By Sheri DeCarlo
For Youth Initiative’s The Power of One, held on March 22, 2012 at the Shamba Space at 48 Yonge Street, provided the opportunity to experience first-hand a movement to support Toronto’s youth and to see the transformative effects that youth-led work has on young people’s lives by shining a light on inspiring words, deeds and people.
Guests heard from former Toronto mayor David Miller, CP24’s Gurdeep Ahluwalia, staff and young leaders who are making a difference in communities throughout Toronto and whose lives have been, and continue to be transformed by the organization.
“I was raised by a single Mum, who worked three jobs to provide for the two of us. Many of these youth grew up in single parent families like mine. I was introduced to For Youth Initiative while I was Mayor because many neighbourhoods in Toronto had not had the benefit of enough public investment – we called them priority neighbourhoods because they are a priority for that investment. For Youth Initiative exists to serve the youth of one of those neighbourhoods. Sometimes, when a door is closed, young people can only see a wall. But if we empower them, give them a voice, it is like that door opening and letting a little light in. Once they see the light, they open the door and stride through. It’s important to give young people a voice, when you do, they have shown me time and time again, they know what to do with it,” says former Toronto mayor David Miller.
Lekan Olawoye grew up in Rexdale, and was raised by a single mother. His father died when he was one. By the time he was 20, he had lost 10 friends to gun violence. Four friends were massacred in St. James Town. On advice from his older brother, he changed his trajectory from retaliation to social work and, due to this, believes strongly in The Power of One. In university, he was connected to a mentor that didn’t let him regress. “I’ve never been to jail, never sold drugs, our communities stand for more than that,” says Olawoye. Today, he is the Executive Director of For Youth Initiative, holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Ryerson University and a Master of Social Work from the University of Toronto.
“When I was asked to be a part of this event, I’ll be honest I didn’t know a lot about For Youth Initiative, but after reading about it and meeting some of you, I’m inspired,” says CP24’s Gurdeep Ahluwalia.”Life is about opportunities. Everyone just needs an opportunity and from there you can create a break. I’m a firm believer that you make your own breaks. That’s what For Youth Initiative does; it gives you the opportunity, so you can make your break. Whether your interest is sports, cooking, tech, social media, photography, what have you, you’ve got an opportunity to make the right choice for you.”
Chica Mbombo, who came from the Congo to Canada when she was 12, and has lived on her own since she was 18, received the For Youth Initiative scholarship last year. “We shouldn’t let the neighbourhood we live in determine where I’m going or what I want to do in the future,” says Mbombo. “I am very grateful for the support I’ve received from For Youth Initiative.”
Currently, she is enrolled in the Child and Youth Worker program at Humber College. “I have always wanted to become a Child and Youth worker. I believe in giving back to the community. I can help to instill hope in these young people by being a positive role model, and encouraging them to value the skills and experiences that make them unique,” says Mbombo. She would like to further her education by pursuing a degree in Child Psychology. “In the future, I would like to return to my home country to open a non-profit organization that will assist young women in obtaining an education as they too need someone to believe in them.”
The Power of One program at For Youth Initiative matches volunteers who can share knowledge and experience with youth-led organizations that require additional skills to develop their organizational capacity. Volunteers can be engaged in short-term projects, longer term commitments, board or advisory positions, ad-hoc support, virtual volunteer and pro-bono consulting.
Youth-led organizations will articulate their needs, priorities and goals and For Youth Initiative facilitates partnerships and provides access to skilled volunteers. As part of this dynamic network, youth-led organizations and young professionals will together strengthen the capacity of our communities, our organizations and our youth.
“For one person to say you will be more than they expect you to be, that’s The Power of One,” says Olawoye. “Two participants in For Youth Initiative’s programs were killed, one young man shot outside the other friend’s funeral. From there, a scholarship program was started and has sent 17 people to college/university. Your opportunity is to be that power to save someone’s life. What are your talents and skills? Support us in saving lives. Young people are not the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today. Let’s build our City, through our young people.”
“I also knew of the organization because of the tragedy of the shooting of Amon Beckles, a member of For Youth Initiative,” says Miller. “Some good must come out of such a tragedy. That’s why I believe in organizations like this. I am a firm believer in the work they do, and through the Joan H. Miller Foundation (established by me in my mother’s name) have supported the For Youth Initiative Scholarship Program to assist youth demonstrating community leadership and financial need to obtain post- secondary education and training. It shouldn’t matter if you’re from Forest Hill or Malvern, Rosedale or Rexdale; in Toronto you should have the chance to live your dreams.”