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Closing the Distance in Central West Ontario

Closing the Distance for Seniors and Youth in Central West Ontario

A senior is sitting, reading a magazine, and in walks a young man. He says, "Hey, Grandpa, how are you? Can you lend me a couple of dollars for the movies?" Grandpa says, "Sure", and as he pulls some money out of his pocket, two condoms fall onto the floor. Shocked, the youth says, "Grandpa, we need to talk. Don't you know about STDs and pregnancy?" "Yeah, I know," replies Grandpa, "That's why I have condoms." The young man warns him, "Well, you should not just keep them in your back pocket for a long time. They break down and wear out, and then they don't work properly." "Well I wish someone had told me that earlier," says Grandpa, "I already have six kids." (Skit performed in 'Dispelling Negative Stereotypes', a workshop for seniors and youth held on February 26, 2004 in Cambridge and North Dumfries)

An audience ranging in age from 15 to 83 years old laughs heartily at this and other short performances by youth and seniors. They act out a series of skits that challenge myths and stereotypes about the attitudes and behaviour of young and elderly people in our society.

A local reporter captures the spirit of the daylong workshop in a story he titles, "Nothing like a little sex to bridge the generation gap". Referring to the skit about Grandpa and the young man, the reporter writes:

"And when both teenagers and octogenarians in the audience of about 40 got their jokes, organizers knew the format had worked like a charm. " 'We've had a lot of good laughs here', said the executive director of the social planning council of Cambridge and North Dumfries Township. " 'It's kind of refreshing to see the gap isn't really as big as we thought.' "Staged by the council as part of an effort to help seniors and young people understand each other better, the workshop poked holes in perceptions on both sides of the age divide. "In pairs, small groups and all together, participants discussed such preconceptions as youths are lazy, violent and promiscuous, while seniors are ill-tempered, unable to learn new skills and past caring about sex."
(The Record Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, February 27, 2004)

In other parts of the vast region of Central West Ontario, local social planning councils are also working with community leadership groups of youth and seniors to tackle similar issues of shared concern. In Kitchener-Waterloo, youth and seniors have been meeting almost weekly since December 2003 to develop and test an "Information Access Audit Tool", because they find that in a variety of different ways both seniors and youth are finding barriers to getting information they need to function and participate actively in community life.

In Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Counties, the local social planning council is working with young leaders in the disability movement, who are advocating for engagement in community life beyond just concerns directly related to the needs of people with disabilities. "Shout-Out" sessions are being organized in the winter of 2004 for these young citizens to express their views and feelings on any number of community issues.

All three of the preceding initiatives are connected through the Central West Closing the Distance Project as part of the Social and Economic Inclusion Initiative. Almost two years earlier, the three social planning councils (SPCs) in Central West Ontario invited leaders from their respective communities to participate in a "roundtable" on social and economic inclusion. They discovered that the challenge of finding a shared focus and priority population for such a large regional project was huge. The three local SPCs that partnered as lead organizations for the Project covered a population of 597,175 spread over 2475 square kilometers in cities, towns and rural areas. In addition, a fourth partner in Elgin County under the leadership of the West Elgin Community Health Centre joined the Closing the Distance Project for part of the eighteen-month journey between 2002 and 2004. Meanwhile, the resources available to the regional Central West Project were the same as for the other Closing the Distance Projects in Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Kingston and Peel-Halton.

The Central West Project demanded a careful balance between regional coordination and local relevance. The particular complexity of the Central West initiative was anticipated early on, and so it proved to be. Other unanticipated diversions and complications also appeared in the path of Central West's journey. In the end though, the participating communities were mobilizing young people and/or seniors to become actively engaged in community life on issues relevant to their shared needs and interests.


Mural of Central West Project created at All-Region REFLECTIONS meeting in Waterloo June 2003 (Click for bigger image.)

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