In a freshly hosed-down alley at a health fair behind the Carnegie Community Centre last month, a man gleefully threw Velcro-clad tennis balls at a target. Another zoomed around on a flexible three-wheeled scooter, while other people handled flower sticks, balancing, tossing and catching a big rod on two smaller sticks.
The participants, mostly First Nations, are leaders with Red Fox, a recreation and employment training program for aboriginal youth and adults, inner city residents and people with disabilities.
The residential school system tore apart aboriginal families for several generations, said Emma Sutherland, Red Fox coordinator, and few aboriginal people have much experience in simply playing. "There's a whole field of study about the benefits of play and the importance of play to health, emotional health, mental health and physical health," she added.
Driving a two-door Toyota Echo that resembles a clown car stuffed with scooters, stilts, pogo sticks, skipping ropes, hula hoops, badminton and juggling paraphernalia, Sutherland has taken Red Fox to schools, parks, non-profit agencies and community centres where she and Red Fox trainers and leaders offer participants a range of fun activities suitable for a small space.
Participants in the programs sometimes need to be coaxed into play, but soon jump in, including at Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House, where mothers at aboriginal family nights initially hung back.
"Now when we go to the Cedar Cottage aboriginal family night, the women don't even let me drive up," Sutherland said. "They're like, where's our stuff?"
Sutherland has been told drug users on Hastings Street delay using so they can participate in Red Fox.
This past summer, she saw an anti-social young girl blossom at weekly play sessions at MacLean Park. At first, the girl tried to put the equipment away. Once she became enthralled with a scooter, she learned to share with other kids. By the end of the summer, she taught others how to use it.
Red Fox trainers act as role models to youth and adult leaders, who receive honoraria for their work. The leaders include Downtown Eastside drug or alcohol users, recovering addicts, adults and youth with disabilities including mental illness and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, aboriginal people and new immigrants.
They go on recreational outings of their choice, including hiking, bowling, pedal boating, riding tandem bikes, racing through corn mazes and laser tag to learn new ways to be active and increase their feeling of being part of a team. They learn nutrition, aboriginal culture and self-defence. Sutherland says 15 individuals have received certificates for their training and another 60 people received comparable training since January 2007.
She hopes the leaders will eventually run the program. The park board asked Sutherland, who has 20 years of experience working in recreation and advocacy in the inner city, to create Red Fox, which has survived from grant to grant since 2006 and runs in partnership with Vancouver Native Health Society, Strathcona Community Centre and the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre.
But the grants, so readily available in the lead up to the Olympics, have dried up. The largest grant Red Fox received was for $35,000 but more recently they've been in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.
Sutherland has written four grant proposals in the past five weeks for the award-winning program and is helping bring the SportFit program, which encourages kids to explore being active, to 11 inner city elementary schools.