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“The classroom was so quiet that community centre staff kept peeking in. They thought the kids may have lost interest in my workshop and gone home.”
This is the way Doug Harder describes the first model-building workshop he offered for free to kids living in the South Burnaby neighbourhood of Edmonds. The neighbourhood, which is socially and culturally diverse, includes a large proportion of low-income families and recent immigrants struggling to get established in their new country.
“Many people doubted whether these kids had the interest or ability to concentrate long enough to build model cars,” says the folksy, white-haired Harder, who himself learned to build model cars when he was a teen.
Harder, who volunteers his time to teach the model-building workshops, knew it would be an uphill battle to get kids interested in his workshop. In an age of fast-paced video games, his slower art of reading instructions, assembling, gluing and painting seemed like it might not be an attractive offering.
“But I knew kids would have a sense of accomplishment if they built a model. When a video game is over, it’s over. But when a model-building workshop is over, you walk away with something that you built,” he says.
So he decided to offer the workshops for free, including the model kits, which each kid would be allowed to keep.
“The Eastburn Community Centre was very supportive of my idea and provided the workshop space,” says Harder. “And for that first workshop I went around the neighbourhood to try to raise funds, and also encourage people to donate any model car kits or supplies they may not want.”
For his first workshop, nine kids showed up, including one girl. Word got around, and by the following workshop, attendance had doubled. Today, Harder’s popular Saturday courses, which he holds about five times a year, attract up to 30 kids at a time. About a third of the students are girls. And now even parents attend and help out. But what was even more interesting was how many of their parents also showed up to sit next to their kids and work on the model cars.
Soon you had parents from the Ukraine sitting next to parents from Vietnam in turn sitting next to parents from the Congo. And all getting to know each other and talking for the first time.
They were building a sense of connection, a sense of shared interests.
“I think it is nice to see how parents are getting involved in this,” says Harder. With some pride he shares the story of a family whose two older kids attended a couple of workshops. Eventually, the youngest child also joined the class. Some time later Harder heard from the mother about how model making brought the family together.
“The father was watching his kids making models, and decided to make one of his own. Then the mother, seeing how much fun everyone was having, bought her own kit. Now, after dinner, the family clears away the dishes, spreads out the newspapers to protect the dining room table, and each person works on their own model.”
Some of the kids Harder has taught have gone on to become model-building fanatics. Denys Miroshnychenko, whose parents emigrated from the Ukraine a few years ago, is a case in point. He’s a virtual model car production line.
The articulate and serious 11-year-old came to one of Harder’s first model-making courses, and has attended every workshop since. To date, he has assembled almost 30 cars, and also has a collection of model airplanes that hang from his bedroom ceiling.
“My favourite car is the gold Lamborghini,” Denys says, grinning, as his little hands hold it up for everyone to admire.
When asked what he likes about making model cars, Denys considers the question for a moment, and then replies, “I like model making because it gets me thinking. It is sort of like yoga in that way.”
Another kid from the workshop stopped doing graffiti, and instead took a part-time job so that he could make money to buy his own model cars.
Harder has found other sources of financial support for his workshop. One such source is Vancouver Foundation’s Neighbourhood Small Grants program. The program, which started in 1999, supports resident-led initiatives that enhance local neighbourhoods. Grants can be up to $500, and are evaluated and administered at the community level: 11 community organizations in five different neighbourhoods in metro Vancouver review the proposals.
Hundreds of projects have received funding over the last 10 years. The projects range from activities such as Harder’s model-making workshop to neighbourhood gatherings, community gardens, lantern parades, knitting circles and Chinese brush painting for seniors from different cultural backgrounds.
“Neighbourhood Small Grants demonstrate that small amounts of money can make a world of difference,” says Lidia Kemeny, Vancouver Foundation’s program director for Neighbourhood Small Grants. “What impresses me is that even a grant of $500 can touch so many lives. It is remarkable.”
Kemeny notes the program is funded by Vancouver Foundation donors. “Our donors understand that strong communities need to be strengthened from the ground up, and that means starting at the neighbourhood level,” she says. “Of course, we would like to fund more of these neighbourhood projects, like the model-building workshops for kids. But the foundation has been impacted by the economic downturn,” she says. “We hope that as people hear about the benefits of the Neighbourhood Small Grants program, they will be interested in supporting it.”
So with a mere $500 grant many things were accomplished. Doug had his idea funded – and he became an engaged citizen, giving back to his community. The youngsters were able to learn a hobby, and were proud of their efforts. And their parents, from all over the world, had an opportunity to get to know one another.
To find out more about Neighbourhood Small Grants, or to donate, visit www.vancouverfoundation.ca or call 604- 688-2204.