Derrick McLennon was in awe as he stood in the foyer last week of Tropicana Community Service Organization (TCSO) which he co-founded 33 years ago.
Starting out in a small recreation room with a discarded chair in East Scarborough, the organization has emerged as Canada’s largest Black social service agency and one of the principal administrators of the province’s youth opportunities strategy summer jobs for youth program aimed at young people in Toronto’s designated priority neighbourhoods.
Last July, TCSO was relocated to its new state-of-the-art headquarters at 1385 Huntingwood Drive.
“This is impressive,” said McLennon, the Stanford Who’s Who for exceptional effort in community development, at a reception for donors. “Just look at how far this organization has come from the days when the janitor would throw out the one old chair we had because it looked like garbage. We moved to Manhattan Park Junior Public School for a while and then McGregor Park Recreation Centre where we were loaned a chair and table belonging to then Mayor Gus Harris. We had meetings with nowhere to sit and guests that we couldn’t accommodate. That’s how bad things were back in the early stages of this organization.”
Using personal funds, McLennon bought 25 chairs worth $25 from a school in the Bloor St. and Spadina Ave. neighbourhood and TCSO received a $10,000 grant from the municipal government shortly afterwards to provide programming for young people.
“They didn’t put any parameters on how we should spend the money, so I hired Robert (Brown) as the first executive director and paid him $10 an hour for 10 hours of weekly service,” McLennon recalled. “That was a necessity because we missed a call by three days that a youth made requesting counselling service. That could not continue if we wanted to help our youths and be relevant. The remainder of the money was used to buy equipment and fund youth projects.”
McLennon – treasurer of the TAIBU Community Health Centre – said Brown, the organization’s principal architect who died nine years ago, would be extremely proud of the new facility.
“Some of the issues we had to deal with in the beginning were very unpleasant and I would never talk about them,” he said. “Scarborough in the 1970s and early 80s was primarily White and European and we encountered many hurdles to get this organization off the ground. I think it would be most appropriate for some part of this new building to bear Robert’s name.”
While enrolled at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, Brown and a few other students were assigned a project that involved the preparation of a needs assessment survey of a community in southern Ontario.
The group chose the then Borough of Scarborough and in conducting the survey, discovered that young people in the area faced serious challenges. Determined to act, the team quickly moved to prepare an audited report of its findings and solicit broad support for Scarborough’s challenged youths.
The TCSO was set up in 1980 as a non-profit agency to serve disadvantaged youth and their families. Through its myriad diverse programs, the agency aims to increase the rate of self-employment for youth, improve access to culturally appropriate counselling services and reduce the school drop-out rate among Black students.
“When I look around here today and see what’s happening, it just emphasizes what can come out of an idea,” said McLennon who served as Tropicana’s president from 1981 to 1985 and again from 1986 to 1989.
Some two years ago, TCSO completed a deal for the purchase of a new building. The organization used the $600,000 it raised over five years along with $1.36-million from a $2-million major capital grant it received from the province in September 2011 to buy the $2.35-million building.
The refurbishment is being done in two phases.
The first phase entailed the completion of office space, a gym and five counselling rooms. The second phase, which is expected to start next month and end by June, entails the establishment of audio visual, computer and community rooms and a kitchen.
The federal government provided $613,090 under the 2012 Economic Section plan to assist with renovations for the second phase.
“Once we get the municipal permits, this phase will get underway,” said the organization’s executive director, Sharon Shelton.
The new building has 20,000 square feet at the ground level and an additional 8,000 square feet in mezzanine space.
The TCSO is selling naming rights for its gym, community rooms and other areas of the new facility which was designed by architect Charles Rosenberg.
Rosenberg designed the original warehouse building that Tropicana bought after he graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Toronto in 1986.
“This was my first design after I graduated and it’s a phenomenal co-incidence that I was invited back to turn this building into something new and exciting with incredible potential,” he said.
Tropicana’s president Carmen James-Henry said the organization now has the space and facilities to effectively serve the community.
“It’s such a great facility and we are proud of this,” said James-Henry who is in her final term as president after being associated with the organization in various roles for the past 13 years. “This is a Centre of Excellence for young people in Scarborough.”
With an operating budget of $9.8-million last year, Tropicana provided approximately 2,000 jobs – about 1,100 during the summer – for the more than 19,000 clients it served and offered counselling and immigrant settlement services in 15 languages.