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Community flocks to second annual Sunshine Initiative forum

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

PATRICK BALES/THE PACKET & TIMES Participants at Saturday's Sunshine Initiative forum look over some of the ideas formulated during break-out sessions throughout the morning and afternoon.

PATRICK BALES/THE PACKET & TIMES Participants at Saturday's Sunshine Initiative forum look over some of the ideas formulated during break-out sessions throughout the morning and afternoon.

Looking around the basement of St. Paul's Centre Saturday morning, India Robertson couldn't help but be a little intimidated.

Likely the youngest person there, she was surrounded by mostly strangers; names she recognized, faces perhaps she had seen, but never had she been able to discuss with them the issues facing Orillia, nor had she ever been granted such an opportunity.

But that desire to enact positive change in the city was the only similarity she and the other 40 or so people who took part in the Sunshine Initiative's second annual forum was all they needed. That commonality helped spur a day full of discussions and potential ideas and solutions to problems plaguing Orilia.

"It's amazing to see how much stuff has been talked about and how much has come out of today," Robertson said. "It was only three hour-long sessions and there were so many amazing ideas."

Numbers were down this year for the Sunshine Initiative, but organizers are undeterred. They expected a drop off of sorts, with the expectation to gradually build interest over the next few years.

The day profoundly affected Robertson, so much so that she at first had a difficult time expressing just how incredible her experience was. She did have an idea of what she could be getting herself into. She was inspired to attend by one of her best friends, Ashlyn Barnes-Stewart, who attended last year's Sunshine Initiative forum and ended up spearheading an inclusiveness project designed to help people suffering from mental health issues.

Robertson wasn't the only first-time participant at the event, which did feature a number of repeat attendees. Stephen Davids found himself at the forum destined to help expand the celebration of the arts in Orillia after a number of years spent overseas.

"I've come back with the freedom to try to help... and I thought, 'how am I going to do that?'" Davids said. "If you sit still, you don't learn anything."

Davids would like to see Orillia expand its celebration of the written word. So many of the local arts celebrations focus on visual or auditory media. While the city is famous for the Leacock Award, that doesn't encompass the bevy of local creative writers in the manner Davids envisions.

When he returned to Orillia, he didn't sit still, and, in fact, began to learn things. Davids talked to people who told him of other people, who eventually led him to the Sunshine Initiative. He felt good about what he was able to accomplish and the prospects going forward of getting his idea off the ground.

"I thought I was coming to find like-minded people who might take an initiative I'm championing, and maybe tell me if it's possible, whether there's enough support for it to happen, do they want to get involved with it or not," Davids said. "And yes, I did find that."

Robertson, too, was enthusiastic coming out of the session. She finds herself usually taking something positive from every community event she attends, but Saturday's forum was different. She saw a lot of the kind of passion she grew up with in her rural Ontario community among the participants with the Sunshine Initiative.

"I'm always so surprised and taken aback by what is produced; it blows my mind," Robertson said. "Orillia might not be a small town, but it's still got that community small-town vibe. I think that's more beneficial than (a large city).... In Toronto, I think it would be hard to get so many community members that know each other."

The Sunshine Initiative hopes to reconvene in the spring for the O Prize. Participants from Saturday had the chance to sign up to help see the various projects discussed during group sessions become reality. A Dragon's Den-style event, where money would be doled out for the projects, is tentatively set to take place this spring.

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