This week’s feature doesn’t focus on just one person, but an entire charity. Sistema Toronto does such amazing work and we are so happy to share even just a small part of their story. We spoke with Hilary Johnston, Managing Director at Sistema Toronto, to hear about all of the amazing and confusing aspects of working at a non-profit so passionate about helping kids in need.
What does Sistema provide?
Sistema Toronto is a registered charity that provides free music education and social development programming to 275 at-risk kids in the GTA. We work in areas of the city with some of the highest child poverty rates - Jane-Finch, East Scarborough, and Parkdale - to help children and families escape the cycle of poverty.
Our students come to see us four days a week after school for a total for 10 hours each week. They learn orchestral instruments (violin, viola, cello bass), percussion, choir, and music & movement and we use music as a way to teach important life skills like confidence, empathy, self-advocacy, and grit. We provide expert teaching, instruments to learn on, performance opportunities, and a daily healthy snack all at no cost to participants' families.
How is Sistema thriving?
We see amazing progress in our students every day. Just this past year, we've seen shy kids come out of their shells, kids with behaviour challenges and kids who struggle with impulse control find ways to cope and overcome their issues, and we've seen kids who are on the autism spectrum finds ways to express themselves. We of course also see students falling in love with music and having breakthroughs with their playing and that's always really special.
What are some of the challenges that you see at Sistema Toronto?
Working with at-risk populations can be challenging. We often don't know what to do for certain kids and families and it can be hard to work through their individual issues. For example, we have a student who is highly emotional, very disruptive in class, and we haven't been able to figure out what sets him off. It can be draining for the teacher in that classroom, but we have to remind ourselves that the most difficult students often come from the families that most need our support.
Our small team also struggles with balancing the needs of our students and the realities of running a non-profit. We have long waiting lists at all three of our centres and an endless list of programming ideas we would like to implement, but we have to be constantly thinking about funding. We would love to take every student who applies to Sistema Toronto but, because we make an 8-year commitment to all of the families in our community, we have to make sure that we can keep our promises.
How do you deal with challenges that may arise?
We rely heavily on our team to find the best way to move forward when faced with a challenge. We have an amazing team of artist teachers that care immensely about their students. They are our front-line staff and the kids share with their teachers what's going on in their lives. If something comes up with the students, we talk to their Sistema teacher, classroom teachers, school principals, and parent(s) and, as a team, we decide how to best support the child.
When we're faced with a challenge related to our organization and running the business, it works similarly. We have a small leadership team and we talk out the problem and we can consult our board of directors for advice. We always keep students' wellbeing as our top priority and we do the best we can to find the answer. It can be scary to make big decisions, but we have to trust our own expertise and try something out. If it doesn't work, we don't do it again.
We experienced a huge budget cut in the fall when $500,000 in approved funding, about 60% of our annual budget, was rescinded by the Government of Ontario. We had to decide very quickly how to recover from the loss, put together a fundraising campaign, and find a way to start our program just three weeks later without breaking our commitment to the 275 students and families we work with. Ultimately, we had to trust our instincts and know that telling our story publicly was the right thing to do. And it was! The community came through for us and helped us raise over $40,000 in small dollar donations and the story was shared so widely that larger foundations and corporations heard about us and made significant donations. Four months later, we've almost entirely closed our funding gap.
The truth is that we didn't really know if we were making the right decision in putting together our fundraising campaign, but we knew we had to do something and it had to be immediate. We also knew that our team has the knowledge, experience, and expertise needed to make these decisions. Women in leadership roles are often doubted and made to doubt themselves. Our experience recovering from a funding cut just reminds us to block that out. It's just noise.
For more information regarding Sistema Toronto, or to donate, just click here to be linked to their website.