making workshops and hula-hooping lessons, while enjoying marshmallow roasts and a fiery performance by TransFlowmation, a local circus-dance troupe. The weather was rainy, but dozens still came for fun and neighbourliness. “There’s a lot of stress and worry and just trying to keep tabs on everything,” recalls Justin Keats of the lead up to the event. But compared to what he put into it, he says what he got out of it as a community member was invaluable.

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Isabelle Gallant

MOVE Edmonton
Sometimes there are already great initiatives underway in the neighbourhood—they just need a little help growing. The Edmonton Oliver Primary Care Network used its micro-grant for a fall barbecue promoting MOVE Edmonton, a free,weekly fitness program for residents of any age. “We’re trying to reduce some barriers,” says Matthew Kallio of the nonprofit operating out of the Allin Clinic, “barriers of cost, barriers of fear of injury, barriers of not knowing where to get started.” That’s why the program is fully equipped with an onsite family physician and kinesiologist.

 

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Matthew Kallio

Where the Heart is Whole
The Oliver-based choir Accord Vocal Ensemble has just begun its 2015–16 season and, thanks to the MSO grant, can commission an original piece from a local composer for “Where the Heart is Whole,” its season-closer concert in June. “Musical collaboration is really important to keep the excitement alive and share different things,” says choir president Isabelle Gallant. Accord Ensemble will also work with the Breath in Poetry Collective, which has its spoken word every Tuesday at RoseBowl Pizza.

The Human Touch

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Neighborhood Bridges founder Nicola Fairbrother with Jon Headley (and one of his two pet snakes).

Against the backdrop of a brightly painted wall and colourful bouquet, Nicola Fairbrother doesn’t appear to fit in in her own office. Dressed in all black—from her shoes to her horn-rimmed glasses—it’s easier to see in her the former punk-rock road manager than the current founder of a social services agency. But its her non-conformism that makes Neighborhood Bridges a radical and pioneering agency for intellectually disabled people.

“I wanted to scorch the earth and do something big,” says Fairbrother, a central Edmonton resident who founded the organization in 2007, which is now in an office behind Oliver Square. She’s doing it by ignoring the narrative that people with disabilities are a societal burden, along with a glossary of terms she believes has bred institutional inequality. Within these walls, “support workers” are “human rights workers,” and the organization is a “community.”

Together—Fairbrother, co-founder Joanna Brown, 100 advocators and advocatees, their innumerable roommates, friends and families—are all “community members.” Once equality is established in language, she says, it’s established in the homes where these people with intellectual disabilities live.

But this “community” is more than semantics. Its office and nearly all 18 homes it manages are within Oliver, Queen Mary Park and Westmount.

A decade ago, Fairbrother teamed with Brown to find geographic areas for their organization, based on a series of “human indicators” necessary for community development: housing costs, vacancies, employment opportunities, transit routes, parks, community leagues. Together, all of these support people with intellectual disabilities to be fully accepted as citizens, live autonomously and develop relationships that could alleviate some of the symptoms of oppression that they endure.

These three core neighbourhoods had what’s necessary to help mitigate poverty and social isolation, according to Brown. The amenities were proximal and landlords more than willing to rent to people with disabilities. A priest openly embraced and supported their vision and many businesses showed diverse hiring practices, including the Oliver Community League Hall, which for years hired a custodian from its community. “Many people in these three central neighbourhoods were really excited to team up with us and help make this community a healthy one,” says Brown.

By integrating its offices and members into our neighbourhood, the organization wants everyone to reflect on what it means to celebrate all human variation, to embrace and accept the characteristics of disability, limitations included, instead of treating these characteristics as “a medical problem to solve or a moral problem to manage,” says Fairbrother, who recently directed a documentary on controlled breeding called Surviving Eugenics.

Though we no longer genetically engineer disabilities out of our communities, Fairbrother sees social isolation, lack of personal will and mistreatment as another form of eugenics.


