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Sun Youth: Sid & Earl parlayed one-time read into a humanitarian empire

Life in the crowded Plateau Mont-Royal in the post-war years was a time of modest beginnings and big dreams, including those of a young Sidney Stavitsky, aka Sid Stevens, and his friend Earl De La Perralle.

The Stavitsky family lived in a cold-water flat on St. Cuthbert, just west of Saint Laurent, and Sid and his brother Ted lined up on Saturday for enough hot water to take a bath. De La Perralle lived on St. Urbain.

In 1954 when he was 13 Sid had an idea: Launch a hand-written newspaper, with one carbon copy, fill it with local news, and with Earl, aged 9, charge residents two cents “rent” for reading it, then take it to the next customer and collect another two cents.

The goal: to raise funds to buy uniforms and support local kids so they could take part in hockey and basketball. By the end of that first year they had amassed $500.

The Clark Street Sun evolved, became The Sun which morphed into Sun Youth and slowly but surely and with growing community recognition and support expanded: The group created the city’s first food bank, facilitated emergency housing in hotels and provided supplies for fire evacuees, distributed holiday food baskets, and offered summer camp experiences in the Laurentians for inner-city youth.

At its headquarters in the former Baron Byng High School on St. Urbain, which it now owns, Stevens sits behind a big desk and remains a prime mover in what was and
remains a grass-roots organization that serves the grass roots, with an army of volunteers helping thousands of Montrealers in a most fundamental way. In tribute to their work, Sid and Earl are among the recipients of this year’s Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award, to be handed out by the Quebec Community Groups Network October 26.

As the QCGN citation says, “The best testimony to this group’s effectiveness is the number of individuals who return to Sun Youth as adult volunteers to give back of themselves after having received a Sun Youth helping hand during their own youth.” Today, it runs on a budget of $7.5 million, is backed by some 15,000 individuals, small business, and corporations that donate food, money and other necessities, such as new clothing. It employs 69 people full time, and in summer hires 75 students to help run its programs.

Its mission and the way it carries out its work has made it a magnet for volunteers and donors who recognize the integrity and spirit of giving that permeates the organization at every level.

They come from all backgrounds and viewpoints to offer help. Among its supporters are the anonymous Mr. Bike Man who, on his birthday, sponsors bike giveaways to deserving youth, and the late Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau. When he retired from politics, Parizeau asked that his $25,000 gift from the PQ be turned over to Sun Youth.

Stevens recalled that “Pierre Trudeau used to drop by and buy a Christmas tree from us, when our offices were at Park and Mount Royal. He also used to give us a $25 cheque. That was a lot of money back then.”

Such was Sun Youth’s credibility that starting in 1987, Newman’s Own Foundation founded by actor Paul Newman, granted $150,000 over several years and another $100,000 in its famous spaghetti sauce, for the senior monthly food supplement program.

Sun Youth’s reputation was enhanced by high-profile visits that created a two-way street of positive publicity. Being photographed filling holiday food baskets is good for your image, whatever your political stripe.

“Having all the politicians visiting us at Christmas-time didn’t hurt,” Stevens remarked of the positive publicity they generated for the group.

While working at his day job at National Typewriter, Stevens spent all his spare time building Sun Youth until he was needed there full time.

He understands the media, and after first getting coverage in the Montreal Star in the 1950s, worked The Gazette to the group’s advantage.

Reporters, including current Member of the National Assembly David Birnbaum, who worked the police desk on Sunday nights, remember regular calls from Stevens with good news items, at a time when they were eager for fresh material.

Stevens was the sparkplug behind the Clark Street Sun, but according to friends the partnership with Earl De La Perralle was key.

De La Perralle has been on sick leave for several months and it was not possible to interview him. He comes from a similarly modest background. His father had worked for Air Canada but had to stop after an accident, and his mother supported the family as a waitress at Green’s caterers.

While Stevens was great at public relations, De La Perralle preferred working behind the scenes and promoting amateur sports. Lewis (Izzy) Israel, who has known De La Perralle since his early participation in Sun Youth as a young athlete, said that “Earl has always been the quiet strength of the organization when it came to making decisions of direction or how the organization should function.

“They worked very well together, like man and wife in a marriage, and could not have succeeded one without the other. Sid never made a decision without Earl’s input.”

He loved coaching amateur teams. “Earl started the basketball program – he coached me – and was one of the founding fathers of the Quebec Football Federation, Israel said.”

“He wanted for all us kids living in the Plateau to have something to do so we would stay out of trouble, basically.”

The Montreal Police Youth Squad saw value in the initiatives of Sun Youth and supplied uniforms to the various teams, Stevens recalled.

According to Stevens, some 350 participants in its organized sports programs later received sports scholarships for university study.

Sun Youth’s working with police is among the things that attracted the interest and support of former mayor Jean Drapeau, for whom Stevens served a term as a city councillor. Then, after losing the next election, he was appointed director of fire prevention.

As lawyer Caspar Boom wrote in recommending them: “This dynamic duo has from the humblest of roots nurtured a unique and often undervalued community organization. Sid and Earl, and Sun Youth, have strived to serve any and all who find themselves in trouble or in want, transcending conventional classifications such as religion, level of education, language group, ethnicity, disability or country of origin.”

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