Presenting: Marie Perrotta from the Pegasus Community Project – Reaching for the Stars

The Pegasus Community Program today has 38 participants located in three community centres. Two types of programs serve the participants: the Aquarius Program offers long term support while the Pegasus Program is a transitional program which focuses on skills development and vocational experiences.

Marie strongly believes in a decentralized approach since it allows for greater integration into and acceptance by the community. Other facilities often house the same or an even greater number of participants in one location, but often these locations are in industrial areas, isolated from residential communities.

Marie is a strong proponent of community integration, and she feels that virtually every human being, including people with developmental disabilities, have the capability to give back to the community. The Pegasus participants volunteer at the Thrift Store, they also take on unpaid volunteer work assignments in the local community at stores such as Price Chopper and Zellers, and they volunteer to deliver a local community newspaper, the Beach Metro News.

Viewed from the perspective of a person with disabilities, community interaction and integration is absolutely critical. Every human being needs a change of scenery as well as mental and sensory stimulation. One day when her son was not able to attend the Pegasus program, he was sitting in the kitchen, sadly staring at the door. Although he was not able to vocalize his feelings, Marie recognized very clearly that he deeply missed being able to go out and join his friends at the program. She added that when you work with people with disabilities you get very good at paying attention to decoding non-verbal communication.

Volunteers are an absolutely critical element in Pegasus’ success. Marie refers to some of her regular volunteers who come out to work with the participants: Margaret Simmons, a retired principal, comes in regularly to provide a literacy program while Selma Smith has been teaching an arts and crafts program for five years. The projects of the “studio program” are quite sophisticated and the artistic products are sold at the Thrift Store as well as by local retailers in the Beach such as Arts on Queen.


Nutritious and delicious soup and cookie mixes

Three students from the Behavioural Technology Program at George Brown College are currently completing internships with the program while six nurses from Centennial and Humber College are completing practical community nursing placements for their Bachelor of Science Degrees. A high school student named Kelly, from a community program at Inglenook High school is also currently volunteering with the program.

The Beach community has widely supported the program, and the participants regularly venture out into the community in different excursions. Today as I was there, several people arrived with shopping bags full of groceries, and collectively the group prepared a delicious and nutritious lunch that included chicken wraps and sweet potato fries. Marie also indicated that fitness and physical activities are an important component of the program. Participants regular go to Variety Village to go swimming and play team sports such as soccer and basketball. Marie added that there are quite a few gifted athletes in her groups.

Some of the participants have fewer support needs than others, and with several years of assistance and support they may even move on to holding paid jobs in the community. The young lady Shannon who I was talking to earlier was a good example of this and she has successfully and enthusiastically been working at the Thrift Store. Marie believes in all sorts of possibilities for her participants and the program provides job coaching for the participants who have the potential for gainful employment. Other practical skills such as learning how to take public transit are also taught in the program. Marie adds that this type of training does take years, but it is an important investment in individuals and the community as a whole.

Currently Marie is working on organizing a fourth group which will be run out of SH Armstrong Community Centre just a bit west of the Beach neighbourhood near Coxwell. Marie firmly believes that the decentralized approach is critical for the success of her program since it provides for greater community interaction and acceptance. She adds, maybe a future successor of hers might make changes to that approach, but for now she is happy that she now has a program manager who is very familiar with the program’s philosophy. She is relieved that even if she were not around, the program would continue.


Shannon, a program participant, works and volunteers at the Thrift Store

Running a registered charity comes with all sorts of challenges, including a wide range of administrative duties as well as quarterly financial reports and budgets. Marie indicates that although Pegasus is a small organization you have to deal with the same organizational issues as in a large organization. But once you get it under your belt it becomes much more manageable.

Several merchants and organizations also support the Pegasus Community Project. Residents in the Beach have welcomed the program and Marie adds that Beachers are more broad-minded and charitable than they are sometimes given credit for. Some people have even thanked her for bringing developmentally challenged individuals into the Beach. Just recently one individual wrote a $500 cheque to the project, and he was so happy to do so as if he had just been waiting to be asked to write that cheque. The generosity from so many people is outstanding, and Marie really appreciates all the support she has received.

One organization that has been particularly helpful is the Toronto Beach Rotary Club which supports Pegasus with regular fundraising initiatives. Local merchant Harold Wisefeld, also known as Zoltzz, the owner of the famous fashion discount store Ends in the Beach, has been a very generous contributor to Pegasus. Another local entrepreneur, Dan MacLeod from the Price Chopper supermarket at Gerrard and Victoria Park, is extremely committed to community work.

Marie says he has opened his store’s doors to hire many people with disabilities. He will even assign regular employees to work alongside a person with a disability, to train them and help them. One of Pegasus’ participants, a young man named AJ, works at Price Chopper three days a week and needs coaching while he is there. Dan sees to it that he receives the support he needs. Dan also supports many of Pegasus’ special events as well as other organizations such as the Cancer Society and the Alzheimers Society. Very few merchants would go to these lengths to accommodate and support people with disabilities.


The newest merchandise: hand-made tote bags, made by the participants

After having concluded our one-on-one interview we checked in on the Phoenix group next door which in the meantime had prepared lunch and was enjoying a good meal around the table. After a few photos I said goodbye to the group, thanked them for their time and interest and invited them to join me for my Photo Exhibition in the Beach which will be held in early March. Fortunately the location will be within walking distance and the members of the group will be able to drop by and have a look at the photos.

Marie and I then drove five minutes up to Kingston Road where Marie showed me the Pegasus Thrift Store. The store is open on most days, but it is better to call ahead to make sure that the store is staffed. The Thrift Store sells everything from used books, CDs, fabric, clothing, dishes and glassware to small electric appliances and even Barbie dolls. It provides a great opportunity for Pegasus program participants to gain practical work experience and support the fundraising efforts for their program. Friends and neighbours donate all the second-hand goods that are sold in the store.

For me the highlight of the store are the products that are made by the Pegasus program participants themselves. Marie demonstrated a range of hand-made products to me:

– handmade greeting cards featuring feathers and a variety of artistic techniques
– bookmarks reminiscent of beaded necklaces
– soup mixes including recipes
– various types of cookie mixes
– the most recent addition to the merchandise: a handmade tote bag made from donated fabric


The program participants at the Beaches Recreational Centre

In addition to her regular duties Marie works in the store virtually every Saturday and hopes to be able to find some help in organizing it soon. She added that initially her plans were only to cover the costs of the rent and telephone, but the Pegasus Thrift Store has morphed into much more than that: a major fundraising tool as well as a great place of learning for her program participants. Many shoppers say it’s one of the most fun places to shop at in the Beach.

I also asked Marie whether her organization has a website yet and she indicated not yet. But she is currently working with two volunteers to develop one.

Meeting Marie Perrotta was one of those humbling moments when you get to know someone who has overcome significant personal hurdles and truly dedicated her life to people in need in the community. Several awards recognize these efforts: Pegasus won the 1995 City of Toronto Access Award and the 1998 Innovation Award. Marie herself was honoured as the 2004 Beach Citizen of the Year, following the footsteps of other prominent Beachers such as Gene Domagala (who is also a regular volunteer for Pegasus), Glenn Cochrane and Arie Nerman.

As I walked away from the store I thought the heavenly analogies of the Pegasus Project are quite fitting: to her program participants Marie must be like an angel, sent down to earth to help them reach for the stars.

For more information about the Pegasus Community Project or to make a donation please contact Marie Perrotta at 416-691-5651. To contact the store regarding shopping or dropping off donations, please call 416-913-2544.

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