It is once again time for the Olympic Games. Most of us will turn our attention to the achievements of our athletes and applaud not only for their performance, but also their dedication and effort put forth to make those performances possible. These are our national champions.
I am a strong believer in acknowledging the exemplary achievements of those who have dedicated their lives in pursuit of excellence. In reflection, I have realized that it is in not simply the achievement I applaud, but rather the dedication and single minded pursuit of excellence I applaud. I am humbled by their effort. The same can be said for the youth we support each day. I am humbled by their resilience and strength in the face of adversity and their ability to push forward despite the odds that are stacked against them.
The opponent in the Olympic Games may be the athletes from other countries, the weather conditions, injuries, illness, or even the athlete themselves. For the youth we support the opponent may be mental health issues, emotional injury, cultural stigma, racism, or poverty. What both groups share is the ability and desire to overcome these opponents each day. Our youth are the champions of life. It is their triumphs that should remind ourselves to cheer and to celebrate. The ability to get up each day and push forward despite the challenges and to do so with a smile and hopefulness is truly the triumph of the human spirit. It is the intersection of the Olympic spirit and the human spirit that I choose to celebrate and I invite you to do the same.
Change one life, one gesture at a time
We are all familiar with the concept of pay it forward. Performing a kind gesture for someone and then the hope is that the gesture is paid forward or reciprocated in some way. In a cynical world the question always arises about how much impact a single kind gesture can achieve. My response is that is can change a life. But you just don’t know which gesture it will be that makes a dramatic impact, so do it all of the time.
Being kind is one of the only things that doesn’t necessarily cost you anything, and almost never causes any personal inconvenience. In fact, the payback is exponentially tilted in the favour of the doer. It feels good to do good. If you’ve ever done something out of the blue and without being asked, that made someone smile, you know the feeling I am talking about.
This year marks our eighth year of Tokens4Change taking place on February 2nd. The theme of this year’s big day is Change one life, one gesture at a time. It is that simple. One gesture of kindness, one gesture of generosity, one gesture of caring. That is the power of your actions.
I ask each of you to offer one gesture of kindness and please do not feel as though it is only for February 2nd. Offer to buy a coffee for the person behind you line, help someone struggling with heavy bags, pay someone’s transit fare. We can change 30 lives in 30 days. Can you imagine the outcome? If every person in Toronto performs one act of kindness a day, at the end of the month there will have been over 844,000,000 gestures of kindness taking place. That is a staggering number. All it takes is one gesture.
Be kind, and on February 2nd as you pass through the TTC stations, you will see me and other T4C’ers canvassing and raising awareness on youth homelessness. You can change a life, one donation at a time. Your generosity will be met with heartfelt thanks and smiles to hopefully brighten your day as you have done that for us.
Us and Them
Although many of us would like to believe otherwise, how we think of someone else impacts how we not only respond to them but also how we judge someone after the fact, and apply a narrative for the future. When we misjudge or prejudge other people, the risk is that we soon put those persons into the ‘Them’ category, while the people who judges put themselves into the ‘Us’ category. Thus we enter into the danger of Us and Them.
Us and Them is dangerous as it encourages blanket statements which are usually quite negative to the Them and positive to the Us. There is a dehumanizing aspect to Them. This makes people feel better since they aren’t burdened by empathy, which could likely implore someone to act. Not acting can evoke guilty feelings that are uncomfortable. Instead, too often we strive for comfort and this can lead to being dismissive to the plight of others. The other strategy often employed is to attach a value statement to the Them. To see Them as being the author of their own misfortune allows us to once again distance ourselves from empathy. We group the Them into convenient packages – and socially constructed spaces.
My challenge to everyone is to change how you view others in a way which humanizes and individualizes Them. Putting homeless youth in the same space as Us is the most basic change that can do so much good. In this space you are thinking of homeless youth as good people having a hard time. The stereotypes and social construct around youth homelessness are simply untrue. Challenge those stereotypes when you hear them. Even more importantly, challenge yourself should they enter in your head.
YWS 30th anniversary series: R
My name is R. I have been residing at Youth Without Shelter for 3 months. Prior to arriving, I was scared and did not know anyone to help me feel better. Regardless of these feelings I had no choice to become a resident of Youth Without Shelter.
The first friend I made at YWS turned out to be my room mate. She also arrived the same day as me and was so friendly I felt better about my situation. The staff helped me feel at ease through their counselling support. Frontline staff were always available to listen to me and guide me through family problems and relationships.
I know I can count on them to give me all available options so that I can make informed decisions about my future. Being at YWS I always feel safe as staff have continued to show me how responsible and careful they are about the safety of residents. Case managers have been very supportive in helping me register for school; transfer to work closer to the shelter as well as providing me with future housing options.
It is hard to believe how my life has changed and improved for the better in such a short amount of time. I entered YWS not knowing what to expect and am now enrolled in school and employed. I am currently in grade 12 and am attending an adult education school. Next year I am striving to be in a college Child and Youth Care Worker Program. My dream job is to help youth and make a difference in their lives the same way staff at YWS have helped me.
It’s been a good experience living at YWS and I will always be grateful that I became part of it. Thank you to YWS for providing me with a home away from home.
