St. James Town, where happiness and homework go hand-in-hand
Can happiness and homework really go hand-in-hand? According to The Rev. J. Wesley Denyer, Minister, Rosedale Presbyterian Church and Chair of the Steering Committee at the St. James Town Ecumenical Homework Club, they truly can.
“The kids love coming here,” says Denyer. “The look of joy you see on their faces is a huge reward.” The same is true for the club’s volunteers, many of them retirees drawn from the three Toronto churches that have helped to ensure the success of the program for more than ten years. “One of our most faithful volunteers started in her early 70s. Ten years later, she’s still here regularly. These are kids; they are fun to be around.”
The St. James Town Homework Club—now a five-time grant recipient of the Anglican Foundation of Canada’s Kids Helping Kids Fund—is a longstanding ecumenical partnership between Rosedale Presbyterian, St. Andrew’s United Church, and St. Peter and St. Simon-the-Apostle Anglican Church, which serves as the club’s headquarters.
The club welcomes approximately 25 children, ages 6 to 12, from Monday to Friday and serves two neighbourhood schools in St. James Town, one of Canada’s most densely populated high-rise communities, located in the northeast corner of downtown Toronto.
“Our volunteers meet the kids, right at their school and walk them over to the homework club,” says Denyer. “When children arrive, they have outdoor play time—badminton, field hockey, or soccer—and then enjoy a nutritious snack prepared by one of the two part-time staff.” AFC’s 2014 grant helped to renovate the secondary kitchen that supports the homework club.
In addition to outdoor recreation and snacks, children receive age-appropriate and highly personalized learning support. “For the younger kids, maybe one of our volunteers will just read books to them,” says Denyer, which parents appreciate as St. James Town is a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic neighbourhood, home to many newcomers to Canada.
“We have computers—that was another gift from the Foundation—so older kids can do research. We have purchased subscriptions to a variety of learning software that helps the children with mathematics, English, and geography. Sometimes they will have a writing or math or spelling assignment and volunteers, or the program coordinator, will help them with that work.”
Denyer says student enrichment is a natural outcome of this small-scale, flexible program that never fails to harness the skills and experience of volunteers. “We have a retired math teacher from Branksome Hall. We have had people who were professional musicians and vocalists who have worked with the kids. We look at what skills and experience the volunteers bring and we use those to the fullest.”
The homework club is free to participating families, except for a small snack fee to defray the cost of food. “Each of the three churches provides $6,000 per year, about three quarters of the total cost to run the club, and we are grateful for partners like AFC when we need to find the rest.”
This volunteer-led, staff-supported, program is always student-focused, even when it comes to the monthly Steering Committee meetings. “We don’t spend a lot of time on governance. We receive reports and make quick decisions about new badminton nets or jigsaw puzzles or upgrades to the snacks. Most of the time we talk about the kids and their specific learning needs: who needs more math support or reading time and that kind of thing. Our volunteers are integrally involved in these children’s lives.”
The St. James Town Homework club is a place where people of different ages and ethnicities come together to share in the joy of learning. According to Denyer, a testament to the sense of belonging the students find is that some of the graduates have come back as volunteers to help the younger kids.
The impact of COVID-19 has been a huge challenge. “During our 2020–21 academic year, one volunteer offered to lead the ZOOM training effort,” says Denyer, “and we had about 5 or 6 volunteers leading 10 kids in an online program.” While it is too soon to tell how the 2021–22 academic year will unfold, Denyer says everyone is looking forward to returning to the program on an in-person basis.
“The volunteers and I are always greeted with big smiles and warm hugs. The kids are so happy to get help with their homework, read books, play and be cared for in a safe, supportive environment.” Denyer says one student told him, “I love coming here. If I didn’t have the homework club, I’d be at home all alone after school every day.”