The mingling of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries with the laughter of excited children is, on the surface, something of an odd combination. Emanating as they are from St. Peter’s Anglican Church on a Monday morning in downtown Hamilton, Ont., the sounds are stranger still.
Given context, however, the scene begins to make sense. The Hamilton Association for Residential and Recreational Redevelopment Programs (HARRRP), a charitable, non-profit organization, is headquartered at St. Peter’s on the corner of Main Street East and St. Clair. On Monday mornings, it plays host to a local home-school group. As part of a semester-long geography project, the children spent the previous Monday learning about the history and culture of Germany, hence the strains of Wagner’s famous piece.
The home-school group is just one of a wide variety of programs made possible through HARRRP, which works to “provide free programs and services to help residents deal with the impact of poverty and other challenges,” according to its website. HARRRP’s programs run the gamut from pottery classes to yoga lessons to a tool-lending library, and serve up to 16,000 people each year.
That success can be attributed in large part to one of HARRRP’s guiding principles, according to Larry Collinson, who began working with the organization not long after retiring from a three-decades-long career in Hamilton’s culture and recreation department. Working together with the community itself, he says, is an absolutely essential component for the short- and long-term health of a community centre. “If you do [the work] for them, and give it to them, they won’t appreciate it,” he explains. “But if you sit with them, talk with them-the key is to make the residents of your community feel that [the centre] is theirs…[so] that when they come in here, they feel that it’s their program.”
That philosophy has borne fruit for the home-school group, which began in January of this year. “As soon as the kids come in here, it’s so awesome to see how they’ve grown into this space,” says Monica La Vella, one of the mothers who first approached Collinson with the idea for the group. “It’s like, it’s their home, their home-school away from our own home-school.”
That feeling of belonging, of having that “home away from home,” is not just exclusive to the children. The group has provided parents with a unique opportunity to form new friendships within the community as well, says La Vella. “Honestly, ask any of the moms here-Mondays have become our favourite day of the week. And most people hate Mondays.”
HARRRP’s St. Peter’s location first opened its doors in November 2010. The building had been sitting empty since its congregation broke with the Anglican Church of Canada when the diocese of Niagara offered HARRRP the rent-free use of the building as a community centre. The diocese has remained involved, with Peter Wall, dean of Niagara, the Rev. Bill Mous, director of justice, community and global ministries for the diocese of Niagara, and bishop of Niagara Michael Bird currently sitting on HARRRP’s board of directors.
Collinson says that the support from the diocese, particularly in the form of the use of St. Peter’s, has been invaluable. HARRRP is supported entirely by grants and donations-its yearly budget is less than $300,000, compared with the $500,000 Collinson had at his disposal while running a community centre for the city of Hamilton. It also does not charge for any of the programs or services it offers.
Having the building available is “something that gives us the opportunity to do more,” says Collinson. “And it’s amazing what you see, the smiles on peoples’ faces, just when someone says thank you-it really builds it up.”