One person I had heard a lot about from different sources while searching for interview candidates about Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood is Marie Perrotta, the Founding Director of the Pegasus Community Project for Adults with Special Needs. This non-profit charitable organization provides daytime opportunities for adults with developmental challenges, family support and community outreach. Pegasus also runs a thrift store whose revenues support the operational funding needs of this organization and provide practical work experiences for program participants.
Just before 10 am this morning I went to meet Marie at the Beaches Community Centre which is the location for one of her program groups. A few minutes before Marie’s arrival I had a chance to sit down for a few minutes with Gillian Story who is now a full-time program counsellor with the program. Gillian explained that the Pegasus program consists of three groups of adults with special needs that meet at three different locations: the Beaches Community Centre, Centre 55 and the Matty Eckler Community Centre, all in Toronto’s east end. Since graduating with a degree in music and psychology at Concordia Gillian started working at Pegasus in October of 2006 and admits it was a big learning experience at first. But she says that the staff and the participants in the program have been extremely welcoming and made it easy for her to fit in.
Marie Perrotta in the Pegasus Thrift Store
As Marie arrived and took off her coat to get ready for an interview, one program participant, a 24-year old woman named Shannon sat down beside me. The group was very cheerful and demonstrated a very natural sense of curiosity. A couple of the participants had peppered me with questions as to who I was, why I was here and what I was planning to do, and I briefly explained my interview plans. Shannon mentioned that she works at the Pegasus Thrift Store twice a week and volunteers there on Saturdays as well. She operates the cash register and welcomes the customers. Marie confirmed that Shannon has a great talent working with people and referred to her as a “natural social worker”. On Mondays Shannon goes to Variety Village, a fitness and life skills facility in Toronto’s east end, where she and her friends from Pegasus enjoy swimming, weight-lifting and other physical activities. Shannon was very gregarious and outgoing and inquired whether they might be a possibility to see her later at the Pegasus Thrift Store.
I did not want to let Marie wait any longer, so I thanked Shannon for talking with me, and Marie and I relocated in order to be able to do a quiet interview. Marie is originally from Buffalo, and she and her husband moved to Ontario to complete their graduate degrees here. After her undergraduate degree in French literature she completed her graduate studies in assessment counseling at the Institute of Child Studies at the University of Toronto. Her work background prior to her involvement with Pegasus includes psychiatric research at the Hospital for Sick Children.
Marie with two Pegasus participants
One of Canada’s attributes that captured Marie right from the start was people’s openness, the country’s civility, diversity and tolerance. Marie noticed these characteristics right away and added that tolerance is underrated. In her words, if you spend enough time with people who are different, with time you’ll get over those differences. I wholeheartedly agreed with her and we concluded that often it is lack of exposure to people of different backgrounds that creates negative stereotypes.
Marie has three children: Andrew, 34, an adult with developmental challenges, Olivia, who just graduated from international development and science at McGill University in Montreal, and Cristina, who at 17 years of age is still attending high school. As the mother of a child with a developmental disability Marie understands the unique pressures of families dealing with developmental challenges. In 1993 Marie found out that adult children with developmental handicaps would not have access to day programs after the age of 21. About 650 people in Toronto were on waiting lists for existing day programs and Marie knew she had to do something.
Marie got several parents together that were in similar situations, but the group did not last long. She called on government funding agencies and approached the Matty Eckler Community Centre, part of the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department. The representatives at the community centre reacted extremely positively and offered Marie some space for her intended day-time program. Once she had secured the location, she formally set up a charitable organization and put together a board of directors which included another parent with a developmentally challenged child, as well as three other board members, including a teacher, a child daycare administrator and an occupational therapist.
From January to September of 1994 the team raised $30,000. Alison Masters, one of the Board members, held a big auction and a party at Lido’s Restaurant. With another fundraising event and a small grant from the city the program was ready to start. One of the earliest exercises was to find a name for the organization, and Marie came up with the idea to draw on Greek mythology. In the spring of 1994 they had set a goal to get the organization launched by the fall, so she decided to pick a fall sky constellation and came up with the name Pegasus. The organization indeed got its start in September of 1994. Today many other names of heavenly objects are used in the fundraising efforts of the organization: The “Galaxy of Stars” lists donors in different categories including “Hercules”, “Perseus”, “Cygnus” and “Lyra”. Another group of donors is referred to as the “Meteors”.
The Pegasus Thrift Store at 970 ½ Kingston Road
Over the years funding has come from many different sources. For ten years Marie ran an annual yard sale from her front yard and as the handling and storage of donated goods became too onerous, fundraising efforts have now shifted to the “Pegasus Thrift Store”, located at 970 ½ Kingston Road. The store is an interesting project because not only does it provide significant funding for Pegasus, it also offers practical training and work opportunities for many of the participants in the Pegasus program.
Until 2000 Marie ran the program out of her house and recalls that acquainting herself with the necessary computer skills initially presented a challenge. In the beginning, when her daughter was only 4 years old, Marie had trained her to take telephone messages. So one day a call from the Association of Community Living came in and Cristina politely asked the caller to spell out the name of the association. When Marie had a look at the message Cristina took, she saw a big note, all scribbled out across the whole sheet of paper in a 4 year old’s handwriting, but with a perfectly proper spelling of the organization’s long name.
Today, the Pegasus Community project receives significant funding from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, and a program fee has been implemented. Marie indicated that the government support has been tremendously helpful in light of the enormous financial and psychological strain on families with a person who is suffering from developmental handicaps, which include such disabilities as Down’s Syndrome, autism, certain cases of cerebral palsy and others. Marie added that many cases of developmental handicaps do not have an exact diagnosis.
The program is very staff intensive: the ratio of staff members to program participants is 1 to 2.5. Some of the participants require care to meet their physical needs. Staff also look after some medical needs, such as seizure monitoring, giving medications, and feeding through a G-tube. All of the staff members and volunteers in the program receive the requisite training to be able to provide proper care to the participants. Marie indicates that today virtually all of her staff members have two or more years of post-secondary education and many have university degrees and related experience.
Beautiful greeting cards, adorned with feathers