10/15/2014 06:00 EDT | Updated 12/15/2014 05:59 EST

West Haven community centre in NDG rallying to keep doors open

The staff of the West Haven-Elmhurst community centre in NDG are working for free, now that the centre has spent its operating budget.

The decades-old centre is funded by the Côte-des-Neiges Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough and is run by the community. Its operating budget - $75,000 - was already spent, nine months into the year.

West Haven provides evening activities for teenagers and an after-school program for about 30 children every day. Parents, particularly single parents, rely on the programs for their kids.

“West Haven basically is family for me,” said Kelly de Pooter, a single mother with a son in the after-school program. “To lose that family now would be really traumatic actually, for both of us.”

West Haven charges a nominal fee of $35 for childcare from September until December, making it an affordable option for parents who need it. But de Pooter says that’s not the only reason she takes her son. She describes him as “hyperactive” and said the after-school program at his school couldn’t handle him. When she found West Haven, the atmosphere clicked instantly with her son.

She says the staff - particularly the male role models - have made a real difference in his life. She says without West Haven, she would probably have leave her full-time job and work part-time in order to make sure her son had after-school care.

“It would be a part of our life we would be missing. I don't think it could be replaced by anywhere else.”

Financial troubles

Before the school year started, the borough suggested the centre not re-open until its financial issues were resolved.

The board at West Haven says it considered a temporary shutdown, but could not do it, citing the stress it would cause to the parents of the children who depend on the after-school care.

Roxanne Brown, chair of the board, said the board is new and inexperienced.  She said the money was spent on the kids, but the budget was quickly blown. Brown said the summer coordinator extended the summer day camp by two weeks, adding to pre-existing financial stress. That, plus a debt owed to Revenue Canada and Revenu Québec, meant the end of their cashflow.

Brown said they’ve fired their accountant because the accountant wasn’t keeping the board aware of its financial standing. She said the money owed to government was an unpleasant surprise. Since then, they’ve found a bookkeeper to monitor the budget.

Brown said the board recognizes its mistakes, and is working to fix them.

“I think that fear of that possibility of losing the centre... it's a big fear.”

Staff working for free

Dawson student Hassani Johnson keeps working at the centre even though it's no longer able to help him pay for books or school. 

“The centre is such an important thing to the community that the kids they need this more than I need how much money West Haven owes me,” said Johnson.  

“At the end of the day, the centre means way more to the community than my paycheques mean to me. It's a great feeling just being here.”

Brown is aware that this arrangement will not work in the long-term. Board members and volunteers are becoming exhausted from doing so much extra work. She’s hoping for more volunteers in the meantime.

“Being able to ask for help ... and showing that I am vulnerable right now and I do need you right now,” she said.  “That has made all the difference."

Brown said they will reassess their situation in January, but they’re determined not to close.

In the meantime, West Haven is asking for donations.