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Pan Am inspiration: Using multi-sport games as catalysts for neighbourhood change

Rosalyn Morrison remembers playing hopscotch and riding her two-wheeler for endless hours as a child. It's a feeling she's carried with her into her role as the vice president of community initiatives at the Toronto Community Foundation and chair of the organization's Playing For Keeps initiative, a venture that is attempting to bring neighbourhoods and the people within them together through the spirit of play and multi-sport games. "There's a possibility to reignite the parks certainly across the city of Toronto, if not beyond, and make them active with play again," she says. 
As one of the panelists in tomorrow's #YongeTalks Speaker Series event on the power of play, Morrison will focus on how Toronto's Playing For Keeps initiative is strengthening communities and creating neighbourhood leaders along the way -- all in preparation for the 2015 Pan Am Games.
Yonge Street talked to Morrison to learn more.
To get us started, why don't you give me a background on your role in Playing For Keeps?
I'm part of the advisory group of Playing for Keeps. It’s a number of organizations that came together because we wanted to collaborate on looking at the opportunity that the Ontario Summer Games and the 2015 Pan Am Games would be bringing to Toronto and the province.
That advisory group represents great organizations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, The University of Toronto, Get Active Toronto, and the Ontario trillium Foundation -- our key partners. That group was able to work with the community to create this new idea of Playing for Keeps.
What is Playing for Keeps (PFK) and how does it work?
We wanted to go into the community and ask residents how they would like to see their communities change by using multi-sport games as catalysts. There was lots of conversation around the new physical capital that was being built such as swimming pools and tracks, so we said lets have a conversation on the complementary discussion of social infrastructure and developing a social legacy.

People came together and we actually looked at what was going on in our various communities. We looked at the fact that many of our communities were fragmented and divided. We were all very interested in figuring out how we could bring the community together, how we could connect people, how we could develop social capitol to create better networks and pathways for people to move forward. 

We want to give our youth more opportunities. We would like to connect newcomers with longtime residents. We would like to increase the number of people volunteering. The idea of play seemed to be a strategy that could actually form the core of a program that could meet these aspirations. 
You started with the Ontario Summer Games and trained volunteers. Can you tell me more about this process?
We partnered with George Brown College to take 160 volunteers through a [certified] leadership training course that focused on community engagement, citizenship, and event planning, so that in theory these people could be great host volunteers at the Ontario Summer Games and then they could go on to do things in their own communities.
That’s when the concept for neighbourhood games developed. In the fall, these ambassadors started to launch their own neighbourhood games from Downsview to Malvern, in downtown Toronto and across the city. So far there's been about 15 games and you can see their own videos on our website. Our hope is now that we've test-driven the idea, we've got a fantastic opportunity over the next few years to build this movement and attract more people to be leaders in their own communities in a really joyful and spirited way. 
In previous interviews you've mentioned how important it is for you to engage new immigrants and Canadian citizens of multiple ages and races. How have you been able to do this?
We're working with four community organizations to be champions of Playing For Keeps in different parts of the city. There's the 519 Community Centre, Culturelink, East Scarborough Storefront, and North York Community House. We worked with almost 20 additional community organizations to recruit these initial 160 people. Now it’s a matter of saying, well, the Pan Am games needs 17,000 volunteers, wouldn't it be great to build a collection of organizations to recruit people that wouldn't otherwise know about the games and actually [get them to] volunteer?
It’s a concept that is challenging, but if you can do it then the impact is greater than any one organization could have on its own. It gives everyone an opportunity to get involved, to be a community leader, and to participate in building a city they all love and building their own communities. This is something that could spread across the province. We're also offering micro-grants. Any resident can apply to one of [the four champion] organizations to have a small amount of money to cover some of the costs, such as promoting the event or food so people can enjoy a meal together after the game. 
I think that these city-building organizations are not only focused on their mission, but they are focused on a more global vision of making Toronto, making the whole province, healthier, more active and more connected. 
Thank you Rosalyn. Is there anything you wanted to add about Playing for Keeps?
We really like to encourage everyone to get involved, to visit the website and be someone in their own communities to bring their neighbourhood together, have some fun, share an experience, and see where it leads. 
Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The details of the free January 17 Yonge Talks event are here, as well as a link to register.
We will be using the hashtag #yongetalks for the event.
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