Sowing the seeds

As Managing Director of PEACH, Marilyn Eisenstat helped troubled youth in Jane and Finch to turn their lives around. A retirement party was held in Marilyn’s honour on Wednesday, July 20th 2011.

By David RosEditorMarilyn Eisenstat says she's a very shy and reserved person. This would come as a surprise to some, given her many great accomplishments as Managing Director of the community action group Promoting Education And Community Health (PEACH).Eisenstat, who has just retired from PEACH, has been a gargantuan force at the organization for the past 12 years, started as a volunteer and worked her way to the top of the organization through a combination of hard work, dedication and tenacity.“Essentially I'm a very quiet, shy person and my passion for PEACH has forced me to sometimes be like a bulldog to hang on and to tough it out through hard times because the vision is so important,” Eisenstat said.Eisenstat, a former English teacher at Westview Centennial Secondary School, first got involved with PEACH in 1999, after she had volunteered with Rittenhouse: A New Vision, an organization which promotes transformative justice and prison reform.Rittenhouse had been founded by Dr. Ruth Morris, who, in 1990, founded the Black Creek Anti-Drug Focus Community Group, which would later become PEACH. Morris quickly got Eisenstat involved in PEACH, and soon, her name would become almost synonymous with the organization.After she retired from teaching, Eisenstat became more involved with PEACH. She cited the Safe Schools Act, which was passed by the Ontario provincial government of Mike Harris in 2000, as a catalyst which drove her to dedicate so much time to the organization.“Around 2001, the Board did some strategic planning and changed the direction of PEACH in order to focus on youth who had been really disadvantaged by the safe schools act which had been recently introduced. So there were a lot more youth who had been out of school, getting into trouble during the day, not knowing whether they could return to school.” she said. “Parents were very confused about the new legislation. Because I had experienced the other end of it at school where kids had disappeared and they would be there one day and would be gone for months. I myself didn't experience the safe schools act as a teacher because I had retired before it was enacted, but I was concerned about those youth. That's what really hooked me to stick at PEACH and to help develop the programs that worked with youth who had been excluded from school in one way or another.”One of the hallmarks of the Safe Schools Act was the policy of “zero tolerance,” in which, students would face mandatory suspensions for a variety of offences. Repeat offenders even faced potential expulsion.“At the beginning, it was used as a kind of blunt instrument,” Eisenstat said. “A lot of youth were suspended from school for up to 20 school days, which is a month on the school calendar. There was a lot of confusion about how they would get back into school or why they were kicked out of school.”“In the Jane-Finch community, there wasn't good knowledge about the Safe Schools Act and [many] felt that they had been cut off from school, period.”From this, PEACH had developed a program called “Community Response to Zero Tolerance,” which was spearheaded by Roger Rowe, a local attorney and resident as well as Chair of the PEACH Board of Directors.“That program helped us connect to a concept called “Wraparound” and we started to work with youth to form wraparound teams: meaning a trusted adult would work with the youth and bring other people onto the team to work to solve whatever issues the youth was facing at the time, whether it was court or home issues or school issues,” Eisenstat said.At the retirement party, Chris Blackwood, a youth outreach coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club of Weston Mount Dennis, told his personal story about Eisenstat and PEACH. He said that when his brother got into trouble, they were there to help him turn his brother's life around.Blackwood said that when he graduated from high school to pursue his studies at Concordia University in Montreal, he told some of his friends in the neighbourhood to watch out for his younger brother and to try to make sure he didn’t take the negative path that many youth in Jane and Finch end up taking.“Long story short, my brother got caught up in a few situations. He was at Emery C.I.; got in trouble; got kicked out of school for a little bit. Nobody wanted to deal with him.... and PEACH embraced him,” he said. “PEACH not only embraced him; PEACH embraced my mom. They had a mothers' group that I thought did wonders.”Eisenstat said that PEACH figured out early on, one of the biggest challenges faced by many students who got in trouble at school in the wake of the Safe Schools act was the up to 20 days of class time that many of them were forced to miss due to suspension. So PEACH created a program called “Suspended and Studying.” SaS. for short.“Youth who were suspended found out about our program and came to our program,” she said. “ We got the work that they were missing at school and the youth stayed with us for the duration of their suspension.”Eisenstat said she is a big believer in what is called the Resiliency Model to help troubled youth bounce back from adversity by providing caring relationships with clear and reasonable boundaries; by teaching life skills; by having high expectations for the youth; as well as providing opportunities for engagement.“I think that as a team, we created a safe and respectful place for youth and families in the community and it's known as just that,” she said. “It's a place where youth feel very welcome and respected and they come back to visit us year after year because they know it's a home base for themselves in the community.”It is this place, which Blackwood said he remains forever grateful to for helping out his brother. He eventually did go back to school and graduated from high school. Something, he said, would not have been possible without PEACH.After he graduated from Concordia University, Blackwood said he had three goals. The first goal was to play professional basketball. The second goal was to be the best father he possibly could be to his soon to be born child. The third was to work for PEACH, something he eventually achieved when he was hired to replace the youth outreach worker who had taken a leave of absence.Blackwood said that he was able to use the contacts he built with other agencies through Eisenstat and PEACH to obtain his current job with the Boys and Girls Club.Eisenstat said her commitment to PEACH over the past 12 years boiled down to one thing.“I think it has to do with social justice,” she said. “The youth and their families have been rejected so that they see themselves in a certain way. If their experience at PEACH helps to turn around how they see themselves and their future then it's important for our whole society.”For more information about PEACH see www.peachyouth.org.