Passing the torch: A new era at North Central Family Centre as founder Sandy Wankel retires

Almost 20 years after opening the North Central Family Centre, Sandy Wankel is getting set to retire, allowing room for the people she once mentored to take over.

In 2002, the North Central Family Centre (NCFC) opened on Fifth Avenue. Wankel said there was an apparent need for a safe space to go in the community, especially for children.

“We are an example of divine intervention. I think sometimes when you start something, it’s with a hope and a prayer and a dream,” Wankel said. “So many people came together to make the NCFC exist.”

What first started as a centre for children is now open to families, providing services that help each family member overcome barriers.

“It’s about the miracle that happens when people from all walks of life come together to make a difference in a child’s life,” she said.

In the past two decades, more than 1,900 youth have walked through the centre’s doors.

“I think every child deserves to grow up in a community where they’re loved and feel safe and valued, and reach their full potential,” Wankel said. “It’s all about children and the future, and them becoming the leaders that they are.”

MOVING ON

Wankel said although it’s a difficult decision, she knows it’s the right time to move on from the NCFC.

“It’s time to let these wonderful, dynamic young people take over,” she said. “We have had such an amazing staff. Many of them grew up in the area and they know the barriers and challenges that families are feeling.”

She said she’s confident those staff members will carry on her mission.

“They’re the future. It’s just time to step back and let them shine,” Wankel said.

One of the employees who will continue the work that Wankel started is Shyanne Lavallee, who first visited the centre when she was 12-years-old.

“My siblings and I had just moved to Cameron Street, a couple of blocks down, and we were walking down the street and we saw this nice lady standing outside this building,” she said. “She was handing out donuts to the children, so we quickly went over there. We hardly ever got donuts so that was a treat to us.”

She said ever since, she has been coming to the centre.

“What drew us here was the love, the respect, how we were valued and it was just a safe space to get away from the negative,” Lavallee said. “Living in North Central you saw gangs, you saw drug abuse and you saw alcohol abuse and sometimes I would think to myself ‘is this how life should be?’ So stepping into the centre was definitely fate.”

Lavallee first started volunteering with an after school arts and crafts program centre when she was 15. In the years following, Wankel offered her jobs at the centre. After working her way up, she is now the employment coordinator of NCFC.

“I work with young adults and seeing them succeed and thrive and be on the right path to success is very fulfilling. I just feel like that is what I’m meant to do,” Lavallee said.

Lavallee said without Wankel, she wouldn’t be where she is today.

“She always believed in me. I mean she believed in everyone. She was someone to look up to and was like a mother figure,” Lavallee said. “To see her care so much about this community and the people in it was something that I really yearned for. I was in awe about her and the work she does.”

She said because of Wankel, she’s able to see a different perspective in life.

“It means a lot to carry on her legacy,” she said.

In her retirement, Wankel plans to go oversees to work, but she said she will always be connect to the NCFC.

“The people in this community, the staff and the youth will always be part of my life,” she said. “It’s been an honour and a privilege.”