On the cover this week …
On Thursday, June 7, at the Vancouver Convention Centre, the Odd Squad Productions Society will bring together nearly 1,000 attendees to celebrate 15 years of working to keep youth safe and drug free.
Founded in 1997 by a group of seven officers working for the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), the organization has a mission of “empowering youth to make positive life choices about drug use and criminal behavior through documentaries and education.” The seven officers who first came together all those years ago felt that they needed to do something to try to prevent and curtail the cycle of substance abuse and tragedy they saw every day in their work on DTES streets. With VPD statistics indicating that 60 percent of illicit drug users were between 15 to 24 years of age, these seven officers decided to focus their efforts on proactively protecting youth. They called their group the Odd Squad.
The Odd Squad’s first step was to take footage of what they saw on the streets of the DTES, footage they turned into a documentary called Through a Blue Lens, co-produced with the National Film Board of Canada. Their film continues to be viewed around the world today, having reached an audience upward of 70 million people, and testimonials have continued to filter back to the Odd Squad about the film’s life-changing impact.
This early success spurred the seven officers to continue their volunteer activities, and they went on to make 15 other films on a shoestring budget. By 2008, they were ready to take their small volunteer group to the next level, enlisting Gerry Zipursky, who had recently finished a 22-year tenure as executive director at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Zipursky knew very little about the organization, but was willing to volunteer his time for what he recognized as a good cause. “When I left the JCC, I didn’t know anything about the Odd Squad. I had only watched Through a Blue Lens,” he told the Independent. It didn’t take long before the group understood that they could become a nonprofit society and expand their mandate. Zipursky stepped up to the plate, became their chief operating officer and helped launch the Odd Squad Productions Society (OSP).
Today, OSP estimates that they have reached 38,000 people in Vancouver, across the Lower Mainland, around British Columbia and into the Northwest Territories and Nunavut with their Drug and Gang Life presentations, as well as mentoring students to deliver the OSP’s message to peers. These mentees also act as role models to other youth in the community.
According to OSP promotional materials, notable milestones include the Drug and Gang Awareness educational presentations, On-track Peer Mentoring, a Hockey Mentorship program and an Internet Broadcast program. Proceeds from this year’s gala fundraiser will go towards OSP programs, including the development of a web-episodic “vodcast” series and to produce two educational documentaries, The Beat: Season Two and Yo-Bro: A Gang Education Story.
Students and the police officers that volunteer their time and expertise are not the only positive role models to emerge from OSP, however. The board of directors includes leaders in the Vancouver community who want to make a difference, five of whom are members of the Jewish community, including Mark James, Shirley Barnett, Howard Blank, Bob Golden and Dani Elias, who serves as director of web development and new media. As well, said Zipursky, there are several Jewish corporate sponsors for the annual gala fundraiser.
“We live in a city and a country and need to support everyone,” Zipursky said of the Jewish involvement, a connection that makes him feel especially proud. People who join the board, “realized that substance abuse and gang violence cuts across everyone and [that] everyone is affected by it,” he added.
Although OSP is affiliated with the VPD, it is funded almost exclusively through individual donations and corporate sponsors.
The pervasive effects of drug and gang life is one of the reasons Zipursky believes that corporate sponsors have been so supportive of the society. “We have tremendous corporate support,” he said. “Corporations see the economic reality – the social, community, financial and human resources that drug and gang life cost.”
The impacts of OSP on those human costs will be examined more closely in the near future. Two criminology researchers at Simon Fraser University plan to look at the effectiveness of OSP programs with the aim of making suggestions on how to improve its long-term impacts, so that OSP “can come up with deliverables,” Zipursky explained. These “deliverables” are borne out time and again in the testimonials of youth who have been reached by OSP and who have developed other options in place of turning to drugs or gangs, he added.
The Thursday, June 7, 5 p.m., gala fundraiser will feature a sit-down dinner, live and silent auctions, as well as “a few hidden surprises that have yet to be revealed.” Tickets are available by calling 604-408-9945 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.oddsquad.com.
Michelle Dodek is a Vancouver freelancer writer.