A sprawling 160-hectare campground in Saint George, Ontario is the site of a unique 12-week pilot program for teens from Toronto’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
“Being able to participate in this program made me really happy,” said 15-year-old Kofi Oben. “The first week I was a bit confused, but as I got into the program, I know this program is really trying to prepare us for the future.”
The Justice Fund pilot program was launched in the fall of this year. It’s organized by a team that includes the Tim Hortons Foundation and Noah “40” Shebib — the global music powerhouse and producer of many superstar Drake hits.
“The opportunities you get or the experiences you have in a place like this are so unique and important and so healing and shaping for young people, that you can achieve things that you never thought possible,” Shebib explained. .
38 boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 18 take part in the camp. Every Saturday for three months, the youngsters get a crash course in a wide range of new skills – from archery and music production to astronomy and rock climbing.
The mission plan is to provide them with access to opportunities and experiences through structured camp-based learnings, all aimed at helping them lead change in their personal lives as well as in their communities.
“This is a very popular partnership, unlike a top-down approach that typically occurs when these types of initiatives are brought to our communities,” said Yonis Hassan, co-founder and CEO of Justice Fund Toronto.
What makes this pilot program unique, Hassan explains, is that it is the members of these communities who dictate the type of program needed and help design the program, rather than an outside group who have never experienced poverty. or danger.
“There have been many programs and initiatives created for Black and Indigenous communities, but never by Black and Indigenous communities. Always for black and indigenous communities,” Hassan said.
“Right now, people need to take a step back and recognize that, you know, this increase, this signal of virtue isn’t really enough for anyone.”
The program organizers worked with 10 community partners who selected each participant based on their academic, athletic and leadership potential.
This is a unique opportunity for children who have had little in their own lives so far. For many, this is their first time out of Toronto. For all of them, it’s the first time they’ve been to camp.
“It’s a lot of fresh air and a lot of open space,” Oben said.
The camp is located at Onondaga Farms, a site owned and operated by the Tim Hortons Foundation. With lakes, wetlands, a working barn, an ecocentre, as well as a fully functioning telescope, it’s a welcome escape from the urban pressure cooker.
WATCH | Yonis Hassan of the Justice Fund explains why some racialized youth in Toronto cannot access the Canadian outdoors:
Duncan Fulton, senior executive at Tim Hortons, says working with the Justice Fund on this program was an easy decision.
“You have all this empty space and all this availability during the school year that can be filled,” he said. “A lot of young people have never even left the city centre.”
He adds that the organizers are also learning from their first group.
“What’s exciting is the pilot program…we expect that we’ll learn as we go and be able to improve the program. We’re really pleasantly surprised so far with the quality of their program and how well, the kids are kind of handling it.”
In addition to providing access to outdoor spaces, the program emphasizes activities that will build self-confidence and a sense of community among camp youth.
Music producer Shebib says the Justice Fund pilot is close to his heart.
“I grew up in downtown Toronto, so I was aware of the issues surrounding downtown communities,” Shebib said. “I have been quite close to the violence in the city of Toronto which has seriously affected me.”
He hopes this camp program can reach out and make a difference for young people in Toronto who he feels are being overlooked by the system.
“There’s a huge cohort of young people in this city that I think are being overlooked due to the fact that they’ve been criminalized on some level or are involved with the law,” Shebib said.
“Philanthropy generally doesn’t want to give money to these young people.”
WATCH | Noah ’40’ Shebib, co-founder of the 40 Foundation, on helping young people:
Marley Lawrence, 21, knows firsthand what young people in some vulnerable neighborhoods in Toronto are going through.
“My life growing up was a bit difficult,” said Lawrence, who comes from the low-income, highly diverse and densely populated community of St. Jamestown.
“What I was doing was selling drugs. [I was] around guns and stuff like that, because that’s what all the important people in my life who care about me, that’s what they were doing,” Lawrence said.
“And even though I know they weren’t bad people, you still become a product of your environment where you don’t know anything else.”
Lawrence credits music with saving him from a life of crime. He is now a youth mentor and community activist.
He attends the camp as a participant, as well as a role model for the younger ones.
“I just try to pay it forward, because you can explain something to someone, but by showing them, they might understand a lot more,” Lawrence said. “Maybe they can look at me and I can be a positive example.”
WATCH | Youth Community Mentor Marley Lawrence uses rap to help guide youth in his community:
For Kofi Oben and Fantasia Bryan-Hall, both 15 and friends who live in the same neighborhood of Moss Park, being at camp has meant a new perspective through which to see themselves and their community.
“Last week there was a workshop, getting to know my core values – like family, like health, physical and mental health. And staying independent, trying to rely on yourself, doing your own thing. Like, get to work on your own,” Oben said.
“The first week was surprising because we just arrived and I was like, ‘Where are we? ‘” Bryan-Hall added.
“And then they told us things that we were going to do and the people, the special guests that are going to come. And I just got excited because they’re giving us opportunities, and talking about the future, and what it’s being at camp, and survival skills and all that.”
WATCH | Fantasia Bryan-Hall and Kofi Oben discuss some of the challenges they face as young people living in a high-risk neighborhood:
Bryan-Hall wants to pass on what she learns in the program to her community.
“It’s really important to give back to the community where [we] live, because it can really make the community happier,” she said.
Hassan of the Justice Fund says he hopes to see this pilot program implemented across Canada for marginalized youth, especially those from Black and Indigenous communities.
“You give them the confidence they need to have great careers,” he said.
“I hope the next Drake will be in this group, right?
Shebib adds that the takeaways for the youth of the program at the end of the 12 weeks should be: “Give [them] a fork in the road, in a road that has no fork – showing these other ways. We try to give them other options that they may not have right now.
“To me, that’s the measure of success.”
Oben and Bryan-Hall said they hope to end the program with new friendships, experiences and memories, but most importantly, with a reset of what is possible.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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