Beginning in 1978, in response to a pressing need to address social, educational and employment concerns in the city of York in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), a number of community stakeholders gathered together to form the Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF). Initially, LEF provided multicultural theater for children, but quickly grew in scope to include a number of programs and services, including skills training, youth counseling and childcare. LEF now attracts people from all over the Greater Toronto Area who access their various programs. Over the years, LEF has formed many cooperative relationships with governments, local organizations and networks supporting community economic development (CED). Today, thirty-one years later, the Learning Enrichment Foundation has built a strong network of organizations, programs and services responding to the changing needs of local communities.
LEF's activities are expansive and address a variety of expressed needs. Recently, the Bicycle Assembly and Maintenance Program (BAM) program was established which provides skills training in bicycle mechanics to participants. Those participants then go on to do co-op placements and are assisted in finding permanent employment at local bike shops. This program came from a general need to boost employment and a need for skilled bike mechanics for the bicycle user's community.
Some of LEF's more established and long running programs include LINC, Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada, which works closely with LEF's newcomers' settlement program, to reduce the barriers to education and employment for newly settled immigrants. There are a number of youth services offered including Reconnect Camp, a two-week long camp that reconnects newcomer families who have been separated for extended periods of time; Magic Hands, developing youth leadership skills through magic; and BizCamp, a program designed for youth 14 to 17 who are interested in entrepreneurial skills. Presently, there are 204 youth engaged in these programs and 38 youth trained as volunteers.
Probably the largest initiative LEF takes on is developed in their Neighbourhood Strategy, where integrated programs have been established to address poverty, barriers to education and employment, lack of child-care support, and building community. By locating and addressing the needs of children, youth, adults and seniors, LEF is attempting to break the circle of poverty that afflicts residents of the old city of York. Eighteen child care centres have been set up; skills training programs have been established that evolve with local labour market needs; a skills development loans program is up and running; as well as a number of bridging programs, fully integrated, are available to communities.
Contributing to the success of the LEF is its integrated approach to community economic development. Realizing that there are a number of barriers communities in the GTA face, including language, job skills, and marginalization based on race, class and gender, LEF has developed a number of interwoven programs offering a holistic approach to CED. "There is a concern that when people think CED, they think only of social enterprise," says LEF Executive Director, Peter Frampton. "LEF is an example of an integrated response to a community in crisis, bringing programs and opportunities in a holistic manner." With its consideration of many intersections of marginalization and its focus on capacity building and social well-being, as well as economic development, LEF has been successful in reaching a vast number of people expressing need.
Many organizations with political motivations become stifled and stagnant when caught up in theories of how to address social, economic and environmental issues. While these theories are important, so too are the voices of community members. LEF is an organization that responds to the expressed needs of communities, sometimes trying programs and services multiple times until they work. For instance, the new Bicycle Assembly and Maintenance Program (BAM) is a flourishing program responding to a need for skilled bike mechanics, offering co-op placements and employment for program participants; however, similar programs were tried in the past with mediocre success. Sometimes it is small changes with time, place and energy that will make all the difference - what Frampton calls "organized serendipity." LEF is now delivering a solution to an ongoing problem in the bicycle user's community.
The needs of community members in the GTA are diverse and divergent. LEF has learned that connecting their programs to one another to address a variety of needs through integrated approaches to CED is incredibly valuable and necessary for long-term economic and social stability for individuals. By bringing more than just a lens of economic development, but also a lens of poverty, holistic approaches are more conceivable. LEF realizes that relationships are deeply implicated in the process of development; by connecting programs and focusing on social skills and development LEF can better address the isolation that many marginalized families and individuals face.
When asked what LEF had to gain by being a member of CCEDNet, Frampton replied, "CCEDNet is the one that feels like home; it recharges batteries; it is the one that challenges us to think about new ideas, introduces us to those new ideas, and does so in a really broad but thorough context." CCEDNet strives to bring together a diversity of political action and opinion around community economic development so that organizations across Canada can share their stories, learn from one another and grow confident knowing there are a vast amount of people working together towards social change.