From Zumba to Zootopia: Residents build bonds, one community event at a time

From Zumba to Zootopia: Residents build bonds, one community event at a time

July 21, 2016

​​​​Jim and Alice have become family for many of the building’s residents, unsung heroes who have dedicated countless hours to help build a real sense of community and family.

You see it everywhere you go, the warmth with which residents greet each other in the hallways, the pride with which they maintain their building, the excitement with which they take part in weekly events and activities.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Alice says that when they first moved to their building, residents didn’t really engage with each other.

“When we first moved in, when you went into an elevator, nobody ever said ‘Hi’ to you, they just stood there quietly. People were a bit distant,” she said.

That inspired Jim and Alice to help make their building feel more like a community.

They started off small, hosting a barbeque on the building’s rooftop patio. They invited neighbours and provided all the food and refreshments. Residents could even bring their own meats, fish and vegetables and Jim would cook it up for them.

“One of the most striking things for me was when a resident told us that he’d been living here 26 years and never had a BBQ,” said Alice. “He said ‘Nobody has ever done this for us’. We told ourselves that we have to do this all the time,” she added.

Over the years, Jim and Alice expanded their work. They host movie nights in the building’s community room, using their own computer and projector, offering free popcorn to guests.

They’ve helped renovate the building’s rooftop patio, working with residents to buy flowers and plants for the community garden.

Residents have worked together to renovate their building's rooftop garden, often chipping in to buy their own plants and flowers.

Alice hosts weekly exercise classes where women gather to do Zumba in a quiet and comfortable environment. Alice even provides water and weights to the participants.

Jim helps make their building as accessible as possible since many residents require wheelchairs to get around. Recently, a resident bought furniture from IKEA and Jim dropped by to help with assembly.

"You have to be innovative and adjust the furniture because of the height of the wheelchair, everything has to be a bit higher," says Jim.

"I enjoy helping our neighbours. They're not begging you to do it, but they definitely appreciate the effort you put in for them," he says.

The couple also take an active role in community meetings, attending participatory budgeting meetings and advocating for residents' needs. Thanks to their hard work, the building will be getting a new Ping-Pong table and yoga mats as part of Section 37 funding from the City.

Jim and Alice go over the many resident-led events and activities organized within their building.

Besides the popular summer barbeques, the biggest event in the building is the much-awaited Christmas party. Every year, Jim and Alice prepare a full Christmas dinner, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. Residents pack the community room and bring their own dishes and delicacies to share.

"Everybody brings their containers and we pack all the leftovers for residents to take a meal home with them as well," says Jim.

While Alice and Jim remain humble about the work they do, they say they have seen a big change in the way residents interact with one another now.

"It's great to go on the elevator now, everyone is saying 'Hi Jim', checking in on you. I feel like I know everybody and we have a really great community here," he says.

For Jim and Alice, the true meaning of community is sharing your life with your neighbours and building a sense of belonging.

"Everybody thinks if you live in a city like downtown Toronto, the people are cold and distant, but you come into our building and it's very warm and friendly," says Jim.

"We're away from our families, most of our families live out of town but I think we've created our own little family here – a family of neighbours and friends," added Alice

The next step for Jim and Alice is to encourage other residents to take charge and lead their own events and activities.

"We won't be here forever, when we retire, we hope to move to Belleville," said Jim. "It would be a real shame to get all this up and going only for it to die out. That's not what we want, we want to make sure the residents feel proud of this community and work to make it even better."

Read more stories and find information for Toronto Community Housing residents in the latest issue of the Housing Update. Download a PDF version of the newsletter here​