Strength in numbers

By Aaren Madden, December 2012

Sandra Richardson believes knowing our vital signs makes us stronger.

There’s a young woman in Victoria who used to have a great fashion job in New York City. She was living the life. But then she started abusing drugs and developed a serious addiction. She ended up back in Victoria, her hometown—homeless. Eventually, with some support from her family, a counsellor and a program at the Victoria Cool Aid Society, she was able to turn things around: she started walking, then running—and now she’s in medical school. 

“True story,” assures Sandra Richardson, CEO of the Victoria Foundation. The Cool Aid program is called Every Step Counts. Now in its fourth year, it’s a running program for homeless people funded through the Victoria Foundation. “There are stories there that you could fill a book with. Some of the participants actually ran in the marathon. It gets them into better nutrition; some into better housing; some back to school; some with jobs. It’s just amazing,” she says. Stories like those give Richardson and the folks who work with her a sense of deep satisfaction.

She’d much rather tell those stories than talk about her own immense contributions to the community. She has helmed the Victoria Foundation for 11 years now, and before that was director of development and planned giving for the Victoria Hospice and Palliative Care Foundation. She has garnered numerous awards and accolades for her service to our community, and has increased the capacity of the Victoria Foundation to do its important work of providing grants for nonprofits like arts groups, environmental advocates and social agencies who collectively boost the quality of life in the region. Founded in a soup kitchen in 1936 during the darkest days of the depression, the Foundation now manages assets of more than $180 million. It raises money in any number of creative ways, often establishing endowment funds which it manages and grows. And it’s not always money that is needed; sometimes collaboration, strategic planning and insight are enough to get a community organization off and running, and the Victoria Foundation can provide that too. 

The implementation of Victoria’s Vital Signs report, which Richardson championed, has been instrumental in directing those funds and expertise to where they are most needed, thereby making the Victoria Foundation as effective as possible. The seventh edition came out in October, and it measures the overall health of the region based on several indicators—a few being economy, transportation, even sense of belonging. Most are agreed upon by the 20 other community foundations across the country who issue the report simultaneously, allowing for some comparison. “The whole goal was to teach yourself more about your community and to make your philanthropy far more effective by basing it on something people are telling you, and also to use it as a change in process. It could change policy. It’s a real leadership piece for us,” Richardson explains.

To that end, the report also uses a grading system that is based on perception, which can present some compelling questions. Take our increase in greenhouse gas emissions. As NDP MLA and environment critic Rob Fleming mentioned last month in these pages, this year’s Vital Signs shows that between 2007 and 2010, our region’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by a troubling 18 percent. However, 29.7 percent of the 900 people surveyed chose air quality as one of our best strengths. Certainly we are blessed with lovely fresh air, but perhaps we need to question whether it has made us complacent.

Richardson agrees, “I think [air quality] is something we can’t take for granted… It would be nice to challenge people on simple things we could do. For instance, folks who line up to drive across the Johnson Street Bridge: when the bridge is up, turn your engine off!” That’s just off the top of her head. She presents an array of initiatives the Foundation is already using to address GHGs, like funding for “more cycle racks, bike garages; looking at ways to have community groups refurbish bicycles and donate them to low-income places,” to begin with. The Victoria Foundation is collaborating with the CRD climate action program, she says, and has begun consultations on citizen engagement on the GHG issue. Though it’s early days and uncertain, she is hopeful of funding for some neighbourhood-based pilot projects.

The findings that concern Richardson the most, though, are those around cost-of-living, especially in relation to “the pressure on young parents.” She notes: “You’ve got daycare costs going up, and for them, every little increment is a big hike. Add on to that the challenge of finding a daycare space…” 

Vital Signs indicates that there were 5815 childcare spaces in Greater Victoria as of January 2012, up 307 from last year—and there’s more to come. Great, right? Well, there are 19,000 children aged 5 and under in the region. While it’s a step in the right direction and not all kids require childcare space, there are still nowhere near enough, reflected in the C- grade from survey results. Pairing facts with perception here shows how much more needs to be done.

Getting kids active was also a big one for Richardson, so she was thrilled to see the results of a program implemented to address concerns about childhood obesity revealed in last year’s Vital Signs, and to meet Governor General David Johnson’s challenge to become a “smart and caring community.” An eponymous fund was established and used to start an innovative physical literacy program for kids age 3 to 12 at the Cridge Centre for the Family, run by the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence. “It didn’t take very long to see that the children at all levels were just so keen to take part in this. And [adults] started to report back that the kids were calmer in class, a little bit nicer to each other, and nutrition has become part of it,” she says. Now funding is in place to bring the program to Craigflower School, too.

“I like to start at the preventative end, and carry that through,” Richardson explains. “Even with our homeless populations, a significant portion of which are youth—what could we be doing? It could be helping young parents at this stage so those children have more of a chance, rather than waiting until they have arrived in something you are trying to undo.” For example, the Coalition to End Homelessness identified the need for a Rent Supplement Program, in which folks who just need a spot of help to cover the rent or utilities don’t end up losing their homes due to a temporary rough patch (illness, say, or an unforeseen expense). The Victoria Foundation offered a challenge grant through a donor and made it happen. 

Richardson, while deeply gratified by the success stories she gets to hear, would always love to do more. “We never have enough money to give out and we never will, but you can sure make a difference with what you’ve got,” she has learned. Knowing the region’s vital signs is essential to that—as any medical student will tell you.

Aaren Madden is keen to find out what Victoria’s Youth Vital Signs, to be released November 21, will tell us about how youth feel and fare in our region.