A Hand Up in the Community, for 100 Years and Counting
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A Hand Up in the Community, for 100 Years and Counting

Beloved community organizer Charlotte Maher was honoured with an award at St. Christopher House's 100th anniversary.

Charlotte Maher (far left) is honoured with the inaugural Sir James Woods award for community development.

The year of 1912 was a tough one for Toronto. Its residents struggled through what remained of the coldest winter ever recorded here, and residents rejected rapid transit by voting down the first proposal for the Yonge subway line. That same year, James Woods (later Sir James Woods) started a tradition that has endured as long as our transit woes (and maybe longer than our cold weather) when he got together with the Presbyterian Church and founded the St. Christopher House settlement agency.

Woods was already a successful entrepreneur at that time, and he is said to have coined the saying that people “need a hand up, not a hand out.”

Last night, as St. Christopher House celebrated one hundred years of community service, outreach, and advocacy, Woods’s great-granddaughter, Susan Woods, was on hand to present the inaugural Sir James Woods Award for Community Development. Susan told us that upon entering the building at Ossington Avenue and Dundas Street—one of seven St. Christopher House locations—she noticed a photograph of her father from the organization’s 50th anniversary dinner. “So it’s really nostalgic for me to be here on the hundredth anniversary,” she said.

Susan Woods served on the board in the 80s, and oversaw the organization’s relocation from 761 Queen Street (now home to a number of non-profit groups) to a site at Bathurst and Queen that it still operates out of today. She described her understanding of community development as, “working with what you’ve got and who you’ve got to improve the lots of all kinds of people.” She added that her great-grandfather “would be pretty proud of us,” if he could see how the organization has thrived.

St. Christopher House has evolved into a multi-service community network. It serves everyone from Roma youths to seniors who are no longer able to leave their homes. Program director Lidia Monaco shared memories of users who experienced great personal growth during their involvement with St. Christopher House, including a woman who became a board member after joining a support group. Connections to people with similar challenges “are the main piece of it,” Monaco told us, “the feeling that you’re not alone.”

The guest of honour at the celebration was undoubtedly Charlotte Maher, who received the inaugural community development award. Maher, who Woods described as being “well into her 80s,” is a former school trustee who headed, developed, and oversaw literally dozens of local community agencies including SPRINT (Senior Peoples Resources in North Toronto), the Central Eglinton Community Centre, and the Upper Yonge Village Day Care. Maher also has a park named after her, near Eglinton and Bayview Avenues.

Maher described herself as “delighted” to receive an award named after the St. Christopher House founder. She credited agencies like Central Neighbourhood House (which celebrated its centennial last year) and many lesser known initiatives for their ability to build trust with poor and marginalized people throughout Toronto. “I think the key thing about this kind of agency and program is the nature of the staff and the way they work,” she said. “Rather than a [specific] thing, it’s a way of doing things that’s very important.”

Photo by Gokche Erkan.