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FEATURE | How a Tragic Fire Brought A Toronto Community Together Through Music

By Brian Chang on March 7, 2019

In the midst of a catastrophic fire and water leak, kids who live in Toronto’s St James Town neighbourhood have had a musical home called “Reaching Out Through Music”. This is their story.

On August 21, 2018, a fire at large apartment complex in St James Town at 650 Parliament caused extensive damage to the building’s infrastructure. All 1500 residents were moved out. As crews continued to investigate and assess the damage, uncertainty prevailed amongst the residents, many of whom were children. St James Town is one of the densest populations of any community in Canada and home to the Reaching Out Through Music (ROTM) program. Music has given the kids some sort of normalcy in the vast uncertainty of their current living situation.

As reported in the Toronto Star, residents were faced with many difficult choices. Options for relocation included as far away as Mississauga and Etobicoke. The alternative was to wait, not knowing when the building will be repaired and ready for move-in. Initial projections put move-in at Thanksgiving 2018 or before the end of 2018. Those dates have passed. Current expectations put the move-in date to July 2019, almost a full year since the fire.

Virginia Evoy, Executive Director of ROTM, reached out to Ludwig Van about ROTM programming. With the uncertainty around short and long-term shelter, many of those affected were program participants. Over a few Emails, Evoy provided details about the experience of running a music education program in an uncertain community.

“What ROTM can provide is a sense of normalcy and a distraction, if only temporary, from the difficulties one faces hourly, or daily, or for years,” shares Evoy. “Children are children. They can almost seamlessly find comfort in an environment which provides them with a friendly and welcoming gathering space, diversion, fun, appreciation, healthy challenges to which they endeavour to rise, and above all, friendship.” ROTM seeks to provide a welcoming place for the kids whose lives have been upheaved by the fire.

Of the displaced residents, some were housed in temporary shelters, some in hotels, some with family and friends throughout the city. After the fire, “we lost [some of] them temporarily. We had almost no way of reaching them [after they were forced to move]. But because St. James Town is a tight-knit community, we put out our feelers and found almost all of them. They are back, and are doing their best to get to choir and their private instrumental lessons.”

“Our programming is absolutely multi-layered. The children are learning superb choral and singing technique. They are experiencing rich repertoire and weekly fun and comradery, but beyond that, they are taking these experiences back to their homes and communities and enriching the lives around them with these gifts,” writes Evoy.

“They are becoming more confident, more able to problem-solve, work cooperatively and develop perseverance and resilience. They assist one another and learn to lean on one another in the weekly joy they find in one another and in the programs they and their families have come to depend on.“

In 2007, John Loosemoore and Kirk Adsett, former Music Director at St Simon-the-Apostle Anglican Church started the Reaching Out Through Music program. The church is now known as the Church of St. Peter & St. Simon-the-Apostle. Virginia Evoy describes the program with “its goal is to provide free, high-quality music education to the children and youth of St. James Town. We provide music education and performance opportunities, but the children and youth take this back to their homes and communities and become community oriented, enriched citizens who share these gifts generously.”

The flood from a burst pipe at 260 Wellesley further compounded the uncertainty in the community when the electrical room flooded on January 22, 2019. Toronto Hydro cut off all power to the building as a safety measure, affecting 1000 residents in the cold of winter. Unfortunately, some families were hit twice, being relocated from 650 Parliament to 260 Wellesley and having to undergo more uncertainty. Both are managed by the same company, WPSQ.

“Some of our participants…They are still not in their homes, and there is little hope they will be anytime soon,” shares Evoy.

Many residents have been critical of the management company in their handling of the situation alleging inadequate maintenance and infrastructure. Two separate class action lawsuits are currently approved with no claims yet tested in court.

ROTM programs continued though, keeping a space open for the kids to participate. “Currently, the St. James Town Children’s Choir, led by Conductor Cheryll Chung, is at the heart of the organization. There are approximately twenty choristers registered in the choir,” writes Evoy. Chung is known for her work with Cantabile Chamber Choir and is a faculty member conducting the youth choral programs at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

The program also offers instrumental programming with many of the instructors coming from the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music. These instructors are sharing their love of music with the kids.

Finding space to practice in between lessons can be hard. “We have found additional space in the neighbourhood, at the St. James Town Community Corner where a piano is available five afternoons per week, and they are welcome to practice there as often as they wish,” shares Evoy. But the reality of many families in the community is a lack of funds to pursue the gaps in the music education provided by the overburdened public education system.

“There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between financial means and talent, passion, ability, desire, hard work and perseverance,” shares Evoy. She’s had the benefit of a lifelong engagement with the arts that started from childhood. She knows the value it brings across all stages of life.

“To be denied the mere opportunity to even experience it at all simply because the funds are not available to a family or individual is, in my opinion, a cosmic rip-off. We are rich in Toronto. Rich in culture, variety, endless blessings. Yet, even within this wealthy city where some enjoy no end of opera, ballet, art galleries, live theatre, restaurants, and endless shopping outlets, there is poverty. Sometimes devastating poverty.” Music education looks very different than it did a few decades ago. At best, some schools offer only a vocal program with little to no theory. Few have instrumental programs, and fewer yet have orchestral programs. It’s up to families to make up the huge gaps in music education.

ROTM hopes to bridge some of those gaps. “I observe first hand, weekly joy and benefits absorbed and reflected by the children who partake of our music education offering,” shares Evoy “I just desperately wish many more would join us!”

“As children and families grow, no matter what the circumstances, they endure change and sometimes challenge. It’s life. The St James Town Community often endures more of these challenges. ROTM offers yet another piece in the enrichment of these kids’ lives.”

In February, many buildings in the area underwent planned power outages in order to conduct safety audits. The Electrical Safety Authority, Toronto Fire, and City By-Law officers began a full audit of several buildings in St James Town. Dealing without access to water, heat, and electricity for up to 24 hrs as the audits are completed added a new burden to many. However, the audits provide invaluable assessments for work that needs to be done to avoid another fire or flooding disaster.

The children of the area, including ROTM participants, are resilient. In the uncertainty of the walls of their very homes, they know that music is a skill and opportunity for life long engagement with the arts. It can also be the beacon that gives light when everything else is falling apart.

“Many of them are very talented, expressive and motivated,” says Evoy. “As they grow into young men and women, and perhaps experience difficulties and (literally) growing pains, we endeavour to be one of the constants in their lives. An organization that welcomes them, values them, and depends on them to share, learn and inspire others. We inspire them to develop a lifelong love and appreciation for music, and how it can sustain any human being at some of the lowest times of life. And, of course, in the most ecstatic moments in life too.”

Photos courtesy of Reaching Out Through Music/Marion Voysey.


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