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John Honderich, chair of Torstar's Board of Directors

All in the Family

by Amy Stupavsky

photography by mike ford

Beland Honderich’s 52-year tenure at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper, was marked by a rise from financial reporter to publisher to chair of the board – all of which he accomplished with only a Grade 9 education. Growing up in Baden, Ont., during the Depression, he had to leave school prematurely to help support his family.

“My father was fanatical about higher education,” says John Honderich, current chair of the Torstar board, of his father. “He felt that he had to work twice as hard to compensate for lack of formal education. The fact that he had never received it was one of the driving forces in his life and guided his philanthropy.”

That philanthropy came to life when he joined forces with the North York Board of Education to establish the Honderich Bursary, which encourages deserving high school students to pursue university education. The award includes tuition to York University, renewable over a four-year undergraduate degree, and a summer internship at the Toronto Star after each recipient’s first-year studies. Since its inception in 1990, more than 100 students have benefitted from the award. Today, John and his brother, David, steward the family’s philanthropic initiatives.

Giving back to the community defined the Honderich family’s values. Beland, who espoused the principles of Joseph E. Atkinson, founder of Torstar Corp. and proponent of social welfare, was instrumental in the formation of Atkinson College at York University. His wife, Florence (Wilkinson) Honderich, was an early supporter of the David Suzuki Foundation and sponsored students attending the Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific in Victoria, B.C., an international college that brings together students from around the world for pre-university education.

“My parents inculcated those values and principles very deeply in us,” says John. “Giving back is part of being a responsible citizen and Canadian.”

The Honderich Bursary is an embodiment of those values. Providing opportunities for people to thrive in Toronto’s high-priority, primarily immigrant Jane and Finch neighbourhood forms the cornerstone of the Honderich Bursary. It is open to students from four schools in the area: James Cardinal McGuigan Secondary School, C. W. Jeffreys Secondary School, Emery Collegiate Institute and Westview Centennial Secondary School.

“When we founded the bursary, the idea was to give students the ability to achieve and succeed without financial encumbrances,” explains John. “It gives them the capacity to aspire to more than the confines of their neighbourhood.”

John says that hearing recipients’ stories – of their backgrounds, achievements and dreams – at the award ceremony always strikes him as amazing. “This bursary has changed my life” is the most common refrain.

“I don’t think it can get more profound than that – to know that you’ve changed someone’s life just by giving them an opportunity,” he says. “It really speaks to how immigrants and the children of immigrants continue to make Canada grow and flourish. It demonstrates how new Canadians can help so much if they’re given the chance. I feel extraordinarily proud and lucky to be a part of this.”

United by Opportunity

Nuradin Mohamed-Nur, Phong Tran and Maithily Panchalingam vary in age, family background and academic focus. They have different dreams and philosophies, but their stories converge because each grew up in Toronto’s Jane and Finch community with a worldview shaped by the immigrant experience – and each received the Honderich Bursary. Here are their stories in their own words.

Nuradin Mohamed-Nur

Second-year environmental and health studies ­major at Glendon ­College

WHAT THE MEDIA report about Jane and Finch isn’t wrong – there are problems with violent crime and drugs – but what isn’t often publicized is the strength of the inhabitants. Life is a struggle here, but people get up in the morning and go on with their lives. There is so much potential in our neighbourhood, and it has been the greatest influence in my life. Growing up in a “priority” area has given me the resilience to tackle the struggles that come my way. If you’re not resilient, you’ll sink into apathy or succumb to negativity.

I knew from an early age that I wanted to go to university, but I encountered people from my neighbourhood who told themselves that university wasn’t for them, solely because of where they came from. When I’m feeling demotivated, I remember that I have people who believe in me – my family, friends, peers, teachers and even the Honderich Bursary selection committee. That helps me to stay focused on my dreams.

My parents are from Somalia and came to Toronto during the civil war. I grew up in an apartment building with my mother and extended family. My father lives in Kenya, and he travels between Africa and Canada to visit us. My mom instilled a desire to understand the world in me. She enrolled me in various extracurriculars – taekwondo, tutoring, swimming lessons – to ensure that my mind was stimulated and to distract me from negative influences in my neighbourhood.

Being immersed in a new environment, language, culture was challenging at first, but it pushed the limits of my resilience

My understanding of the world grew with a momentous event: My mother and I moved to Kenya for three years while I was in middle school to be with my father. Those three years changed the way I think and act today. Being immersed in a new environment, language, culture was challenging at first, but it pushed the limits of my resilience. I became a better person and more focused on my education because of that experience. I grew as a person and gained a global perspective on the world. I still use those lessons to help calm my nerves in new environments.

