Low-key approach to virtues training pays big dividends

12 June 2006

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA, Canada — When city health officials make their morning rounds to pick up used syringes, the neighborhood of Lord Selkirk Park in Winnipeg's north end is often their first stop.

It's a measure of the problems afflicting the district, which has the lowest per capita income, the lowest level of education, and the highest percentage of single parent families among all neighborhoods in this central Canadian city.

A ray of hope shines here every Sunday morning during the school year, however, when dozens of children from the area stream into the Turtle Island Neighborhood Center for breakfast, crafts, friendship, and a chance to bring out the virtues in each other.

Begun as a volunteer service by Winnipeg Baha'is in 2001, the Family Virtues Breakfast this year attracted as many as 80 children and parents each week. It has become "a Sunday morning tradition," according to Nicole Richard, a mother who has been coming with her four children for about two years.

While many families were initially drawn by the prospect of free food -- the menu usually features pancakes, French toast, hash browns, ham or sausage, and juice -- the program's continuing attraction has become its emphasis on helping children build positive moral capacities.

The virtues component of the program comes without any lecturing or structured lessons. Rather, project volunteers take an interactive approach to teaching virtues, involving crafts, drawing, and reading, and games like skipping and tag.

During such activities, project volunteers strive to foster virtuous behavior by modeling it themselves.

They also seek to provide positive reinforcement when the children behave well. On the ready are specially marked cards that identify virtues like courtesy, joyfulness, or truthfulness. When a child displays such a virtue, they are handed a card.

"Mostly our goal is for children and adults to experience the virtues," said Stephanie Bloodworth, a long-standing Baha'i volunteer with the program. "We want it to be interactive."

Those who have watched the program from the outside agree that the project's low-key approach has been effective.

"I know that it is hard for any organization to put together a program that attracts families as a unit," said Shon Haynes, who was program coordinator at the Turtle Island center until April. "I understand they get 70 to 80 families coming to the breakfast program, which kind of blows my mind. It is so hard to get families to do anything together."

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Some of the children and parents who attend the Family Virtues Breakfast posed recently in the gym of the community center where the program takes place.

Mr. Haynes added that the idea of modeling virtues, instead of lecturing about them, has been an important innovation. "One of the reasons why workshops or community meetings have failed in that area is because you have an individual coming and standing up in front of the room and saying 'This is how things should be done.' But they don't do that and for that reason it is effective, and appreciated by the community."

Other social service groups have begun to enquire about the project's approach. The project has also started to receive outside funding and donations. In 2003, for example, the Winnipeg Foundation donated C$3,000 for food, craft supplies, and equipment.

The Winnipeg Harvest food bank also gives weekly donations of food stuffs when they are available. This year, as well, the project received C$1,684 for crafts from the North End Community Renewal Corporation.

Organizers said the project's innovative approach has evolved through a process of action and reflection -- and a dose of Baha'i consultation.

"At the end of every morning, we sit down with all the volunteers and debrief," said Sheila Pinkerton, a volunteer since 2001, who is also the liaison with the local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Winnipeg, which oversees the project.

"We ask each other: what is needed, how can we respond better, and how can we do it differently," said Ms. Pinkerton. "So it is an on-going process of evaluation and adjustment."

Currently, about 12 Baha'is -- and up to half-dozen non-Baha'is -- form the core group that volunteers every Sunday during the school year, when the project is active, said Ms. Pinkerton.

The project began, however, as an individual initiative, started by two Baha'is. The two, who have since moved on to other activities, went to Turtle Island in the summer of 2001, offering to provide whatever services they could offer.

The pair met with local parents and the Turtle Island board, who agreed that the most useful service they could provide was a program for the children. Built in the 1980s, with meeting rooms, a small library, and a gymnasium, the Turtle Island center sits in the middle of a subsidized housing development.

The breakfast was launched, and the pair enlisted the help of other Baha'is in the community, including Ms. Bloodworth and Ms. Pinkerton. The early breakfasts were preceded by a brief group discussion of a particular virtue, and toys were brought in to occupy the children for the remainder of the morning.

About 20 kids came each week during that first year. The local Baha'i community defrayed most of the costs associated with the program, and some of the food that the local food bank was providing to the center was diverted to the breakfast.

That first year was difficult. The children largely ignored the volunteers and often disobeyed the ground rules that had been laid out, said Ms. Pinkerton.

"What we found was that the kids interacted with the toys," said Ms. Pinkerton. "There wasn't a way for us to interact with them, apart from sitting down with them at breakfast and cutting their pancakes and trying to talk to them. That would be our golden moment. But apart from that we were just maintaining order. And these kids treated us like a wall. It was like, 'You're not there. I'm talking to you -- I don't hear you.'"

The team also found that the toys were disappearing from week to week.

So they consulted together and retooled. Games were gradually replaced by crafts that participants could work on at the center and take home afterwards. Parents were actively invited to participate in the program with their kids. And the virtues component became less formalized and more integrated into the rest of the morning's activities.

Attendance grew year by year, peaking last year when as many as 140 children and adults showed up on a given Sunday. The team has had to limit numbers to about 80 this year to make it manageable.

Ms. Bloodworth believes the process of action and reflection, rather than any professional expertise, is what has kept the program relevant to the needs of the children and their parents.

"On some level, we recognize that this is a lifeline for some of the people who come," said Ms. Bloodworth.

Dan Trottier, program coordinator of the Lord Selkirk Aboriginal Women's Group, which also runs programs in Lord Selkirk Park, agrees that the program has been a benefit for the community.

"It fills the weekend void," said Mr. Trottier. "It helps the families come together. You have activities going for different age groups. There's not enough of that. Usually the parents are not involved.

"It's a great program," he added, "a much needed program."

-- Canadian Baha'i News Service