A small semi-detached house tucked away in the midst of Toronto’s Riverdale and Leslieville neighbourhoods at first appears as nothing more than a mere home in a residential area. Aside from the small front-lawn space peppered with colourful wildflowers and shrubbery, the house itself is a little rundown in appearance; porch roof shingles slightly awry, nearby grass overgrown and weeds snaking through cracks in the pathway to the door. If not for the sign hanging from the porch, one might pass the home completely without much thought at all.
The sign reads “Blake Boultbee Youth Outreach Service” and, as you might imagine, this small home is much, much more than just a residential building with a few out-of-shape shingles.
Blake Boultbee Youth Outreach Service (BBYOS) is a house at 41 Blake Street that provides comprehensive community-based social service, intensive long-term psychotherapy counselling and life skills training for at-risk and vulnerable clientele. And they provide all of this for free.
It all started 29 years ago from a park bench where one man gave therapy sessions to anyone who needed them in the very same community.
Rod Cohen, executive director as well as co-founder and lead psychotherapist at BBYOS, told Global News he started the agency after working on Toronto streets himself.
“I started the agency in 1989 after spending five years working on the streets of Toronto and doing research on working with disenfranchised, alienated, high-risk youth,” he said.
“The outcome of that was the necessity to work directly in the community. It’s right in the heart of the community of at-risk clientele – families, kids – so that was the germ, the origin, of BBYOS.”
Cohen said from his park bench office he moved to a free office space provided by the manager of the housing project on Blake Street. After a year, the agency moved into an empty store-front space (he described it as “kind of a dilapidated bird-house of a store-front”) for five years. Acquiring the home where they are now was sort of an unusual series of events.
“After five years in [the store-front], we needed more, we needed bigger. There was this house on the street where a woman had lived for many years, upwards of maybe 30 or 40 years,” he said.
Cohen said she died in the house, which was then sold by the bank and subsequently rented out by the new owners.
“They rented it out to some really untoward and not the healthiest of individuals … it was an awful presence in the neighbourhood,” he said.
“So, watching the neighbourhood be so ill-affected by this, I went to the people that owned [it] – I found out who owned the house – and convinced them that it would be a really good idea for them and the community to sell the house to me for a real fair price.”
BBYOS was able to buy the house and transform it into what it is today. The biggest perk for Cohen and his BBYOS team? They can do their work directly in the community.
“So when you say why did I end up in this particular house … It had a great deal to do with not leaving the community. You know we could have gone and got a simple office or moved somewhere and got a different house,” he said.
“But the location of [this house] being just literally planted right here in the community is what makes it so especially ideal.”
Another unique aspect of BBYOS and Cohen himself is that there is no cap off on the help received.
“The key piece for us is once you start working with us, you are always a client,” he said.
“The average kid that is in care or systemically involved with caretakers outside of family could have, on average, upwards of 25 interveners or counselors by the age of 21. And so what if you could be the last one? What if you could be the last place that people have to go to?”
Offering their services for free hasn’t been easy though. Cohen said he raises the money to run the agency entirely on his own.
“We come in and we see between four and eight clients a day, then I spend the rest of the time doing admin work, supervising and hunting down money,” he said.
“Because I don’t get one cent from the government, I don’t get one penny from United Way. Every penny we get is from hustling for private foundations, corporations and individuals that care, and it’s really, really hard to do. It’s always been.”
That’s exactly why this weekend means so much to Cohen and his team. After 22 years with open doors (and open hearts), BBYOS is getting a make-over – all thanks to some remarkable community volunteers.
Gillian Irving, one volunteer member among a group of five women (Amy Halpenny, Anke Simpson, Tamara Stevenson-Grant, and Rahat Pye) who are spearheading the project, heard of BBYOS at Christmas when another volunteer initiative left them with leftovers.
“We heard about Boultbee around Christmas time when we were working on baskets for another volunteer project, the Riverdale Basket Brigade,” she said.
The Riverdale Basket Brigade is a community charity that aims to feed 50 to 100 families in need in Toronto at Christmas time. Irving said they had more donations than expected last Christmas, leaving them with leftover baskets. She said Pye, who is also a board member of BBYOS, suggested the team of volunteers bring them to Blake Street.
“None of us had ever heard of Boultbee. We were like ‘what’s that?’ … And it’s this amazing house on Blake Street where they offer free services for the community right in our backyards,” said Irving.
She said she and her team of volunteers were moved by what Cohen was doing at 41 Blake Street. They knew they had to do something to bring awareness to the unique space helping so many in the community.
“Rod doesn’t need a fancy space to do his work, he can do his work anywhere. I mean he started out on a park bench,” she said.
“But we thought this renovation could shed some light on the incredible work he’s doing.”
So Irving and her team started the “In Our Backyard Revitalization Project,” asking for donations and volunteers to turn a shabby house on Blake Street into a freshly painted, renovated space for all who use the services it provides.
“Literally every square inch of this place is being renovated,” she said.
“I’m so surprised at the turnout. Over 50 people have come in and out of the house this weekend to volunteer, slap some paint on the walls, whatever. It’s funny because they’re all saying ‘thank you for letting me be a part of this,’ ‘thank you for having me.’ It’s just really wonderful.”
Cohen said since funding can be a difficult area, what Irving and her team are doing is especially meaningful.
“I’m just like a tiny little amoeba so it’s all about creating relationships which is the essence of this beautiful thing that’s happened with Gillian and her team,” he said.
“She’s incredible. What a dynamic community organizer and motivator and mover of people. The team that she’s got together, the people involved with her, are so passionate. She just says let’s do this and they go ‘when?’ It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”
And so from a park bench to a little house on Blake Street, BBYOS can continue to provide free services to the community, but now with a little extra shine.
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