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Playing for keepscentre hochelaga enfants

On a Monday afternoon, two groups of children between the ages of four and twelve, with school bags on their backs and lunch boxes in their hands, walk towards the centre. On either side two staff members, Toupie and Ma, wearing the same red t-shirt, lead them to the front door of the Hochelaga Community Centre.

Every day, they lead a small group of children from nearby schools to the centre’s large multipurpose room, a former chapel, for their extracurricular activities. This Monday it’s dance classes, but the room can also be used for cooking, roller skating, arcade games, robotics and more. The only thing in common is that registration costs $5, a small fee that makes it possible for families of all budgets to access a wide range of activities.

Centre communautaire Hochelaga habits hiver

On the first floor, another big room is filled with cardboard boxes containing winter clothes, each one identified with the name of an elementary school. It’s Operation Sub-Zero in full swing: thousands of new snowsuits distributed to children from low-income families. This initiative that began on a small scale more than twenty years ago now distributes more than 5,000 garments. “We want every kid to be able to go outside and play! The schools we work with identify children in need,” said Carole Brière, the centre’s Executive Director. 


A district in dire need

These initiatives, together with many others proposed by the organization, meet a need that has not lessened over the years. “We are located in one of the most fragile areas of the borough,” she said. “Enrollment for some services has increased by more than eighty percent in the last few years. We try not to turn anyone away...but we are maxing out what we can provide.” 

centre hochelaga carole briere
Carole Brière, Executive Director of the Centre communautaire Hochelaga

Originally, the Hochelaga Community Centre was the Loisirs olympiques Sainte-Marie, an organization with a sports mission. Threatened with closure, it found a new lease on life under the impetus of Roland Barbier, who directed the centre for twenty years. As the years went by, its mission broadened, bringing the fight against poverty to the forefront. “We like to do things in a big way,” said Carole. “People in the neighbourhood are not privileged, so we focus on the quality of service.” For example, she organizes a Christmas tree drive, a distribution of Christmas baskets, tax clinics, day camps and a summer fair with temporary accommodation and climbing facilities.


People at the heart of the project

The fight against poverty goes far beyond the monetary aspect. “Through our activities, we work on individuals. They’re enriched on a human level by developing their autonomy, their skills and by feeling valued. We want them to blossom, whether they are four years old, thirteen years old or seventy-five years old.”

When faced with young people who exhibit difficult behaviour, for example, “we try to understand what they are going through and we intervene to support the family. Often, the diagnosis has not been made and there’s no medication, so the young person is in crisis and the parents are in distress.” At the same time, starting at age thirteen, teens can become volunteers, then assistants while receiving training paid for by the centre. “They gain experience, skills and a sense of responsibility, and that keeps them off the streets,” said Carol.

“Through our activities, we work on individuals. They’re enriched on a human level by developing their autonomy, their skills and by feeling valued. We want them to blossom, whether they are four years old, thirteen years old or seventy-five years old.”

Ultimately, “I’m training a generation,” she continued, citing the fact that many of her current employees attended the centre as children. In a neighbourhood plagued by homelessness and delinquency, “if we can save two or three of them and turn them into responsible, well-functioning adults, we’ll have worked in the right direction.” The goal underlying the centre’s projects stays in the background. “By doing this, young people don’t see what we are trying to build. They just come to have fun and play ball. We’re not here to lecture them, but our actions are carried out with our mission in mind.”


Countering ageism

centre hochelaga animatrices
Pirate (Myriam Perron-Lemon) and Fidji (Delphes Tremblay), coordinators at the Centre communautaire Hochelaga

The emerging needs identified in the neighbourhood include those of a growing number of seniors, many of whose activities close for the summer because the space is taken up by day camps. “We offered them summer programming... and it worked out great!” On the agenda: line dancing, painting, yoga, bocce ball and “crazy Fridays,” when they can choose an outing. The team also launched a project to record their cultural legacy: “We see our elders as our human heritage. We asked them to tell us their stories, what they’ve experienced and their memories of the evolution of Quebec so we could broadcast them in the form of podcasts and keep them from being lost.” Among the projects in the works, the group has asked to try to start singing karaoke... To be continued! “We are trying to fight ageism and avoid infantilizing them. For the most part, they are very isolated people. Most of all, we make it possible for them to go out and make connections.”

 As she approaches retirement, Carole is already preparing for the centre’s future. Her dearest wish is that it won’t change its vocation when it changes directors... “We’ve been building our philosophy for twenty years. This is not the time to drop everything! We want to hire people who share our values.”

What does it take to do this job? “Passion,” she said, along with an unwavering ability to “go out and raise donations,” develop contacts and find new partners. “Working in the community requires a lot of sacrifice, but I have never regretted that decision. You have to believe in what you are doing, even if you are just one wave in the ocean.”