One person I had heard a lot about from different supplies while searching for interview candidates about Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood is Marie Perrotta, the Founding Director of the Pegasus Community Project for Adults with Special Needs. This non-profit charitable organization provides daytime opportunities for adults with developmental challenges, family sustain and community outreach. Pegasus also runs a thrift store whose revenues sustain the operational funding needs of this organization and provide functional work experiences for program participants.
Just before 10 am this morning I went to meet Marie at the Beaches Community Centre which is the location for one of her program groups. A few minutes before Marie’s arrival I had a chance to sit down for a few minutes with Gillian Story who is now a complete-time program counsellor with the program. Gillian explained that the Pegasus program consists of three groups of adults with special needs that meet at three different locations: the Beaches Community Centre, Centre 55 and the Matty Eckler Community Centre, all in Toronto’s east end. Since graduating with a degree in music and psychology at Concordia Gillian started working at Pegasus in October of 2006 and admits it was a big learning experience at first. But she says that the staff and the participants in the program have been extremely welcoming and made it easy for her to fit in.
As Marie arrived and took off her coat to get ready for an interview, one program participant, a 24-year old woman named Shannon sat down beside me. The group was very cheerful and demonstrated a very natural sense of curiosity. A associate of the participants had peppered me with questions as to who I was, why I was here and what I was planning to do, and I briefly explained my interview plans. Shannon mentioned that she works at the Pegasus Thrift Store twice a week and volunteers there on Saturdays in addition. She operates the cash register and welcomes the customers. Marie confirmed that Shannon has a great talent working with people and referred to her as a “natural social worker”. On Mondays Shannon goes to Variety Village, a fitness and life skills facility in Toronto’s east end, where she and her friends from Pegasus enjoy swimming, weight-lifting and other physical activities. Shannon was very gregarious and outgoing and inquired whether they might be a possibility to see her later at the Pegasus Thrift Store.
I did not want to let Marie wait any longer, so I thanked Shannon for talking with me, and Marie and I relocated in order to be able to do a quiet interview. Marie is originally from Buffalo, and she and her husband moved to Ontario to complete their graduate degrees here. After her undergraduate degree in French literature she completed her graduate studies in assessment counseling at the Institute of Child Studies at the University of Toronto. Her work background prior to her involvement with Pegasus includes psychiatric research at the Hospital for Sick Children.
One of Canada’s attributes that captured Marie right from the start was people’s openness, the country’s civility, varied and tolerance. Marie noticed these characteristics right away and additional that tolerance is underrated. In her words, if you use enough time with people who are different, with time you’ll get over those differences. I wholeheartedly agreed with her and we concluded that often it is without of exposure to people of different backgrounds that creates negative stereotypes.
Marie has three children: Andrew, 34, an adult with developmental challenges, Olivia, who just graduated from international development and science at McGill University in Montreal, and Cristina, who at 17 years of age is nevertheless attending high school. As the mother of a child with a developmental disability Marie understands the rare pressures of families dealing with developmental challenges. In 1993 Marie found out that adult children with developmental handicaps would not have access to day programs after the age of 21. About 650 people in Toronto were on waiting lists for existing day programs and Marie knew she had to do something.
Marie got several parents together that were in similar situations, but the group did not last long. She called on government funding agencies and approached the Matty Eckler Community Centre, part of the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department. The representatives at the community centre reacted extremely positively and offered Marie some space for her intended day-time program. Once she had secured the location, she formally set up a charitable organization and put together a board of directors which included another parent with a developmentally challenged child, in addition as three other board members, including a teacher, a child daycare administrator and an occupational therapist.
From January to September of 1994 the team raised $30,000. Alison Masters, one of the Board members, held a big auction and a party at Lido’s Restaurant. With another fundraising event and a small grant from the city the program was ready to start. One of the earliest exercises was to find a name for the organization, and Marie came up with the idea to draw on Greek mythology. In the spring of 1994 they had set a goal to get the organization launched by the fall, so she decided to pick a fall sky constellation and came up with the name Pegasus. The organization indeed got its start in September of 1994. Today many other names of heavenly objects are used in the fundraising efforts of the organization: The “Galaxy of Stars” lists donors in different categories including “Hercules”, “Perseus”, “Cygnus” and “Lyra”. Another group of donors is referred to as the “Meteors”.
