'Still needed': York Region youth charity closes due to funding
Region discontinued guaranteed annual funding for Character Community, which has ran for 21 years providing free programming in schools
July 4, 2022
Character Community York Region executive director Susanne Cappuccitti said it is difficult to say farewell as the organization prepares to close.
She still has a card provided from Newmarket’s Maple Leaf Public School in June, one of several schools in which the charity ran character-building programs. It is filled with messages from children and teachers expressing appreciation, with one student writing, "Thank you so much for creating something so fun. I’m so sorry and sad it has to end.”
“We didn’t want to leave,” Cappuccitti said. “We want the kids to know that we did all that we could to keep going and that we’re sorry we’re not going to be there for them.”
Character Community York Region announced it would be closing June 30, after 21 years in operation. The organization provides free character-building programs for children and youth, usually in schools in partnership with the schools. It estimates it has run programming for 130,000 children over its existence, with more than 100 students lined up for programs in the fall.
The organization said it could not carry forward “without the support of some level of core funding.” That funding was previously provided by York Region at approximately $100,000 annually, but the region discontinued it.
The pandemic has also been challenging for many in the non-profit sector, Cappuccitti said, with event cancellation hampering operations and fundraising.
“We were in a strong financial position coming out of COVID. We were just starting back in schools. But we haven’t done any events in two years,” she said. “We’re a small organization. We don’t have a large donor base.”
York Region did not respond to a request for comment before the publication deadline.
The concept that York Region could become a Character Community was born at an international Quest for Character Symposium hosted in April 2001 by the York Region District School Board. There, Markham mayor Don Cousens agreed to host a forum about building cities of character. That same year, York regional council formed a committee to develop a proposal for a Character Community York Region.
Enthusiastic support from a wide spectrum of area municipalities, businesses, educators, community organizations and residents convinced the committee that a region-wide character initiative would be welcome. On Jan. 24, 2002, regional council approved a resolution declaring York Region to be a Character Community --- the first regional municipality to do so in Canada.
One 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 a few months, the original 11 attributes were decided upon, and retired NHL hockey player Wendel Clark agreed to be the Character Champion.
In 2007, the Character Community York Region initiative was granted charitable status as the first registered Character Community charity in Canada.
Cappuccitti said the organization could have reached more financial independence given time, with 66 per cent of its revenues now coming from independent donors.
The core funding covered the salaries of the organization’s two staff. She said it was a lean operation, but it was achieving its goals and making a difference by delivering programming to more than 500 kids a year.
“There’s a lot of agencies with far bigger budgets that deliver to far less,” she said.
As the agency comes to a close, Cappucitti said she feels they made tremendous progress in many schools over its existence. Their initiatives included an outdoor hockey program to build character through play and a community podcasting program highlighting youth voices sharing their experiences.
“I can’t tell you how many teachers have come to us and said we’ve actually changed the entire school culture,” she said. “Kids want those positive values, and they want those positive attributes. We know we were still needed.”
That is reflected in the card from Maple Leaf Public School.
“Thank you so much for your constant support,” a message in the centre of the card said. “We’re so sad to hear about Character Community and will miss you all.”
Cappucciti said she stuck with the organization as an avid volunteer. She said having had a challenging youth herself, she wanted to be in school helping kids who just need some added 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’ve done will continue, and we’ll be remembered, and that character won’t be forgotten.”