CEI Grant: Chestnut Community Outreach Team

A reflection by Student Life Programs Coordinator, Sonja Smiljanic

When I began my role at Chestnut Residence & Conference Centre in the Residence Life Office in January 2019 I was pleased to learn about our Outreach Team and partnership with the Child Development Institute. Our office was initially connected with CDI through our Dean of Residence and Director of Student Life, who had worked with the organization in the past. Our office has been collaborating with them on programming for about a year now through the Chestnut Community Outreach Team, which aims to connect our residence community to partners in the city.

Child Development Institute (CDI) is an accredited children’s mental health agency in Toronto that offers programming for children ages 0-12, youth ages 12-18, and their families. Their programming spans across four distinct streams: Early Intervention Services, Family Violence Services, the Integra Program, and Healthy Child Development. CDI aims to work with children and their families to uncover their abilities, support them in overcoming challenges, and giving them tools for success. One of their programs, SNAP (Stop Now And Plan), aims to support children and youth who have engaged in problematic, aggressive, and/or antisocial behavior or who have been in conflict with authority figures. This is the specific program we have engaged with through collaboration. Our outreach team has hosted the group once before on campus and last year visited their facility in the city.

I was part of the team that planned our outreach days in March 2019. These days brought two youth groups from SNAP to campus on two separate days to get a taste for Post Secondary life. We engaged with campus partners at Hart House to offer the groups fun activities like basketball, arts and crafts, human-sized Snakes & Ladders, and other fun team building games. We partnered with MoveU, Get Crafty, and Varsity Athletics to provide these fun opportunities and we could not be more grateful for their involvement in these outreach days. After our time at Hart House we enjoyed a tasty lunch at the New College dining hall and ended each day by going on a campus tour tailored to the interests of the participants. Highlights included the rare book library, Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, and none other than the bookstore.

The feedback from the youth members and CDI staff alike was very positive. One of the most notable successes was getting our Chestnut students and other students through Hart House and Varsity involved. The informal conversations between the participants and the students proved to be highly engaging and helpful. We also had informal Q & A time and the participants had a lot of highly inquisitive and thoughtful questions around admission requirements, tuition fees and finances, student life, and residence. The time we took to answer questions and engage in informal conversation ended up being deeply valuable because the participants got to better understand what it was like to be a U of T student and we as staff and program organizers got to understand our partners on a greater level.

While we considered our March Community Outreach days to be successful there were definitely some lessons reinforced and also learned:

  1. Get to know your community partner: as a new staff member I found it really helpful to do my research on CDI and the SNAP program ahead of time. It helped to frame the planning process for me and also made it easier for me to advertise the program and get students signed up to volunteer. I talked to colleagues, researched online, and read through old email threads to get a clear understanding of the organization and the state of our collaborative relationship with them.
  2. Start planning earlier than you think you need to: though we reached out to campus partners early we still felt the crunch before the program days in confirming groups, spaces, and timing. I think if we had reached out approximately 2 weeks earlier much of the last minute confirmations and associated stress could have been avoided. Lesson learned!
  3. Leave a larger buffer for the start time if participants are arriving from various locations: both days ended up starting later than planned by as much as 45 minutes which threw off our schedule and associated campus partners’ schedules as well. We had youth arriving from various locations in the morning and then travelling together via TTC just after rush hour. In hindsight starting the program later or planning for a larger buffer would have been helpful to everyone’s schedules and been more respectful to other campus partners we were working with.
  4. Carve out time for informal chats: I found this to be especially important for outreach initiatives where the U of T experience is at the forefront of discussion. Our youth participants were more interested in talking to students than to staff when it came to learning about the U of T student experience. In the future we’ll keep that in mind when building the schedule.
  5. Printed material can be a wonderful supplementary tool: some of the questions around admissions and financing studies would have been easier to answer with resources from the various Faculties. As staff we pulled on our collective experience working on campus however in hindsight we should have had this information ready to go in take-away form for the participants. My suggestion is if you’re hosting groups that could be prospective students one day to have some recruitment/admission material ready to go so that information is readily available.

Overall my experience in helping to coordinate our Community Outreach days in March was very positive. The gaps in planning weren’t absolutely detrimental to the experience but the lessons they taught will be very helpful in the future. Chestnut’s Community Outreach Team is really proud of the connection we have with Child Development Institute and it’s a partner we look forward to collaborating more with in the future!

Due to protecting the identity of those in the SNAP program we are not able to share photos of our time together, but if anyone has questions about our experience coordinating this collaborative program please don’t hesitate to reach out. I can be reached using the contact information below.

Sonja Smiljanic
Student Life Programs Coordinator
Chestnut Residence & Conference Centre
University of Toronto
sonja.smiljanic@utoronto.ca
416-585-3154

Click here learn more about our Community-Engaged Initiatives Grant

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