When I was child, I would tell people that I wanted to be a paediatric neurologist, but over the years my dreams have changed and adapted to the issues I see in the world. One of those issues is climate change. Society continues to disregard the impact of its actions on our Earth and the overall quality of our health. York’s program in environmental sustainability and global health combined both of these issues, so when I heard about the Honderich Bursary and my educational dream seemed feasible, I knew I had to chase the opportunity.

I am the first in my family to go to university, and the Honderich Bursary was a blessing for my entire family. By investing in my future, the bursary has made my university experience far more enjoyable and motivating. It demonstrates that people believe in students from my neighbourhood and gives us the opportunity to succeed so we can give back. I want to make a difference in the lives of others, especially in the lives of youth who grew up in similar areas.

Phong Tran

Third-year physics and astronomy major

ONE OF MY FAVOURITE quotes is, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” For me, it means that life is what I make of it, and I shouldn’t expect anything from others.

Growing up, I’d characterize my life as peripatetic. My family is from Vietnam. My parents separated when I was young, and my mom cared for my brother, sister and me. Money was tight, and in 2012, we were evicted from our home. From that point onwards, our living circumstances changed frequently. I’ve lived all over the GTA, but mainly around Jane and Finch, and I attended more than 10 schools in the 12 years leading up to my studies at York.

Maybe it was because of the constant change of schools, but I stopped attending high school in Grade 10. When everyone graduated without me, I felt I would never walk the path of a scholar. It seemed impossible, especially given my family’s financial situation.

There are many moments in my life that have moulded me and pushed me to reach for success, but the event that sparked me to change direction was breaking my arm in an accident. I realized that I am the only person who has to face the consequences of my decisions. I have to credit losing things of great value – my home, my friends and loved ones – for bringing me to where I am today. Although one can never predict what one may lose next, the idea that we could lose everything at any moment makes me appreciate what I have while I have it and reach for what I don’t yet have while I can.

I realized that I am the only person who has to face the consequences of my decisions

My greatest influence is my mother. She sacrificed so much to raise me and my siblings, and she inspires me to be strong in all situations. I want to work hard for her and make her proud. Eventually, I want to take care of her when she needs me the most. I enjoy life for what it is – meeting new people, learning about the lives of others and gaining wisdom every day.

I’ve always been extremely good at math, and when I re-enrolled in high school, I excelled. Before that, I had failed all of my courses, including Grade 11 math three times, because of truancy and lack of desire. I enjoyed Grade 12 physics so much that I couldn’t wait to see what York would offer me in the discipline. Without the Honderich Bursary, I would not have been able to sustain myself financially and continue my studies at my full potential. Without the bursary, I probably would not be attending university at all.

In the future, I want to pursue a PhD in physics, engineering, economical modelling or game design and development. While I’m not sure which path I’ll take, I’m interested in researching more efficient renewable energy resources. I want to change the world and make it easier for people to live comfortably. Helping others and working towards making the world a more equal, fair place is one of my main motivations in life.

Maithily Panchalingam

BSc ’01, kinesiology and health sciences major

MANY SOUTH ASIAN immigrants will tell you that school is so important because it’s the path to success in a new country. I’m Sri Lankan, and I came to Toronto when I was 15. Canada was the land of opportunity, and as soon as my family arrived, Jane and Finch felt like home. The neighbourhood pulses with multiculturalism. I had friends from the West Indies, Poland and the Ukraine, and being among other newcomers helped me to settle in.

My life has been a curious combination of happenstance and serendipity. I never thought I’d one day work at the Toronto Star – or that it would form the backbone of my career. I didn’t think I’d be doing anything remotely similar to journalism. After I graduated from York, I thought I’d enrol in teachers’ college or a chiropractic program.

The Honderich Bursary changed the course of my life, beginning with that Star internship. I remember arriving at the building on Queen’s Quay and pinching myself – the Star is a household name, and now I was a part of it. I began working in the newsroom. After that first summer, I worked part time in the advertising department while I was in school.

My life has been a curious combination of happenstance and serendipity

I now work as the public editor associate. I keep the newspaper accountable to our readers by checking facts and correcting errors. You never know what you’re going to get because you can’t predict the news.

Workng at the Star has taught me that newspapers have the power to change people’s lives. You can’t work here and close your eyes to injustice. We’re making a difference. Writing stories can change social policy. We publish a lot of stories about immigrants and temporary workers in precarious situations, and by publicizing their struggles, we can help to effect change in their lives.

For me, the Honderich Bursary does the same thing – it helps the little people. Coming from Jane and Finch, all I knew was my neighbourhood. People didn’t really talk about higher education. A scholarship like this gives students who were in my shoes the opportunity to see what else is out there. In life and in my job, I’ve learned to keep an mind open because I don’t know what will happen next.

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