Connecting Community Members Through the Arts: The Friendship Project

By Kaitlyn Patience, Arts Coordinator, Arts Milton

In the summer of 2017 Arts Milton became aware of project funding under the Government of Ontario’s Multicultural Community Capacity Grant Program. The motivation to apply for this funding came from a renewed goal to offer greater inclusion in our programming. The timeline of the project fell perfectly between Milton Culture Days in September and our Summer Days musical performance series.

With the goal of capacity building for newcomers in mind, members of the board who were once newcomers themselves – Sanjay and Aparna Rangnekar, and Susana Silva (from India and Colombia) gathered together with Board President Auleen Carson to brainstorm program ideas. Their hope was to bring newcomers into the arts community in Milton – a town which is growing quickly and welcoming new cultures.

From this gathering the concept of the “The Friendship Project” was born. The premise was simple (though the logistics would be a different story!). We planned to connect 30 newcomers to Canada with 30 volunteer hosts from the community, and together they would attend a series of free arts and culture activities. Activities would include dance classes, music lessons, arts and craft workshops, as well as tickets to dance and theatre shows. The objective of the project was to build relationships between newcomers and members of the community through shared arts and culture experiences. Other goals included fostering friendship, increasing intercultural understanding, creating awareness about local recreation activities and businesses, and offering an opportunity to experience some of Milton’s culture first hand.

The grant required that we match the 80% project funding with 20% cash or in-kind from our own organization and local contributions. Arts Milton put forth additional funding for staffing costs and marketing materials, and we partnered with the FirstOntario Arts Centre Milton who provided in-kind meeting space, workshop space and tickets to theatre shows. The role of Coordinator was assigned to me, and my contract extended into the new year.

The first and most important step was outreach to find our newcomer and host participants. As the confirmation of funding was not received until mid-November, the time of year proved difficult for reaching out to local organizations. We approached the Halton Multicultural Council, the Centre for Skills Development & Training, the Milton Community Resource Centre and various elementary schools in the hopes of signing on newcomer families. The final 32 newcomers hailed from a variety of countries including Mexico, Egypt, China, Turkey, Kenya, India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

In future, we would like to advertise host positions and conduct interviews. But for this first iteration of the program we wanted to feel confident that the hosts were outgoing, passionate people with a love for the arts within their community. We sent out invitations to friends of the organization, and Culture Days participants and ended up with 29 hosts. I did my best to match families with children of similar ages. I hoped that doing so would create lasting connections and offer the families a good point of contact within the community.

Each participant was slated to attend three arts activities as either a spectator or participant, followed by a final dinner celebration at the end of the program. I’m a planner and scheduler by nature but the multi-leveled coordination of partner families (each person with their own unique work, school and extracurricular commitments) proved to be a challenge! In addition to this I had to factor in the schedule and availability of show times, instructors and locations. The resulting schedule was beautiful, but precarious. I knew from the beginning that a single case of cancellation, no show, or inclement weather could cause a portion of the planning to collapse. And so, I resolved to relax, and adopt a “deal with it as it comes” attitude. As was expected there were a number of situations that arose: locations were full last minute, activity instructors became ill, participants had other commitments arise, and some families arrived in part not in whole. My goal was to have the integrity of the program remain intact (meaning there was a selection of both hosts and newcomers which met the workshop minimum capacity). In most instances this meant proceeding with the activity, but some had to be rescheduled.

We realized immediately following the first activity that it would be imperative to have some sort of icebreaker for participants. We set about planning one as soon as possible – an afternoon of refreshments and board games. Although it was a last-minute addition to the program, we found it to be one of the most successful components! All generations enjoyed the variety of board games and moved from table to table trying their hand at something new. Like all of the activities it was ideal in that it allowed conversation to flow naturally. One of our volunteer hosts said “We really enjoyed the board game event as it allowed us to spend quality time with our newcomer family and have fun.”

Some activities were larger with up to 30+ participants, others more intimate with just two families of eight people total. There were three activities in which all participants were invited to – the board game afternoon, the final closing dinner, and a Nia body movement class. Of course, not all families were able to attend these three events but they had an excellent turn out. A sampling of the other activities included cooking classes in which students crafted individual cheesecakes and quiche, music exploration that allowed everyone to attempt guitar, ukulele, piano and drums, an exuberant Bollywood dance class, a handmade paper-making workshop, and a theatre show about a travelling family who visited Main Streets all across Canada – A Tale of a Town.

It was difficult to find and plan activities which would appeal to both children and adults but I thought it best to speak to the sensibilities of the younger generation as most of the adults were participating in a family format. We also faced last- minute issues of adult content which we navigated by developing an additional activity for children at the same time, in the same location.

In addition to the success of the group activities and the organic nature of busy hands allowing for easy conversation we have already seen relationships develop! Participants took steps on their own to foster friendship by driving one another home after activities, arranging future play dates, inviting each other to their children’s upcoming sporting events, and attending recreation activities organized by host families.

We hope to run the program again. However, the funding terms and timelines of this particular granter have changed and thus we will need to look elsewhere for the financial support required. We believe the Project was an immense success. And thanks to marketing efforts (magazine and newspaper articles) while the program was in effect, we have received numerous inquiries from willing participants for the next cycle!

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