As shared by R. at YWS’s Annual General Meeting, September 2014
YWS 30th anniversary series: John R
John Roberts is living proof that hard luck stories can have happy endings.
The St. John’s, Newfoundland contractor sponsors children’s hockey and soccer leagues, is a member of the business establishment and is the father of three children.
He is also a former street kid. At 16, he was kicked out of the house. “You ever see the movie, Rebel Without A Cause? That was me.” Roberts, 41 says with a laugh during an interview. The teenager hitchhiked to Toronto in 1986 and was found by police sleeping under a bridge on Keele Street. That was his lucky day. They took him to the newly opened Youth Without Shelter in Etobicoke. He landed a job and stayed at the shelter until he’d saved enough to rent a little place of his own.
Ultimately, he returned to his hometown and opened his business, John The Trimmer, which does more than $1 million worth of business a year building and renovating houses.
“We must believe in our youth”., says Roberts, who brought his family to Ontario this past summer on a vacation and went back to Youth Without Shelter to express his gratitude – even if the individuals he knew no longer worked there.
“I am a businessman who can help others and I owe it to the.”, he says of the shelter staff who had given him so much support. “People say to me that I am self-made. I say, No a lot of people helped me along the way.”
Credit: Trish Crawford, Toronto Star (Living Section), December 22, 2007
Update note: in 2011 John Robert’s flew to Toronto, and attended YWS’s 25th anniversary recognition event. He spoke passionately about his experiences with homelessness and inspired the youth present with possibilities.
YWS 30th anniversary series: Robert
Robert’s mother was a sex trade worker and struggled with a crack addiction. He had never known his father. At eight years of age Robert ran away with his sister. Children’s Aid stepped in to provide assistance. Robert has been on his own since he left his adoptive parents home at 16. Independence has been Robert’s goal. He has always had work and maintained his own housing. A summer flash flood washed him out of his rental apartment. Subsequently his apartment was beyond repair. With no savings and no alternatives he landed at Youth Without Shelter (YWS) in the emergency residence. Robert was working full-time in the restaurant industry. As part of his YWS case plan the YWS Employment Specialist worked with Robert to explore opportunities for advancement into a restaurant management role. At the same time the YWS Housing Coordinator connected Robert with supportive youth housing where he can save some money for the future while being employed. At YWS Robert took the next essential steps to living independently and focused on getting his life back in order.
YWS 30th anniversary series: George
Growing up George’s family life was in constant turmoil. Early on George spent time in foster care when his Dad could not control his temper. At 16, George made the decision to leave home when his father insisted he drop out of school and make money, an education was not needed. George was determined to get an education. He turned to “couch surfing” moving from one friends home to the next. When that was no longer an option he found his way to a shelter. Throughout it all George remained in school. It was a shelter housing worker who recommended George apply to Youth Without Shelter’s Stay in School Program. He applied and moved in.
George finished Grade 12 and attended an adult high school to take additional courses and improve his marks. George’s favorite subject is Chemistry, where he achieved a grade of 95%. What’s next for George? College- George’s goal is to be a paramedic. George: “I’ve found the resources I need to be able to focus on finishing school. I can concentrate on my studies; there are computers, quite spaces. Bus fare had become a big obstacle in getting to school. I really value the TTC pass provided in the Stay in School Program.”
Note: George has now transitioned to independent living, joined the Canadian Armed Forces and is pursuing his dream of becoming a paramedic.
YWS 30th anniversary series: Marianne
“Homelessness happens. When I walk through the doors in my high school you can’t tell I live in a shelter. We all walk in different shoes.”
(Marianne, age 17)
Each day for a month Marianne, 17, filled her backpack with a few personal belongings and stored them in her high school locker. Marianne had decided that she was not going to take the beating of her father’s fists anymore. Beatings as far back as her toddler years haunted Marianne. One morning she said good-bye to her father. He replied “good-bye, see you tonight.” but Marianne knew this was good-bye. She was not coming home tonight.
A school guidance counsellor determined that Marianne was essentially living out of her school locker and brought Marianne to the safety of Youth Without Shelter. Marianne’s life belongings from her locker were now in the bedroom she calls “home” at Youth Without Shelter.
At Youth Without Shelter Marianne was not alone, she had someone to talk to and someone who will listen to her fears, hopes and dreams. Together with her Case Manager they discussed her specific needs, created goals and a plan of action to achieve these goals. If you visited Marianne’s bedroom at YWS you would have seen these goals boldly spelled out on a list taped to her locker:
- Find a job.
- Find an apartment.
- Stay in school.
- Stop drinking.
How did Marianne do with checking off her list? With the support of the YWS Steps to Success Program she put together her resume and called employers from our job board. She stayed in school. Marianne’s case manager connected her with a support group for abuse survivors. Marianne also met with a housing program worker to review her housing options. Through the Housing Program Marianne connected with “Project Go Home” and reunited with her extended family.
A note arrived at YWS from Marianne: “I want you all to know….you mean a lot to me and you were my real and true family while I was in Canada. You never judged me, left me in my hard times…for which I really admire you! You guys make our days better and we need you.”
Note: While staying at YWS Marianne volunteered talents, sharing her photography skills. This story image is by Marianne, taken by the Humber River near YWS.