Growing up with her father in South Africa during the Apartheid era, her earliest notions of the world was an unjust place. “At a young age, I saw countless human rights violations and a general disregard for the human form,” she says, grimacing. She turns to a wall covered sporadically with portrait photography. “And here I was living the life of the white privileged; we had servants and all that.”

She was a teenager by the time they moved to Edmonton in 1986. Fairbrother best describes those years as “unbridled chaos and nihilism,” which was channeled into road managing punk bands and spreading angry anthems of Generation X across Canada. “If your next question is, did my general sense of mid-1980s’ nuclear apocalypse disenfranchisement affect the work I do?” she asks. “Then yes, it certainly did.” Her smile widens. “I’m a pissed off kid of the nuclear age.”

When she realized her anger could be better placed, she turned to human services, varying from social to advocacy work. Often times, she grew frustrated with colleagues and consultants, whom she says recognized the need for significant changes to their practises but didn’t act on it. They were ethical, fair-minded, well-intentioned people, she says, but unless their practises were more radical the lives of the people for whom they advocated wouldn’t be greatly improved. More disheartening was the idea that she shouldn’t have personal relationships with clients, and that she—the social worker—was in control of their life choices.

She started researching philosophers and critical thinkers like James C. Scott, who studied oppressed populations in Southeast Asia, and looked to early disability activists who fought for human rights. She came away realizing that disability wasn’t the problem. It was poverty.

Most people living independently with intellectual disabilities make well below $27,300, Canada’s “unofficial poverty line” for single people. Unemployment sits around 70 per cent. That’s not because they can’t work, says Fairbrother, but because of a cultural narrative that “these people are to be taken care of, and so they’re surrounded with paid support instead of authentic relationships.”

Eight years later, the agency is housing people that medical professionals never imagined would be living out in the community. People deemed too sick or too unstable even for group homes now live autonomous lives, gaining employment at community leagues, local businesses like Studio Bloom on 124 St. and meaningful volunteerism like helping build Westmount’s community garden.“The notion that people with disabilities are a burden is a huge problem for us.”


Fairbrother glances at her pinging cellphone and smiles. Jon Headley, someone she advocates for, has texted to say he’s on his way to the office. About an hour later, she hears a loud bang outside. “Oh, Jon must be here,” she says, laughing.

Headley enters smiling and apologetic. He’s still getting used to his new motorized wheelchair, but it’s maybe one of the smaller changes to his life since  being referred to Neighborhood Bridges in 2012. “I get to make my own choices,” he says, “and I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m able to control my life now.”

Past organizations assisting Headley frowned upon the client-worker relationships, but that’s key to the premise of Neighborhood Bridges. Most agencies will house several disabled people in a group home with one or two support staff; Bridges’ community members each have personally dedicated advocates and live with non-intellectually disabled roommates contracted by the agency to provide additional support as needed. Headley feels especially lucky because one of his roommates isn’t just a close friend, but a chef. Tonight, he’s more than comfortable inviting Fairbrother over for dinner because they also think of each other as friends.

Headley was drawn by the organization’s rejection of traditional values, like group housing, and how it encourages people to truly become active members of the broader community. For Headley, it’s playing on an organized wheelchair soccer team in Boyle McCauley and becoming a member of the Self Advocacy Federation for disability pride. “They treat me like a person,” he says about Neighborhood Bridges, “not just a client.”

Over time, the founders hope that other communities will see their own versions of Neighborhood Bridges, and that they’ll be a part of helping them take root. “My only hope is they don’t look exactly like us,” says Fairbrother. “We are the redheaded step-child and in many ways the first of our kind. Social change starts with the agitators and I hope we’ve created a foundation for other organizations to adopt and evolve.”

Are you a property owner willing to offer long-term leases to Neighborhood Bridges members? Does your business have diverse hiring practises and an interest in mitigating poverty in the disability community? The organization embraces local partnerships. Get in touch at 780-758-2815 or mail@neighborhoodbridges.ca.