Over the years funding has come from many different supplies. For ten years Marie ran an annual yard sale from her front yard and as the handling and storage of donated goods became too onerous, fundraising efforts have now shifted to the “Pegasus Thrift Store”, located at 970 ½ Kingston Road. The store is an interesting project because not only does it provide meaningful funding for Pegasus, it also offers functional training and work opportunities for many of the participants in the Pegasus program.
Until 2000 Marie ran the program out of her house and recalls that acquainting herself with the necessary computer skills initially presented a challenge. In the beginning, when her daughter was only 4 years old, Marie had trained her to take telephone messages. So one day a call from the Association of Community Living came in and Cristina politely asked the caller to spell out the name of the association. When Marie had a look at the message Cristina took, she saw a big observe, all scribbled out across the whole sheet of paper in a 4 year old’s handwriting, but with a perfectly proper spelling of the organization’s long name.
Today, the Pegasus Community project receives meaningful funding from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social sets, and a program fee has been implemented. Marie indicated that the government sustain has been tremendously helpful in light of the enormous financial and psychological strain on families with a person who is experiencing from developmental handicaps, which include such disabilities as Down’s Syndrome, autism, certain situations of cerebral palsy and others. Marie additional that many situations of developmental handicaps do not have an exact diagnosis.
The program is very staff intensive: the ratio of staff members to program participants is 1 to 2.5. Some of the participants require care to meet their physical needs. Staff also look after some medical needs, such as seizure monitoring, giving medications, and feeding by a G-tube. All of the staff members and volunteers in the program receive the required training to be able to provide proper care to the participants. Marie indicates that today virtually all of her staff members have two or more years of post-secondary education and many have university degrees and related experience.
The Pegasus Community Program today has 38 participants located in three community centres. Two types of programs serve the participants: the Aquarius Program offers long term sustain while the Pegasus Program is a transitional program which focuses on skills development and vocational experiences.
Marie strongly believes in a decentralized approach since it allows for greater integration into and acceptance by the community. Other facilities often house the same or an already greater number of participants in one location, but often these locations are in industrial areas, secluded from residential communities.
Marie is a strong proponent of community integration, and she feels that virtually every human being, including people with developmental disabilities, have the capability to give back to the community. The Pegasus participants volunteer at the Thrift Store, they also take on unpaid volunteer work assignments in the local community at stores such as Price Chopper and Zellers, and they volunteer to deliver a local community newspaper, the Beach Metro News.
Viewed from the perspective of a person with disabilities, community interaction and integration is absolutely basic. Every human being needs a change of scenery in addition as mental and sensory stimulation. One day when her son was not able to attend the Pegasus program, he was sitting in the kitchen, sadly staring at the door. Although he was not able to vocalize his feelings, Marie recognized very clearly that he deeply missed being able to go out and join his friends at the program. She additional that when you work with people with disabilities you get very good at paying attention to decoding non-verbal communication.
Volunteers are an absolutely basic component in Pegasus’ success. Marie refers to some of her regular volunteers who come out to work with the participants: Margaret Simmons, a retired principal, comes in regularly to provide a literacy program while Selma Smith has been teaching an arts and crafts program for five years. The projects of the “studio program” are quite complex and the artistic products are sold at the Thrift Store in addition as by local retailers in the Beach such as Arts on Queen.
Three students from the Behavioural Technology Program at George Brown College are currently completing internships with the program while six nurses from Centennial and Humber College are completing functional community nursing placements for their Bachelor of Science Degrees. A high school student named Kelly, from a community program at Inglenook High school is also currently volunteering with the program.
The Beach community has widely supported the program, and the participants regularly venture out into the community in different excursions. Today as I was there, several people arrived with shopping bags complete of groceries, and collectively the group prepared a delicious and nutritious lunch that included chicken wraps and sweet potato fries. Marie also indicated that fitness and physical activities are an important part of the program. Participants regular go to Variety Village to go swimming and play team sports such as soccer and basketball. Marie additional that there are quite a few gifted athletes in her groups.
Some of the participants have fewer sustain needs than others, and with several years of assistance and sustain they may already move on to holding paid jobs in the community. The young lady Shannon who I was talking to earlier was a good example of this and she has successfully and enthusiastically been working at the Thrift Store. Marie believes in all sorts of possibilities for her participants and the program provides job coaching for the participants who have the possible for gainful employment. Other functional skills such as learning how to take public transit are also taught in the program. Marie adds that this kind of training does take years, but it is an important investment in individuals and the community as a whole.
