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One year later, Dixon Park picks up the pieces

A photo taken Oct 20 2011 of the basketball court at Dixon park located at 350 Dixon Rd. in the northwest part of Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Less than 24 hours before kids were eating freezies and kicking around soccer balls in Dixon Park at a sunny Saturday community barbecue, gunshots could be heard echoing through the night; a shotgun shell left on the ground for security to find later.

"No [injuries], thank God," said the head of security for the Dixon towers, Brian, who asked that his last name not be used. "Yesterday was the anniversary of Project Traveller. Tie the two of them together."

The Dixon towers first made headlines last year when a video that appeared to show Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine from a glass pipe was alleged to have been housed in an apartment on the 17th floor of 320 Dixon Rd., and the community was thrown into the spotlight of a political scandal.

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Then, on June 13, 2013, Toronto police busted into 14 apartments on the Dixon strip as part of the Project Traveller raids in Toronto and Windsor, after which about 60 people were arrested and $3-million worth of drugs, 40 guns and half a million dollars were seized.

One year later, community leaders in Dixon are still trying to put the pieces back together, starting with a youth-centred barbecue geared toward encouraging young Dixon residents to find work and stay out of trouble.

It took place in Dixon Park – the green safe haven that falls between the two clusters of the beige brick towers numbered 320, 330, and 340, where the majority of the police raids took place last June, and the other side, towers 370, 380 and 390.

"We have some kids who are a little bit unruly sometimes, so we try just to get to know each other on a personal level between these two [sides]," said Saleem Messelhi, who organized the outreach event.

Mr. Messelhi said that the Mayor Ford story and the raids gave the neighbourhood a bad reputation, and he wants to change it, by motivating young people.

"Unless we keep the young [people] busy with something, we will keep on getting the problems."

Mr. Messelhi asked the City of Toronto's social services and employment to come pass out information about jobs to youth who live in the Dixon towers.

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Shadio Hashi, 18, just finished her first year at Humber College and was one of the young people to stop by the city's employment table and pick up an information flier.

"I've been searching everywhere [for work]," she said. "Even today, I applied at Indigo, Foot Locker, Bulk Barn."

Ms. Hashi used to be an English tutor for families and newcomers in the neighbourhood. She also worked at a nearby polling station during the recent Ontario election. Now, she said she needs part-time work to pay back her first year of student loans.

But what she really wants to do is work with children as a teacher or educational adviser, she said.

This is the first time the community has talked about and encouraged youth employment with this kind of outreach, said Ms. Hashi, and she thinks it's positive for kids of the towers to stay on the right track.

"It's good so youth are busy and they're actually doing something. So they're not, you know, going to be more prone to doing criminal activities.

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"We are the future," she said.

Other young people living in the towers also talked of similar aspirations of working in social services and with children. Ms. Hashi's little sister, Warda, 11, said she wants to be a teacher or doctor because she loves kids.

If Omar Mohamed, 13, doesn't make it as as professional soccer player, he wants to be a pediatrician.

"I really want to go to U of T," he said.

Despite the challenges that Dixon faces, Mr. Messelhi hopes events like this one will improve its young residents' outlook.

"It's a good start, it's not the end of it, but it's a beginning and hopefully we'll repeat it again."

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