>> Lee Herrin
In the summer of 1998, I struck up a conversation with Paul Philips on the streets of Fernwood. He was putting up posters around the neighbourhood advertising a meeting at the Fernwood Community Centre. I asked him what it was about; he said it was important to the future of the neighbourhood. I mentioned that I had just moved back to Fernwood after studying in Toronto—that is, that I had deliberately found a place to live between Cook, Fort, Begbie, and Bay. He said, “Then you’ll be there, right?” It didn’t really seem like a question. I agreed to attend. Little did I know how that decision would change the course of my life, and how ultimately important to the future of the neighbourhood my participation would turn out to be.
I went to the meeting. It was the Annual General Meeting of the Fernwood Community Centre Society. There was a dispute about who should or should not be on the Board of the organization, and how the meeting should be run. I spoke up. The next thing I knew, I was nominated, and then elected to the Board. I became the Treasurer, and then the President. The years flew by. And then Fernwood started to sink.
Over the years, I have spoken and written at length about the decline of the core of the neighbourhood from 2003-2005. My analysis then, as now, was that it was a question of control and ownership. That is, the owners have control. Others can influence, but influence isn’t control. Fernwood NRG’s Principles and Values reflect the era in which we wrote them. We felt that we needed to assert “neighbourhood control and ownership of neighbourhood institutions and assets” (Principle #2) in order to restore Fernwood Village to its former glory. We found a way to purchase the boarded up Cornerstone Building in 2005, and we found funding to transform the illegal rooming house upstairs into affordable housing for families. It was an important step on our neighbourhood ownership journey. We renamed our organization the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group Society in 2006 to better reflect our ambitions to support the whole neighbourhood, rather than just to manage the Community Centre.
We opened the Cornerstone Café (1301 Gladstone) in 2006 as a first foray into social enterprise. The café was a beacon of hope for the neighbourhood that Fernwood was once again safe and whole, and that neighbourhood residents had a place to gather, share the news, and discuss issues. And that year, four families moved in our affordable family housing upstairs. The following year, the remainder of the building was tenanted on the commercial level, bringing that project to a successful conclusion.
The funders who had supported our housing project in the Cornerstone Building urged us to take on another project. In 2008 we purchased two vacant lots on Yukon Street. We consolidated them and obtained significant funding to build the Park Place Apartments at 1222 Yukon—creating another six units of affordable family housing. Unfortunately, the global recession hit soon after, which negatively impacted the funding environment halting our development activities for the next five years.
I became Executive Director in the fall of 2009. At that time, I had been on the Board of Directors for most of 11 years, and so had enough knowledge of and passion for the organization that I seemed like a good choice for the position. Looking back, it’s amazing how fast the past ten years have gone by, and also how much we’ve achieved in that time.
In 2013, we rolled the café operations into a subsidiary taxable corporation in compliance with rules for charities. That also opened the door to expansion of our business activities. Later that year, we added Studio 1313 Hair Design to our group. Studio 1313 was formerly Studio 1284 across in Fernwood Square. When the owner needed to move her business but wanted to stay in Fernwood, we made space in the Cornerstone Building. When she was ready to retire, we maintained the business as part of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group.
We came to a similar arrangement with Rachel Sadava of the Fernwood Yoga Den last year. The Yoga Den had been successful and needed to expand—we created a beautiful new studio space in the new building at 1310 Gladstone and the Yoga Den became part of the Fernwood NRG family last year. We did eventually say goodbye to the Cornerstone Café in 2018. But we sold it to an ownership group that lives in Fernwood and has deep roots in the neighbourhood. We were able to ensure that long term, Fernwood’s important assets remain in the neighbourhood.
In 2012 we added Neighbourhood Food Security as a goal in our strategic plan. Since then, we’ve taken on the operations of the Good Food Box and moved it to weekly operations. We’ve developed the annual Gift of Good Food fundraiser which supports nearly 200 families a year across the Capital Region. We built a beautiful edible garden in front of the Community Centre, and an orchard on the slope in the back. We added a weekly family dinner and more recently, a weekly student dinner. All of these activities are designed to create bonds between neighbours while ensuring everyone has enough to eat.
In 2014, we started to rebuild our Out of School Care program at George Jay school. It has taken a few years, but we have built it up to 60 spaces—30 at the Community Centre and 30 at the school. Child care has always been the core of our operations, and it is likely to continue to expand in the near future as more space becomes available in the neighbourhood. Today, we care for 105 children each day. Over the past twenty years, child care has been poorly funded—until two years ago. Since then, demand has grown as child care has become more affordable. Fernwood NRG was exceptionally lucky to be selected as one of the Universal Child Care Prototype sites in November of 2018—making $10 a day child care a reality for Fernwood families. We are hopeful that this program will continue beyond the end of the prototype at the end of March 2020.
With the conclusion of our project at 1310 Gladstone last year, I evaluated whether or not I wanted to be part of Fernwood’s next great chapter or whether it was time to pass the torch. I still have a few years left in my own career and I have decided there are other goals I want to pursue that take me out of the neighbourhood. The next few years will be critical in the future of the neighbourhood, due to the intensity of redevelopment around the Vic High site, and the pressures on the schools from so many more children and teenagers in the City. Fernwood NRG’s Board of Directors has selected a capable new leader in Chantille Viaud, and I wish her, the Board of Directors, my former staff at Fernwood NRG, and everyone in the neighbourhood the best of luck. It is my sincere hope that I have left the organization and the neighbourhood well-poised to triumph whatever the future may hold.