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Putting Parkdale's artists to work for shelter

If you walk down Queen West to the foot of Sorauren you can't miss the scaffolding behind the Georgian façade of a large housing renovation.  The original building was gutted by fire in the 1990s and its future incarnation, Edmond Place, is an affordable housing complex for psychiatric survivors and marginalized people in the community. The new facility is an initiative of its next door neighbour, PARC: Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre.  PARC is a multi-program drop-in community centre, complete with soup-kitchen, food bank, health centre, art and music programs, as well as nine units of affordable housing.  Edmond Place will add an additional twenty-nine units to PARC's existing facilities at 1499 Queen Street West. It will take $6.5 million in loans to complete the project, and PARC has raised just over half of $350,000, its share of the funding target.  This is a grassroots community initiative that has rallied the support of a number of like-minded community players, like graphic designer Bill Ford, founder of Design Hope Toronto.

"I am a big believer in the accumulation of small acts for the greater good," says Ford. "We live in a very privileged society and I find it disgraceful that the less fortunate are left to fend for themselves. So instead of relying on government to fix all that is wrong in our society, I was motivated to do something about it."

Ford feels strongly that we each need to take responsibility for positive change, and in its fourth year, Design Hope Toronto is a grassroots initiative born out of the spirit of Design Hope Hamilton whose mission is to raise money for shelters for the homeless by engaging artists in the community to donate their art and music for sale. Ford is a resident of Parkdale who, along with his friend Raymond Cheah, was inspired try something in Parkdale after visiting Design Hope Hamilton in 2003. In 2006, Design Hope Toronto was launched raising $7,500 for Dixon Hall, an agency that administers independent "out of the cold" programs for the GTA through its Homeless Hostels and Housing Program.

Design Hope Toronto's mandate is to bring awareness to and raise funds for homelessness, and to raise the profile of the artists who are involved.  It's about "drumming up interest, getting interested and invested in the cause, and showcasing what the artists produce," says Ford.

This year's event will take place on Friday, April 16th, at St. John's Parish Hall at Cowen and Queen.  The concept is simple: artists create work based on the theme of shelter that is then auctioned or raffled off and the proceeds go to Design Hope.  Last year Design Hope changed its beneficiary to PARC, specifically to help realize Edmond Place. Ford maintains, "the theme of what we ask our artists to produce is shelter and that's exactly what they are doing."

Back in the fall a two-week open call for shelter-themed work went out to all disciplines.  Submissions are non-juried and it's first come first serve.  Local artists participate the most - some from just around the corner - but others are coming from as far away as the UK and there are no age limits or barriers.  There's a bit of curation done in order to ensure a good mix of photography, fine art, mixed media, illustration, sculpture and so on and twenty to thirty pieces are accepted for auction by Waddington's professional auctioneer, Bill Kime. This year, six past contributors were invited to create works that will be raffled off with ticket sales already underway and the pieces are already available for viewing.

Ford is adamant that, "anyone who walks in the door should be able to participate in having a one of a kind piece of art." If an artist doesn't get in one year, they are placed on a priority list for the following year. There are no reserve bids and everything goes. Accessibility is key for Design Hope and the event is free to attend, though there is a nominal entry donation suggested. "People to whom the money is going should be able to come to their event," maintains Ford. Though in deep in the recession, last year they outdid their previous total with $17,000 raised.

Youth is another core constituency for Design Hope Toronto and Ford started close to home: in 2008 he had his daughter's grade four class participating. This year's event will incorporate two pieces from Parkdale Collegiate, two pieces from the PARC art program, and four pieces from Sheridan College, in wood, ceramics, glass and textiles.

Ford has a history of community engagement through Big Brother, Unicef, and the United Way.  Interestingly, he has no deeply-rooted personal connection to the cause other than living in the neighbourhood.  After the event in April, Ford is off to Uganda with Health Mission Outreach Canada, an organization similar to Doctors Without Borders, only with dentists.  Ford is going as a volunteer to help the group's work in Kampala with whatever's needed. "Instead of complaining about it, I try to do something about it," says Ford. "It's a very nice fit because I live in the community and I'm glad to be doing something that helps the community."  

The movement is growing and this year there's a Design Hope Peel.  If you are moved to get involved, volunteer, donate time or money, or help out in any way, contact Design Hope Toronto at [email protected] or head out to the April event.

Heidi McKenzie is a freelance arts journalist, arts consultant and part-time potter living in Parkdale.

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