Currently Marie is working on organizing a fourth group which will be run out of SH Armstrong Community Centre just a bit west of the Beach neighbourhood near Coxwell. Marie firmly believes that the decentralized approach is basic for the success of her program since it provides for greater community interaction and acceptance. She adds, maybe a future successor of hers might make changes to that approach, but for now she is happy that she now has a program manager who is very familiar with the program’s philosophy. She is relieved that already if she were not around, the program would continue.
Running a registered charity comes with all sorts of challenges, including a wide range of administrative duties in addition as quarterly financial reports and budgets. Marie indicates that although Pegasus is a small organization you have to deal with the same organizational issues as in a large organization. But once you get it under your belt it becomes much more manageable.
Several merchants and organizations also sustain the Pegasus Community Project. Residents in the Beach have welcomed the program and Marie adds that Beachers are more general-minded and charitable than they are sometimes given credit for. Some people have already thanked her for bringing developmentally challenged individuals into the Beach. Just recently one individual wrote a $500 cheque to the project, and he was so happy to do so as if he had just been waiting to be asked to write that cheque. The generosity from so many people is noticeable, and Marie really appreciates all the sustain she has received.
One organization that has been particularly helpful is the Toronto Beach Rotary Club which supports Pegasus with regular fundraising initiatives. Local merchant Harold Wisefeld, also known as Zoltzz, the owner of the famous fact discount store Ends in the Beach, has been a very generous contributor to Pegasus. Another local entrepreneur, Dan MacLeod from the Price Chopper supermarket at Gerrard and Victoria Park, is extremely committed to community work.
Marie says he has opened his store’s doors to hire many people with disabilities. He will already assign regular employees to work alongside a person with a disability, to aim them and help them. One of Pegasus’ participants, a young man named AJ, works at Price Chopper three days a week and needs coaching while he is there. Dan sees to it that he receives the sustain he needs. Dan also supports many of Pegasus’ special events in addition as other organizations such as the Cancer Society and the Alzheimers Society. Very few merchants would go to these lengths to adjust to and sustain people with disabilities.
After having concluded our one-on-one interview we checked in on the Phoenix group next door which in the meantime had prepared lunch and was enjoying a good meal around the table. After a few photos I said goodbye to the group, thanked them for their time and interest and invited them to join me for my Photo Exhibition in the Beach which will be held in early March. Fortunately the location will be within walking distance and the members of the group will be able to drop by and have a look at the photos.
Marie and I then drove five minutes up to Kingston Road where Marie showed me the Pegasus Thrift Store. The store is open on most days, but it is better to call ahead to make sure that the store is staffed. The Thrift Store sells everything from used books, CDs, fabric, clothing, dishes and glassware to small electric appliances and already Barbie dolls. It provides a great opportunity for Pegasus program participants to gain functional work experience and sustain the fundraising efforts for their program. Friends and neighbours donate all the second-hand goods that are sold in the store.
For me the highlight of the store are the products that are made by the Pegasus program participants themselves. Marie demonstrated a range of hand-made products to me:
– handmade greeting cards featuring feathers and a variety of artistic techniques
– bookmarks reminiscent of beaded necklaces
– soup mixes including recipes
– various types of cookie mixes
– the most recent addition to the merchandise: a handmade tote bag made from donated fabric
In addition to her regular duties Marie works in the store virtually every Saturday and hopes to be able to find some help in organizing it soon. She additional that initially her plans were only to cover the costs of the rent and telephone, but the Pegasus Thrift Store has morphed into much more than that: a major fundraising tool in addition as a great place of learning for her program participants. Many shoppers say it’s one of the most fun places to shop at in the Beach.
I also asked Marie whether her organization has a website however and she indicated not however. But she is currently working with two volunteers to develop one.
Meeting Marie Perrotta was one of those humbling moments when you get to know someone who has conquer meaningful personal hurdles and truly dedicated her life to people in need in the community. Several awards recognize these efforts: Pegasus won the 1995 City of Toronto Access Award and the 1998 Innovation Award. Marie herself was honoured as the 2004 Beach Citizen of the Year, following the footsteps of other noticeable Beachers such as Gene Domagala (who is also a regular volunteer for Pegasus), Glenn Cochrane and Arie Nerman.
As I walked away from the store I thought the heavenly analogies of the Pegasus Project are quite fitting: to her program participants Marie must be like an angel, sent down to earth to help them reach for the stars.
For more information about the Pegasus Community Project or to make a donation please contact Marie Perrotta at 416-691-5651. To contact the store regarding shopping or dropping off donations, please call 416-913-2544.