The penultimate day of this year will mark the 18th anniversary of Eva Smith’s death.
A postal clerk and American-trained dental technician, Smith came to Canada from Jamaica in 1956 through the Caribbean Domestic Scheme program which brought small quotas of single women from the region to work here as domestics. They were subsequently granted landed immigrant status in return for their services.
After finishing her contract, the mother of two and Ryerson University part-time student worked as a switchboard operator at Scarborough General Hospital, as a liaison officer with the then North York Board of Education where she helped set up the Learning Enrichment Academic Program which identified North York schools that provided learning enrichment programs for newly-arrived immigrants, and as project coordinator with the Jamaica Canadian Association (JCA).
Concerned about the high drop-out rate of Black high school students, Smith organized workshops and seminars and worked assiduously with parents to facilitate their understanding of the Canadian school system.
She was always away from home doing things for the benefit of the community, especially the advancement of Black youth. She also co-founded the North York Emergency Home for Youth and, through the JCA, single-handedly set up a program for youth on Bathurst Street which was later moved to the Jane & Finch area.
Smith had a special place in her heart for young people and she symbolized the true meaning of community activist and volunteer.
To recognize her enormous contribution to the community and the upliftment of young people, the then City of North York named its first community youth shelter after her. Eva’s Place was opened in June 1994, six months after her death.
Two other youth shelters – Eva’s Satellite and Eva’s Phoenix, each offering an innovative combination of programs and service for homeless young people – have since been launched.
To maintain the shelters which have close to a 99 per cent occupancy rate, two major fundraisers – Home for Life and Taste Matters – are held annually.
The Taste Matters wine and food tasting fundraiser, held at the Liberty Grand last week, offered guests a unique tour of 15 wineries and 15 restaurants under one roof.
Former model and Applause Institute founder, Ettie Dawkins, chaired this year’s fundraiser.
“Many of the young people who have passed through the shelters have gone back to school and have become very useful citizens,” said Dawkins, who is also a wedding planner. “Some are architects while others are professionals in other spheres.
“The support we get for these fundraisers is amazing and it’s too bad that Eva did not live to see her vision of providing shelters and opportunities for young people.”
The event raised close to $110,000 to support the three shelters which accommodate 114 young people.
Eva’s Initiatives director of development, Marie MacCormack, said the City of Toronto provides 65 per cent of the facilities’ operating costs.
“That’s why we have to fundraise to make up the difference which is about $1 million annually,” she said.
A photo of Eva Smith, accompanied by a plaque, is on the wall of the entrance to the three shelters.
“It’s important that we keep her legacy alive even though most of us were not fortunate to meet her before she died,” said MacCormack. “Every time I introduce a sponsor, a donor or a volunteer to the organization or I do a tour, I explain to them how Eva identified a unique need for services for homeless youth and how the need is very different than serving homeless adults. She knew that if you reached out to young people – especially those in school – you could help them turn around their lives.
“I think the connection to schools is very important because teachers are often the first people who see those warning signs. I always tell people Eva was with the school system and she knew where we could look at early intervention and, potentially, family reconnection as well.”
Started a decade ago, the organization offers a family reconnect program that works with the youth and their families to rebuild relationships.
Eva’s Initiatives also includes a print shop, which was recently named an official printer for the 2015 Pan American/Parapan Games in the Golden Horseshoe region.
“It was part of Eva’s vision that it was just not good enough to care for and provide someone with a space and other essentials like meals,” said MacCormack. “Those are essential but not good enough because you are just caring for people until they are old enough to graduate to the adult shelter system. She recognized that what we have to do is help them stay off the streets forever.
“The print shop offers a three-month training program where you can learn hands-on every aspect of running a press, folding machine and cutting machine and also graphic design and customer service. You learn it all here and we have an 85 per cent success rate…We are very excited to have secured a contract for the Pan Am Games as it acknowledges that we can compete with the commercial printers in the city.”
Banking executive and Eva’s Initiatives board member, Pat Gloudon, chairs the highly successful Home for Life fundraiser which is held in the spring. This year’s home-based auction raised nearly $170,000.
She also conceived the idea for Taste Matters five years ago.
“We needed extra money at the time and when I mentioned that to one of my clients at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), she said she would help me,” said Gloudon, who has been with Eva’s Initiatives for the past 14 years.
Six years ago, the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA) recognized Eva’s Initiatives with a Harry Jerome award for excellence in myriad fields. Eva’s Initiatives is the only organization to have received the prestigious honour since the awards program was launched in 1983.
Smith’s memory is also kept alive through an annual bursary administered by her Bermudan-born widower, Edward, who came to Canada in 1950 to attend high school, and daughter Edeva.