St. Lawrence Community Centre celebrates 30 years of transforming lives

By Elspeth Chalmers

On Saturday September 17, the St. Lawrence Community Centre will celebrate 30 years since its 1992 opening. Visitors will enjoy demonstrations of activities at the centre, face painting, and performances by local musicians.

At 230 The Esplanade, the community centre shares space with the St. Lawrence Community Day Care and Market Lane Public School. It has strong ties with the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association, which played a major role in getting it built. A team of SLNA delegates on an advisory board, founded in 2004, provide community input into operations.

Doug Maybank has resided in the neighbourhood since 1989 and has long been a member of the advisory council. “It was established by two fellows who had a bit of vision, Dwight Peters being one of them, to represent all the interests of the community,” says Maybank, “We were established by an act of City Council so we aren’t just an ad hoc group.”

The council also assists Community Recreation Centre (CRC) staff with programming decisions and fundraising. Cherrill Baker, a long-time resident of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, recalls when the council pushed for changes to the swimming pool. “I remember, years ago, the campaign for an early morning swim time.”

Some years later, the council added a curtain to the window overlooking the pool. “Not everyone wants to be on public display while they swim, so the pool wasn’t really accessible to all people in the neighbourhood,” says Baker. A curtain was put up that could be drawn upon request so that all people could enjoy the community pool comfortably.

The community centre has become a community hub for people of all ages. “I’ve watched it grow and watched other kids who once attended the programs grow into adults who are now volunteering at the center,” Baker says.

“Some of the young people put on a drop-in Saturday morning session for seniors on how to use your tablet, cellphone or laptop,” Maybank recalls. “And it was free. It was just young people volunteering their time to help their community, and all the seniors came away thrilled.”

The centre has offered many opportunities for high school students to put in their required volunteer time. One who did is Hassan, still an active member of the St. Lawrence community nearly a decade later. He first experienced the community centre as a child. “I did the swim programs at first” before participating in sports. “I started volunteering when I was 10 or 11.”

For Hassan, the community centre provided a safe space and connections. “It was a place where you could go to talk to people about your problems. Even if you weren’t a part of the programs, you could drop by. The community centre represented a safe space where someone was there to hear you out.”

This support provided Hassan with valuable transferable skills. “I don’t know where I’d be right now without the centre. The skillset that I learned there meant that by the time I was 18 I was able to start my own non-profit to help youth with a friend based out of Regent Park.” His volunteer work also helped him get a job with the City of Toronto.

Hassan recently became a member of the advisory council. “I felt the youth needed a voice in the neighbourhood. My goal is to get more youth to join the advisory council so things can happen for them at the centre, and they can stay off the street.”

Hassan got a PlayStation 5 (PS5) for the youth lounge, which is open weekdays from 3 to 8 p.m. and features four games. “It’s an open safe place, with staff [that youths] can talk to and where they can have fun.”

He also favours getting WiFi in the building in the next year, which he hopes will attract more youth. Involving more youth in the centre is a shared goal. Kevin Jeffers, a community recreation programmer and the community centre director, has a history of improving youth involvement. “He used to be at Regent Park for a while, and at the John Innes Community Centre. He’s been great about getting young people engaged in new programs,” says Maybank.

Activities include a drop-in breakdancing class for youth ages 13 to 24 on Saturdays from 4 to 7 p.m. The centre also offers drop-in badminton, basketball, pickleball, volleyball, and fitness classes. For seniors, there is a knitting group as well as drop-in bridge, euchre and board games. Residents of all ages can also take advantage of the pool, squash court, and computer room.

Despite this wide array of programs, many of them free, the centre is underutilized. “A lot of people don’t even know the community centre is there,” says Maybank. “It doesn’t have a fancy facade. We’ve been trying to get it dressed up for years, but it doesn’t stand out.”

The centre is open on weekdays from 6:15 a.m. to 9 p.m. (7 p.m. on Fridays) and from 8:45 a.m. on weekends, to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and to 4 p.m. on Sundays. For more information about registration and drop-in programs, visit the City of Toronto website or the centre.