‘There is joy here’

There are many charitable organizations that do good work in our community. Ones you’ve heard of (United Way, Ottawa Mission, CHEO and Sens Foundation, Orkidstra, Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers, Big Sisters, to name a few) and ones you haven’t.

One that falls into the latter is CityKidz.

“I was bullied my whole life and I was having issues with school,” says 14-year-old CityKidz participant and junior leader Alyssa P., who asked that her last name not be used. “CityKidz helped me with my faith and taught me about possibilities and to believe in myself. They gave me a chance to have my own space, with different people, which helped me with school.”

The organization serves disadvantaged and vulnerable kids like Alyssa in Ottawa’s Overbrook area. Every Saturday afternoon, participants take the bus to participate in CityKidz, which offers programming including stories, songs, games and skits to two age groups – six to 12 and teens ages 12 to 15.

What is unique about CityKidz are two key ingredients: the first is the regular brief home visit by trained volunteers to check in with a child’s parents and caregivers to ensure that there is open communication and trust. The second thing that makes CityKidz special is the organization’s approach, which addresses not only each child’s physical and socioeconomic needs, but also the psychosocial needs (or the spiritual nurturing of each child).

“At CityKidz, every child is known by their name; every child is visited in their home each week and every child is provided with free transportation to the program each week,” says founder and executive director Rev. Todd Bender, who started up CityKidz in Hamilton, Ontario in 1995. “Our kids know that they are loved, that they matter, that we believe in them.”

CityKidz expanded to both Regina and Ottawa in 2010. Since then, under the watchful eye of local founder and executive director Wendy Turpin, this city’s operation has grown from an initial number of 20 children, to 125 participants. And every one of them inspires her, Turpin says.

“Their tenacity, their resilience, their hope, reminds me to keep going, to keep walking alongside them and support them through thick and thin,” she says. “We can’t take them out of the adversity, but we can walk with them through it, until they are strong enough to walk on their own. I dream about the day when CityKidz Ottawa reaches every child across the city that needs to hear about the love that CityKidz offers.”

With an annual budget of $90,000 supported by churches, businesses, fundraising and individuals, Turpin is hoping to expand the program to be able to serve 300 children by 2022.

At a typical afternoon at MacKay United Church in New Edinburgh, longtime volunteer Mark Lovell leads a group of about 60 kids in song before breaking for pizza and juice. Once finished, fun mini-videos, skits and games follow. The prize: the opportunity to pie a willing candidate with whipped cream. Simple and straightforward is the essence of this afternoon – and all CityKidz afternoons – which are things that every child can understand. The noisy fun can’t mask the underlying encouragement and affection the adult volunteers have for these kids who may be experiencing this kind of caring nowhere else in their lives. There is joy here.