The Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa is preparing to build a bigger, better clubhouse for kids in a neighbourhood that's been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At $5 million, the new facility, to be built at a former public works yard on Heatherington Road, is the single most expensive item on a $20-million list of infrastructure projects the City of Ottawa intends to complete by the end next year.
Christmas is coming early this year, to get this. - Coun. Diane Deans
City council approved that projects, which will be funded entirely by upper levels of government, at a special meeting Friday.
"Christmas is coming early this year, to get this," said Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, who fought to prevent the city from selling the land as surplus back in 2014.
"This clubhouse will be transformational. It will change the lives of many low-income kids in the south end of the city."
Current clubhouse inadequate
The CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa said it will replace the existing clubhouse, which has no gym or kitchen, just a large multi-purpose room.
That current setup makes physical distancing difficult at a time when kids in the area could use the extra support outside the home. Their neighbourhood faces some of the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in the city.
"Right now, with the way we're functioning with COVID and the barriers that come with that, we're seeing maybe five to 10 kids a night," said the Boys and Girls Club's Adam Joiner.
With kids split into time slots and smaller groups, Nasayba Abdalrhan gets far less time at the place she considers a second home. The 18-year-old, whose real home is a one-minute walk away, said before the pandemic she would spend most of her time outside school at the Boys and Girls Club.
For Abdalrhan, it's more than a place to escape boredom with movie nights. If not for the free programs there, she doesn't think she would have had the confidence to join her school soccer team, where she earned most valuable player.
"Being there made me more of an open person, able to talk to and learn to communicate with different kinds of people," she reflected. "The Boys and Girls Club has taught me that no matter where you're from, you're going to be treated the same."
Abdalrhan said children in the neighbourhood have already painted murals that hang at the site where the new clubhouse will be built, at 1770 Heatherington Rd. She hopes its new location will draw even more kids from nearby communities.
Funding rules stipulate the new clubhouse, which will be five times larger than the current one, must be completed by the end of 2021.
To make that tight deadline, builders will use wall panels that can be put together like Lego bricks, said restaurateur Steve Beckta, who belonged to the Boys and Girls Club as a child and now chairs the board.
The goal is to "pandemic proof" the building to make it safe for kids during future outbreaks. That means building isolation rooms, single-stall washrooms and separate ventilation systems, Beckta said. While the government funding will cover construction, the Boys and Girls Club will pay to operate the new clubhouse.
"When kids show up to a brand new facility, the value they feel ... that they are someone special, that the community has built something for them, it changes their complete outlook on life," said Beckta.