By Anne Boys-Hope –
You could call it the field of dreams. The land at the corner of Dovercourt and Roosevelt Avenues was once a swamp that was transformed into a park and became the site of a small community centre and finally, a recreation centre called Dovercourt. Today, it’s a thriving community hub where kids learn to swim, seniors take yoga, puppies get socialized, people fall in love, and just about anything else you dream up can happen.
John Rapp, Dovercourt’s Executive Director, says it’s all thanks to the visionary volunteers of the Dovercourt Recreation Association. Thirty years ago, they convinced the City of Ottawa to build a recreation centre to serve the needs of the growing community.
“What’s that saying by Margaret Mead?” asks John. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
That’s how Dovercourt happened.
Lorne Tosh was treasurer of the Dovercourt Recreation Association at the time: “We lobbied the City for many years for a new centre. The old centre was in pretty poor condition.”
It was a small facility, with one main room and a kitchen. No indoor pool, jokes Lorne, unless you count the pool of water that flooded the basement every Spring.
Lorne clearly remembers the day the City announced that it would build the new centre – in fact, he was at the meeting. “The City asked us [the Dovercourt Recreation Association] to manage it. I was quite surprised!”
This innovative partnership meant less government funding, but more autonomy to deliver programs that would meet and quickly adapt to the needs of the community.
Dovercourt now operates as a registered charity and social enterprise. “It’s a true social enterprise in that everything we do has a true social and community development purpose,” explains John.
When Dovercourt opened its doors in 1987, it employed three people. Today, the centre has a staff of 32 full-time and 210 part-time employees, plus 260 volunteers. They offer a wide choice of programs and services (from Tai Chi lessons to child care) to 20,000 clients and 400,000 visitors every year.
In 2015, they expanded the original building, and in 2018 they are doubling their space with a 2000 square foot multi-purpose hall. They also manage the McKellar Field House, Van Lang Field House, three wading pools, and are partners in the Bluesfest School of Music and Art.
Dovercourt has grown, but it hasn’t strayed from its original vision to serve as a community hub.
“That manifested itself in things like the 1998 ice storm—the whole community knew they could just go to Dovercourt,” says John. For ten days, more than 70 people lived at the centre, with as many as 200 people getting a meal.
With all this change, what surprises John the most is what hasn’t changed in the past 30 years.
“It’s kind of a constant. Every day at Dovercourt, no matter what you’re doing, there is an opportunity to change somebody’s day by saying yes and surprising them, or going that extra mile.”
“Some of what we do is earth-shaking, like teaching a child to swim so you know they won’t drown. Or you could just be the only person that was kind to that child all day,” says John. “Every person who works here gets the opportunity to do little things that make a big difference. And it does make a big difference.”
1. The Dovercourt building was designed by a Westboro resident
Barry Hobin, who grew up on Roosevelt Avenue and studied architecture at Carleton University, designed Dovercourt Recreation Centre with Richard Limmert. After it opened in 1987, the $3.3 million, fully accessible building was awarded the Amethyst Award for Accessibility by the Province of Ontario. Hobin is designing a new addition to the centre to be completed in 2018.
2. It’s a social enterprise
Most community centres are managed by the City of Ottawa. Not Dovercourt. The not-for-profit centre is leased from the City, but managed by community members on a Board of Directors. As such, Dovercourt does not rely on city funding, with over 90% of its operating budget coming from revenues it generates through fees, government grants and fundraising. Currently, Dovercourt generates $5 million in revenue annually that is invested back into the community.
3. It boasts the largest summer camps in Ottawa
Children come from across Ottawa to attend Dovercourt’s summer camps. “It’s a pretty big operation when you come down to it. We had 60 kids the first year that I was here ; last summer we had almost 1000 kids per day at peak,” says John. At least 200 of those campers have special needs, and are paired with a “camp buddy” trained by Dovercourt.
4. The Doverkids are alright
Not to be confused with the fuzzy mascot Dovercat, “Doverkids” are kids who grow up at Dovercourt: it’s where they take their first swim lessons, train in life saving or leadership skills, and then get their first job as a lifeguard or camp counsellor. John says this was part of Dovercourt’s early vision: “We wanted a place where people can grow up and eventually work.” That’s come true: about 85% of Dovercourt staff are Doverkids.
5. The answer to “are you accessible?” is always “Yes!”
Dovercourt’s building is fully accessible to children and adults with disabilities, and if more support is needed to participate fully, staff will always find a way. “Saying yes,” says John. “That’s the way the world is supposed to be.”
We asked readers to send in their Dovercourt memories. Here are a few of our favourites:
“For almost a year, my three-year-old’s favourite activity was “date night.” My son hated being left with babysitters. What an awesome gift date night was for parents who barely got a night out until then. This was probably one of the things that we have been most thankful for. We have also been doing swim lessons at Dovercourt for a couple of years now. My son used to be afraid of starting each new session, and afraid of having a new instructor. Now he looks forward to the change because he has never come across a swim instructor he hasn’t liked at Dovercourt, and swimming has always been such a positive experience there! Thank you for being there Dovercourt!” – Sandi Beth
“For about 20 years now, Mothercraft Ottawa’s Alternative Kindergarten Program has been taking swimming lessons twice a year at Dovercourt. It has and continues to be a highlight of our program. These lessons build on so many important life skills for the children. Not only do they work on physical skills such as stamina, co-ordination and body control, but they also work on listening skills, following directions and perseverance. Over the years, the staff and instructors have been professional and make sure that the children have fun while they learn. Friday mornings are always such a joy when we have swim class and ending in the hot tub doesn’t hurt. :) ” – Janet Libbey, Director of Children’s Programs, Mothercraft
“I used to volunteer tutoring a boy in reading at Dovercourt. I’d pick him up from the after-school program there and we’d sit upstairs and read a chapter of his book while watching the goings-on. Sometimes we’d treat ourselves to candy from the canteen. When I was a student at Broadview, every day my group of friends would walk to Dovercourt and eat lunch before hanging out in the park, rather than staying at boring old school for lunch.”
– Ian Kemp
The first kids who tried out the “new” playground when it opened in August 2006:
“Dovercourt has been a big part of our family’s life for the past twenty-five years. It’s where our two children learned to swim and one of their favourite instructors way back when was a teenager named Christine Pelletier, who is now manager of aquatics programs for the centre. They also gained valuable life skills through their time at Westboro Nursery School, thanks to the incomparable Lavonne and Wendy. Their first summer camp experiences were at Dovercourt, starting with half days and working their way up through to the LIT program. Little did we imagine when they first dangled their tiny toes in the pool that they would both end up being camp directors at Dovercourt one day. Making more time for fitness was a high priority project for me when our younger child flew the coop, and naturally I looked to Dovercourt. I love to describe my Pilates and stretching classes with Charles as being addictive, and my attendance record (having barely missed a class in almost five years) speaks to how enjoyable the sessions are. I cannot imagine not having Dovercourt in our community, especially the people there who are truly the heart and soul of the place.” -Paula Roy
Do you have a Dovercourt memory to share? Leave it in the comments below or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.