When Angela Brackett convinced her Mornelle Court neighbours to support her idea of beefing up security for schoolchildren after a spate of gun violence in their Scarborough neighbourhood, she didn’t envision it growing into a program hailed as a model for citizen-led initiatives.
“Since 2008 there has not been a shooting in Mornelle Court, and I believe it’s because we stood up for our community,” Brackett said.
At the time, student attendance had plummeted following two shootings within days of each other in the summer of 2008, she said. The route to the school went right past the scene of one of the homicides.
“People were afraid to walk in the community and our kids weren’t going to school,” she said.
That fall, Brackett hosted meetings at her home to marshal support for a common cause: public safety.
It would lead to the creation of the Mornelle All-Stars Coalition, which started as supervised “safewalk” escorts to nearby Military Trail Public School and which has since expanded to include after-school homework help, a book club and March break and summer camps.
The program is now credited with boosting student attendance and academic performance at the school, and, after partnering with Toronto police six years ago, has become the envy of other police divisions from Vancouver to Los Angeles.
“The residents said ‘we’re taking our community back,’” Brackett said.
Brackett and her fluorescent vest wearing civilian troops are well-respected by Mornelle Court residents and trusted by school staff who sometimes relay concerns about student attendance to Brackett.
Attendance and academic performance has shot up for students supported by the coalition, said principal Sohail Shaikh, a Military Trail native.
“The reason that it has been so impactful in our community is because they have expanded it,” Shaikh said. “It shows the power of what can happen when it starts within the community rather than outside agencies coming in.”
Many parents, in the neighbourhood are new to Canada, working multiple jobs, which makes it difficult to walk their kids to school and provide necessary after-school reading and math supports, Shaikh said.
Brackett’s team saw this need and with the support of Coun. Paul Ainslie convinced Toronto Community Housing to give them a vacant room in the basement of 90 Mornelle Crt., which they transformed into a hub with a kitchen, donated computers, and reading and writing material.
The after-school program, which runs three days a week, averages about 30 to 40 kids, while the summer camps handle about 80 a day.
“The kids (in Mornelle Court) are no longer idle during the summer because they’re still receiving education and recreational activities,” Shaikh said. “I would love for her to get extra resources to be able to offer it to more students in the area.”
Coun. Paul Ainslie, whose ward covers Mornelle Court and several other blocks designated priority areas where poverty, racism and other factors put youth at risk, says residents from Tuxedo Court in his ward have been asking how they can replicate the program there.
“At city hall, her group has been held up as an example of what you can do with community-based programming,” Ainslie said.
During a recent school day, the hallways at Military Trail public were abuzz with excitement as 29 frolicking youngsters awaited their escort home.
“It’s for our safety and all the volunteers are good people,” says Hadia Muheddia, 9. “It allows more kids to go to school if their parents are unable to take them.”
Her friend Zamiah Anderson, 7, agreed.
“It’s a good place for kids,” Anderson said. “We do homework and get free snacks.”
Walking amongst the group is Const. Randall Arsenault, who’s ambushed by a jubilant crew of students.
Six years ago, the coalition mended a once adversarial relationship with police. Arsenault had heard about the program and paid Brackett a visit. With the blessing of his supervisors at 43 Division, Arsenault started lending a hand.
He has since gone from being a vilified outsider — having obscenities and even garbage hurled at him from balconies — to a neighbourhood fixture.
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“He helped tear down the walls, letting people see that residents and police can work together,” Brackett said.
Known to make appearances at community events in his division, Arsenault’s work caught the eye of his superiors, who placed him in the role of community engagement officer, giving him the freedom to lend a hand on youth initiatives across the city.
He is a big believer in spreading the word about his community work through social media, and is very active on Instagram and YouTube (40 YouTube post alone), with videos of him doing everything from providing advice to new officers to sitting down with community leaders and interacting with youth within 43 Division.
In Mornelle Court, he walked the children home from school, helped with fundraising, and volunteered with the summer camp and after-school program.
“From the start of the safewalk program there has been a drop in crime in the area,” he said.
He said rather than building bridges with the community, he tried to make friends and that led to his success.
“Police services (in L.A., Florida and Vancouver) are looking at this program and are asking about how to engage a community.”
The affable officer was recently placed back on front-line duty, sparking outcry from Mornelle Court residents. Arsenault still visits on his own time.
Arsenault’s changes in duty was done in part with Toronto police launching a new neighbourhood police initiative, where a handful of officers will be designated to do community engagement in certain divisions for a period of time.
“I hope they have officers in there (Mornelle Court) for a few years at a time,” he said, adding it’s hard on the community when different officers fluctuate in and out.
Another issue affecting the program is scarcity of funds. It depends heavily on donations from local businesses, churches and agencies.
“We do a lot of things with donations and out of our own pockets to keep it going,” Brackett said.
TCHC donated space for the hub and the city has provided some grant supports in past years, but Coun. Ainslie said it’s not nearly enough.
“I get frustrated trying find them support,” Ainslie said. “We (city) have grant programs that they do one or two years and they expect people to be self-sustaining after that.”
Brackett said a lack of funds won’t stop her troop of volunteers.
In the throes of preparing grill cheese sandwiches for more than two dozen children in the after-school program, Brackett paused to reflect on how far the program has come in spite of the challenges.
“We did it because we wanted to make our community safer and now it’s gone way beyond that,” she said.