‘Still needed’: York Region youth charity closes due to funding

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The region halted guaranteed annual funding for Character Community, which has operated for 21 years and provides free programming in schools

Character Community York Region’s executive director, Susanne Cappuccitti, said it’s hard to say goodbye as the organization prepares to close.

She still has a card provided by Maple Leaf Public School in Newmarket in June, one of several schools where the charity has run character-building programs. It is filled with messages from children and teachers expressing their appreciation, with one pupil writing: “Thank you so much for creating something so fun. I’m so sorry and sad that this has to end.”

“We didn’t want to leave,” Cappuccitti said. “We want the kids to know that we’ve done everything we can to keep it going and that we’re sorry we weren’t there for them.”

Character Community York Region has announced that it will be closing on June 30, after 21 years of operation. The organization offers free character building programs for children and youth, usually in schools in partnership with schools. It estimates that it has hosted programs for 130,000 children in its lifetime, with more than 100 students lining up for programs in the fall.

The organization said it could not continue “without the support of some level of core funding”. This funding was previously provided by York Region at approximately $100,000 per year, but the region has discontinued it.

The pandemic has also been a challenge for many in the nonprofit sector, Cappuccitti said, with the cancellation of events hampering operations and fundraising.

“We were in a strong financial position coming out of COVID. We had just resumed our studies. But we haven’t done any events for two years,” she said. “We are a small organization. We don’t have a large donor base.

York Region did not respond to a request for comment by the publication deadline.

The concept that York Region could become a Character Community originated at an international Quest for Character Symposium held in April 2001 by the York Region District School Board. There, the mayor of Markham, Don Cousens, has agreed to host a forum on building characterful towns. That same year, York Regional Council formed a committee to develop a character community proposal for York Region.

The enthusiastic support of a wide range of municipalities, businesses, educators, community organizations and area residents convinced the committee that a region-wide character initiative would be welcome. On January 24, 2002, the regional council approved a resolution declaring York Region a community of character – the first regional municipality to do so in Canada.

A month later, the official launch of the York Region Character Community initiative took place with the unveiling of a logo, mission statement, vision statement and website. Within months, the original 11 attributes were decided upon and retired NHL hockey player Wendel Clark agreed to be the character’s champion.

In 2007, Character Community York Region was granted charitable status as the first registered charity in Canada.

Cappuccitti said the organization could have achieved greater financial independence over time, with 66% of its income now coming from independent donors.

Core funding covered the salaries of the organization’s two employees. She said it was a lean operation, but it was achieving its goals and making a difference by providing programs to more than 500 children a year.

“There are a lot of agencies with much larger budgets delivering much less,” she said.

As the agency draws to a close, Cappucitti said she feels they have made huge strides at many schools in its lifetime. Their initiatives included an outdoor hockey program to build character through play and a community podcast program highlighting the voices of young people sharing their experiences.

“I can’t tell you how many teachers have come to us and said we’ve actually changed the whole school culture,” she said. “Children want these positive values, and they want these positive attributes. We know we were still needed.

This is reflected in the Maple Leaf Public School map.

“Thank you so much for your continued support,” read a message in the center of the card. “We are so sad to hear about Character Community and we will miss you all.”

Cappucciti said she has remained loyal to the organization as a passionate volunteer. She said that having had a difficult childhood herself, she wanted to be in school to help children who just needed extra support.

“When you give respect, you get respect. When you give compassion, you get compassion. Kids are smart and they learn those lessons pretty quickly,” she said. “We hope that the work we have done will continue, that we will be remembered and that this character will not be forgotten.”

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