Tough day yesterday as we learned that I would be required to endure a chemo-like therapy for the next two years to insure there are no more recurrences of tumours. We weren’t expecting it and it the procedure will likely impede many of things we wanted to accomplish over the next 24 months. But we opted to be open about it with those we knew. In fact, it was that kind of transparency during the past month that introduced us to new kinds of capacities within our community that we never knew existed. Cards, get well messages, flowers, meals – by the hundreds these arrived and we realized again that, if you are going to be in pain, you could do a lot worse than live among the good people of London, Ontario.
But what happens when the community itself is sick? Londoners discovered in this past week just how much we are struggling as numerous reports provided a view of how we are changing as a community. To kick off its Thanksgiving Food Drive, the London Food Bank announced that those families depending on its services increased by some 20% over this time a year ago – August was the highest month ever, with over 3700 families serviced. On the weekend, the London Free Press published a large spread, detailing the huge growth in families on welfare – up 47% since 2006. Then just yesterday the London Community Foundation released its current Vital Signs report, titled Life is Good … Until It Isn’t.
I actually found a measure of hope in the Foundation’s publication, in part because of its transparency. We expect both the London Food Bank and the London Free Press to chronicle some of the ongoing challenges of poverty in our community. These are primarily one-way exercises, designed to inform and urge community response. But to hear Community Foundation President and CEO, Martha Powell, say it, “We at the Foundation decided it was time to take a bold new step to do what we could to weigh in and make a significant investment.”
Some will be surprised to learn that the Foundation has opted to invest $500,000 in affordable housing projects in the next couple of years. Targeting the problem in such a concrete fashion represents a new direction for the organization. In choosing not to merely throw in some token investment, the Foundation is signalling to the community that it is prepared to lead in the recovery effort to assist in bringing London back to health.
What the London Community Foundation essentially undertook was an exercise in triage – a crisis process of targeting those areas that put health most at risk. I am one of the newest members of the board of the organization, yet in my time I have witnessed a group of dedicated individuals morph effectively into a team of people determined to take risks unlike any it has taken previously. I watched as they struggled with moving from traditional investment and granting patterns into new and innovative ways of injecting life back into a community in ways that deal more directly with those most desperate in our city.
The Vital Signs report deals directly with six key areas: environment, arts and culture, getting started, the gap between rich and poor, health and wellness and housing (you can read it at www.londonvitalsigns.ca). Yet it was to the last of these that the Foundation chose to add its significant weight. Following extensive research and interviews, it discovered that no matter the challenge faced by struggling Londoners, if individuals and families have no affordable place to live, then everything falls into decline. If the Foundation was to provide one large investment that could best assist the various struggling sectors, a $500,000 donation to providing physical security was the way it could offer the maximum assistance. They permitted the community to challenge their thinking through significant consultation, and in the end they backed that advice by putting some substantial skin in the game.
In effect, the Foundation was practicing what so many of our friends and family did upon learning of my illness – responded in a practical fashion that demonstrated compassion at the human level. And just as Jane and I discovered this week that it will take a few years until I am back to full health, the Foundation has expressed its commitment by doing more than merely reporting the problems, but by being there for the long haul.
London is in the process of telling narratives about itself. The stories are important because they reflect who we are as a community and how we respond to challenges placed directly in front of us. The London Community Foundation has opted to put in an initial bid that is significant in the offering. It’s now up to the rest of us to respond in kind – generously, practically, effectively.
Our city is in its truth-telling phase – an ultimately healthy exercise dealing with the imposing challenges this once vibrant city must endure. By stepping outside of its comfort zone, the Foundation has shown its own willingness to place itself at the centre of the action. It’s time our politicians, citizens and organizations followed that example, for the sake of those most challenged among us. How we respond to this example will determine not only how we come out of these difficult years, but whether we indeed become a city that has ultimately lived up to its potential, becoming a great community once again in the process.