By Joanne Rodgers, Bruce Peninsula Press
Ten years on, The Meeting Place in Tobermory has surpassed its initial goal, becoming a thriving community ‘hub’ serving all segments of the population of Tobermory and its environs by offering various social, economic, educational and lifestyle activities. Founding Member Daryl Wood says The Meeting Place has far exceeded anything she would have imagined.
Currently there are over 21 user groups and programs geared to various age groups from After-school programs, Youth Adventures for tweens, Community Gardens for families, Community food programs, Seniors dance program, education workshops, gym, sports, and fitness programs to the ever popular Open Mic sessions. Over a two-month period in 2019, 649 person visits were recorded and the multi-use facility was used for 261 hours, an average of 4.35 hours per day, seven days a week. Additionally there is greater collaboration with local and regional organizations; and a growing focus on community development initiatives to address issues such as support for resident seasonal workers and affordable housing.
In the beginning
From a simple goal of providing a meeting place for use for physical and social wellness; and by children and independent practitioners, The Meeting Place has evolved into much more. Wood remembers having an informal conversation with community members on what was needed in the community. At the time there was no community space that was a standalone space. The idea of a meeting place hub, came out of public meetings to discuss Tobermory Regenerative Projects in 2009.
The initial organizing committee met with different segments of the community, seeking to listen and respond to the needs of the community; aiming to give the community a voice in the decision-making process and as well as being inclusive to all. Wood credits Ariane Burgess and Leslie Kennedy for spearheading this initiative to help the community learn to work together.
Wood, along with Judy Adams, approached the Municipality to use a surplus, vacant Municipal Building, the former Parks Canada Office, located across from the St Edmunds Public School. Janet English quickly came on board to create space for a local Food Bank.
The Meeting Place Organizing Group (MPOG) had 13 volunteer members, whose mandate “was to grow and develop an interactive meeting space to support social, cultural, educational, environmental and economic opportunities in the community of Tobermory and Northern Bruce Peninsula.” With a Bruce Community Futures Grant and a paid facilitator for three months, The Meeting Place opened to the public. The Meeting Place received a 2010 United Way grant to be used for the Food Bank and other community programs; and the Municipality supported the initiative by operating and maintaining the building.
The fitness programs were very popular in the early days and the rooms were used to fill whatever community need was identified.
Her best decision, says Wood, was to ask Noreen Steinacher for assistance. Steinacher transitioned The Meeting Place into a more strategic role and made it into a viable hub for information and social support.
The key to the success of the Meeting Place comes from “listening to the community, connecting with the issues, challenges and looking outward”, says Steinacher. All the board members have been active in the community beyond The Meeting Place, therefore have a good understanding of the community needs. From the start, the approach has been collaboration, looking at opportunities and forming partnerships to bring relevant programs to the community.
In 2015 The Meeting Place became a charitable organization. The Meeting Place is an agency member of United Way Grey Bruce. At this point, The Meeting Place decided to create a paid staff position responsible for programming and Jennifer Cuffe helped to develop and implement the Community Information & Resource Coordination service.
Responding to COVID-19
In 2020 program staff hours were increased to deal with this difficult year. The challenge being to stay relevant, do things differently, offer more outreach programs, redesign programs and increase social media presence. Currently there are 2 part-time Community Coordinators, one part-time Food Programs facilitator, a SPARK project facilitator along with numerous volunteers supporting The Meeting Place activities.
A lot of effort was required for restructuring programming; working with the Municipality and Province; and keeping track of applicable regulations as the area moved from one stage to another.
As part of the reopening plan, there is only one activity allowed in the building at a time; while staff educate on, and monitor, that the safety protocols are followed. Sanitizing the facility, especially the gym has been time consuming; two volunteers have worked diligently on setting out the Gym protocols and completing the required tasks.
Initiatives – CIRC connecting to a wide range of resources
One of the main initiatives is the Community Information and Resource Coordination (CIRC) which is designed to respond to those who may be in stressful situations and are isolated or simply need help with system navigation. CIRC connects people to a wide range of resources, through a skilled community ‘connector’. With the need to relook at how to provide social support, a second community coordinator was hired in 2020.
Another program, cited as an excellent example of collaboration with other community groups, is “Seniors’ Centre without Walls”. Contacted by Sharon Colter of the Northern Bruce Peninsula Community Support Advisory Action Committee, The Meeting Place felt this was a good fit and assisted by promoting the initiative via social media and is working on contributing to online presentations. Another collaborative venture was connecting with Eat Local Grey Bruce.
Managing the direction and focus of The Meeting Place has offered some challenges. Steinacher states “It is never easy in a not-for-profit sector. Rural environments offer their own challenges.”
A major issue is that The Meeting Place receives no ongoing government or corporate funding. They had to learn to be lean and creative with the funding they do have. One way to achieve this is to be mission-focused and not be drawn into too many different activities due to various funding opportunities.
Program design and evaluation is challenging in a rural community; the issue being how best to design programs that are meaningful on a regular basis and make an impact on the community and individual(s).
Other challenges include determining actions for real change in the long term; how to mobilize to move actions forward; and how to source adequate community development skills and knowledge to support ongoing and future initiatives.
The Meeting Place plans to focus on the community as a whole with regards to community development and engagement, emphasizing the need for collaborative ventures in program delivery.
One project is the SPARK Project, funded by Bruce County, aims at understanding the issues that seasonal workers face in North Bruce.
Another goal is to respond to larger system issues such as affordable housing and food security. A current SPARK project initiative is investigating the feasibility of the creation of a Long Term Rental (LTR) Accommodation Inventory. The Meeting Place is also working with the new Housing Taskforce with dedicated municipal staff involvement assisting in moving issues forward.
In seeking collaborative ventures, Steinacher is pleased with the progress of the intentional connections with Lion’s Head, two current ventures are with NP CoWork Space on the SPARK program; and with Colter and her organization on program support for seniors.
Looking towards the future “The Meeting Place is about growing the Community Hub; getting better at the strategies of rural social support; looking outward to collaborate with others; mobilizing resources; and striving to increase positive impact on the community.”
For more information on The Meeting Place visit: tobermorymeetingplace.com