Robyn Connelly's debut neighbourhood game came together with lightning speed. After work one Thursday, she and a colleague, Britney Maxwell, hit the dollar store looking for ideas.
"We walked up and down the aisles and we thought: Let's put on an obstacle course, a really silly, funny obstacle course that will bring people out to play," says Connelly. Just hours later, after a quick round of planning and poster-making, Connelly and Maxwell were cheering about 20 neighbourhood kids through the course on the lawn of a Parkdale highrise near where Connelly lives. "There's always kids out there, but they're always segregated and not playing together. They had a great time. I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is the most connected I have felt in Toronto in a long time, if ever.'"
Originally from Edmonton, Connelly, 38, has lived in Parkdale for eight years, but barely knew any of her neighbours. "I don't have any roots or connections to the neighbourhood. I was totally afraid to go out and build those relationships with complete strangers." But hosting the obstacle course has changed the way she saw her area and her role in it. "I'm not just a consumer anymore."
Connelly organized her event as a Playing for Keeps ambassador
, a volunteer program that's part of the ramp-up to Toronto's Pan Am/Parapan Am Games
, less than two years away. Hundreds of GTA residents, both established and newcomer, sign up for two weekends of training at George Brown College where they get to know each other, learn leadership skills and event-playing strategies and share ideas.
The program isn't intended merely to create a team of star volunteers for the Games (though the event will certainly need a lot of volunteers). The ambassadors' new skills, enthusiasm and confidence are aimed at build stronger communities before and after the Games, creating a better sense of connection and comfort through shared play. While Games organizers have talked up infrastructure legacies like an aquatics centre, athletics stadium and indoor velodrome, this social legacy is equally crucial.
"Large games like the Pan Am Games and the Olympics have made a host of promises about legacy that I think, it's fair to say, never materialized," says Rahul Bhardwaj, president and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation
, which organizes Playing for Keeps. "So the challenge is how to be deliberate and intentional about creating a legacy. We want to give people the opportunity to create those soft bonds that underline what makes a community."
The Playing for Keeps concept sets aside sports, which appeal to some people but alienate others. Instead, it taps into the power of play—sometimes creative, sometimes competitive, sometimes downright silly—to break down social awkwardness and build community connections. Along with their training, ambassadors get micro grants (say, for $50 worth of obstacles) to help them host events that engage both kids and adults.
Connelly volunteered for ambassador training as part of her job as manager of community programs at stakeholder relations at Toronto Pearson
. Pearson is a lead sponsor of Playing for Keeps, one of 12 community hubs through which TCF recruits ambassadors. It's also been integrating neighbourhood games into events it hosts at Pearson and in neighbouring communities. As the entryway to the GTA, it makes sense that the airport wants to be a key player in creating a PanAm Games legacy and showing the world an enthusiastic host city. But Connelly also has her own personal reasons for getting involved. "How can we support a program if we can't walk the walk?"
Deborah Kirkegaard had another reason. She found that Toronto had changed so much in the 25 years since she's lived here, she wanted to get to know some of the newer faces in her area, Cedarvale Ravine. Her ambassador training gave her inspiration for a whimsical event last winter. "I had a vision—I saw all these snowmen lining the walk of the ravine. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing for people to come from both sides of the ravine to make these snow creatures?' It was a way to celebrate the winter, celebrate the outdoors and celebrate the ravine," says Kirkegaard, 59.
Getting the word out through several local schools, Kirkegaard lured about 30 people to join in building her vision. "We also had a family who were new to Toronto who had never made a snowman before," she says. "What I liked most we were able to bring random people together, everybody from little kids to grandparents."
Although Playing for Keeps revolves around the Pan Am Games, the test of the program's success will come after 2015. The ambassadors will have built community networks on which to pass along their community spirit. Participants will have gotten to know each other better and will have more confidence they can host their own neighbourhood activities.
"This will hopeful teach our young kids to be leaders themselves," says Mark Grimes, councillor of Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore and chair of the mayor's panel on the Pan Am Games. Grimes has taken part in neighbourhood games in his ward and has written all his fellow councillors to encourage them to host their own events. "I can feel the interest building internally in the city. We want to get people excited not just downtown, but across the GTA."
He's already found some allies. Councillor James Pasternak made a frisbee game part of Earl Bales Park's Arts and Music Festival in August.
Grimes used to play hockey three times a week but confesses he hasn’t been as active since becoming a councillor. He's hoping some of the Playing for Keeps ethos will rub off on him. "Maybe this will encourage me to become more active myself," he laughs.
Paul Gallant is a former managing editor of Yonge Street Media who writes about business, innovation, social change, the arts and travel for a variety of publications including BUSINESS without BORDERS.