Connecting with community at Routes

March 10, 2024
In a North York neighbourhood known more for its home reno centres than its community centres sits a CMHA Toronto hub for wellness and recovery: Routes. 

Safe, inclusive, and peer-focused, Routes offers social programs, employment support, connections to community resources, and recovery-focused education to promote self-awareness and wellbeing for people across the GTA.  

Andrea Ferkanus, Senior Manager, Specialized Employment & Social Support Programs, and Alda Nunes, Team Lead, oversee a wealth of always-evolving programs at the centre – many of which are brought forward and led by Routes members themselves. 

Routes is a place where anyone in the community who identifies as having a mental health issue can come to find support, resources, a place to spend time and create friendships. 

“We have a rotating men's group every other week, a women's group every Friday morning and a book club that runs every week,” says Andrea. Other regularly offered programs include creative writing, crafts, and mental health workshops, including a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) group, which is currently held every Friday. 

“Every month is different,” says Alda, who organizes external speakers from other CMHA Toronto program areas or from community partners to run workshops. “We try and change things up to keep things fresh. And we're always open to suggestions and ideas. A couple of weeks ago a member who had written a book of poetry suggested having a poetry circle, so we were excited to do that,” says Alda. 

Routes’ most popular programs are bingo, cooking groups, and the many special events they hold throughout the year and around the holidays. Alda explains that “holidays can be difficult. I think everybody loves that they have somewhere to go, a safe space to be in community, so they don't feel isolated or alone.” 

The heart of Routes is the community that has been built. “People are welcome to come and just attend the space, have a coffee, play board games, card games or watch Netflix,” says Andrea.  One member says that Routes is “her second balcony” where she can get together with friends and socialize. “A few people have become good friends and get together outside of the centre. It’s really helped them to connect with people,” she adds. 

People come to Routes from all over the GTA, including Aaron Smith, who travels from Oakville to take part in Routes’ programs. Others come from Scarborough, from north of the city, and from the west end to be in community in this special place. 

The centre pivoted to online programming during COVID-19 and also distributed food to many in the Routes community who were struggling in those early, scary days of the pandemic. Andrea says that when the drop-in and in-person programs stopped “it was awful for our members. They could not wait for us to open again.” 

People are now grateful to get back to regular, in-person programs. Andrea explains that the number of people participating in online programming is starting to decline as more people return to in-person attendance. “We're still going to offer online options, but it's nice to see that people are coming back into the space,” she says, adding that there is something essentially different and more connecting being in a brick-and-mortar environment with others.  

“Some members come in and just sit on the couch by themselves with a coffee. They might say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ and that's it,” Andrea says. “They don't need to be heavily involved, but they're out of their homes, they're in the community, they’re being as social as they want to be.” 

We pride ourselves on creating a safe space for people. We want to offer groups that are important to people, that are meaningful, that give support and that challenge people but also create fun and have a laugh. 

While people do not have to disclose what their mental health diagnosis is, they do have to identify as having one to participate in either the structured programming or drop-in centre. In addition to Andrea and Alda, Routes is staffed by six peer facilitators.  

The role of peer facilitators differentiates Routes from other community centres. Peer facilitators have undergone peer support training and have backgrounds in social work, counselling, psychology or similar disciplines. Each brings a unique set of skills or area of specialization to offer the Routes community. Dorothy Leroux organizes social gatherings at nearby locations such as Tim Horton’s or Fortino’s, where people “go out, grab a coffee, walk around the neighbourhood, have a chit chat,” says Andrea. Ari Derin, another peer facilitator, is known for running fun escape rooms.  

But beyond that, the most important thing peer facilitators offer is their lived experience. Aside from building rapport with Routes members, it also reinforces a welcoming and non-judgmental atmosphere in which Routes members can feel free to be themselves. 

“Some members have been banned, kicked out or not welcomed back at other drop-in centres. That sends a message of ‘we don't like you and there's something wrong with you,’” says Andrea. “In all the time that I've managed this space, we've never banned anybody.” 

Andrea and Alda explain that when members’ behaviours suggest they are struggling, they approach it from a trauma-informed perspective. “We recognize that there is a high probability that the people we serve will have been through some kind of trauma in their life. We provide services in a compassionate way. We will put limits and boundaries in place, but not from a punitive perspective. We want people to feel included, welcome, safe – not judged,” says Andrea.   

Our goal is to provide a space where people can come and say, no one understands me, but this space does.’ 

Routes is uniquely able to provide proactive, recovery-focused, trauma-informed care. If a peer facilitator notices that someone’s struggling, Alda explains “they’ll take them aside and say, ‘Hey, I noticed that you're not yourself today. Is there something you want to talk about?’”

Sometimes all that’s needed is a conversation or a quiet space. Other times, it’s a specific resource. “We had a member who we noticed was struggling. He gave us permission to get in touch with his case worker who was affiliated with a hospital. That worker came in, we had a conversation, put some supports in place,” Andrea says.  

As spring and summer arrive, Routes is now looking forward to more outings. “We go to Toronto Island, to the CNE every year. People are looking forward to getting out and about,” says Andrea. 

Coming up is a spring clean-up which occurs every year around Earth Day. Members and staff pitch in to clear out the winter debris, then have pizza and watch a documentary with an environmental theme. This year, they’re planning an Earth Day-themed escape room to add another layer of fun.  

To find out more about what’s on the calendar, contact info@cmhato.org, drop in to the Routes centre at 2700 Dufferin Street, Unit 90, in Toronto, or call 416-781-4199. 

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