Change Makers

by Lindsay MacAdam

photography by Jeff Kirk

Millennials, Generation Yers, echo boomers or digital natives – call them what you will. But don’t believe everything you hear about those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, often labelled as narcissistic, lazy, wasteful and irresponsible. York University students and alumni are among the growing number of ambitious young visionaries who are on a mission to change the world for the better, and a few of them recently sat down with The York University Magazine to share their stories.

Humanizing Homelessness

Deanna Lentini (BSc ’16) remembers it well, the childhood moment that would forever shape the course of her life. Entering the grounds of Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition at the age of six, her tiny hand clinging tightly to her father’s, she couldn’t help but notice the people sitting outside the gates, so obviously in need of help but being completely ignored by passersby. “As a little girl, you see that and you feel something because you don’t have any of those stereotypes instilled in you,” she says. “You don’t see ‘homeless people,’ you see people, who are homeless.”

From that day forward, Lentini couldn’t pass people in need without pulling out some money. “The outside pockets of my jackets would always have loonies and toonies in them so I could give them away,” she admits.

With social justice as her raison d’être, Lentini went on to do a lot of volunteering in her high school years, including making beds and lunches at the Good Shepherd Ministries in Toronto. But it wasn’t until she was about halfway through university that she thought up a new way to help the homeless. She decided to start giving away gift cards that she had received – that way, she could hand out more than a dollar or two at a time and it wouldn’t actually cost her anything. “Gift cards are a form of social currency,” she explains, “because you can feel like everybody else when you order your food.”

Lentini began urging her friends and family to participate, and soon she realized this donation model could really have potential. Since people always have odds and ends left on gift cards, it only made sense to collect them and use the combined funds to make bulk purchases for homeless shelters.

First, she called her initiative the “ReGiftcard Program,” but she soon renamed it “Fix the 6ix” in hopes that it could become a larger movement encompassing other poverty alleviation initiatives. Just as Lentini was dreaming all this up, York’s Faculty of Health serendipitously announced its Agents of Change program, which rewarded startup money to fund worthy projects addressing the social determinants of health. Her application was successful and a Fix the 6ix pilot campaign was launched at York’s Keele campus on March 7, 2016. “Honestly, without that $500 grant this project would not have happened,” she says.

She used the money to buy 18 gift card donation boxes, which she placed across campus. In just four weeks, the ­program had collected more than $2,400.

After the success of the pilot campaign, Lentini decided to adopt her friend Matthew Mikhaiel’s 100 for the Homies program into Fix the 6ix, since they share a no-cost donation model and both benefit Toronto’s homeless population. Whenever the Toronto Raptors score over 100 points at a winning home game, all tickets for that game are valid as Pizza Pizza vouchers for the next 24 hours – so 100 for the Homies collects post-game ticket donations, packages them up and delivers them to shelters the next day.

Since the launch of the original ReGiftcard Program last spring, Fix the 6ix has held drives across the city, at storefronts and summer festivals, and at other university campuses, collecting more than $3,500 to date.

Most of the gift card donations are used for big purchases of food, clothing and toiletries for local shelters. “We did all the grocery shopping for a women’s shelter in Scarborough for their Thanksgiving dinner,” says Lentini. “We do Sunday brunches and monthly tickets to the movies for a youth shelter.”

To help achieve the social mission of the program, which, as Lentini puts it, is to “humanize homelessness,” some of the gift cards – ones for values between $5 and $10, for fast food – are given directly to individuals in need, and the interactions are shared on social media every Wednesday. The team’s photographer takes a photo of the gift card recipient, asks for his or her name and a quote, and posts the moment on the organization’s Instagram account. Scroll through the feed and you’ll find artful images of Toronto streets and beautiful portraits of the people who call those streets home – people whose faces we don’t usually take the time to look at, whose stories we don’t often hear. “We’re trying to put names and faces to these people,” says Lentini, “to help end the stigma.”

Working full-time and juggling Fix the 6ix on the side, with plans to start graduate studies in the fall, Lentini wouldn’t be able to continue to execute her vision without the help of her hard-working team: Awo Dirie, a third-year English student at York; Justin Miceli, a fifth-year student in York’s Schulich School of Business; Monica Shafik, a second-year student in York’s Law & Society program; Adrian Autencio, the photographer, who is a business student at York; and Mikhaiel, who is helping the team from afar while teaching English in Madrid.

Fix the 6ix recently took part in Launch YU, York’s entrepreneurship program, and was awarded funding to help pay for a lawyer to get the organization into a trusteeship with West Neighbourhood House and become a volunteer-run committee within the charity. This change will allow the team members the freedom to focus on finishing school without having to abandon their passion project entirely. The hope is that down the road, Fix the 6ix can incorporate as an independent non-profit and eventually grow into a charity of its own.

Spirited Software

York University is often praised for its multicultural community and interdisciplinary approach to academics. It was those two critical factors that drew Alejandro Mayoral Baños (MA ’16) here from his home country of Mexico. With a seemingly unconventional background in both computer science and aboriginal issues, he wanted to bring his two specialties together in his postgraduate studies, but faced skepticism from his peers back home.

After doing a small research project in 2011 comparing the Mi’kmaqs in Antigonish, N.S., to the Totonacs in Mexico, he realized how many similarities there are between the countries’ indigenous cultures: “They are facing the same challenges: poverty, isolation and depression.”

He knew Toronto was a hub for indigenous people and as an international student, he found York’s diversity appealing. He decided to embark on his master’s in interdisciplinary studies at York, and ended up staying for his PhD.

According to Mayoral Baños, there are approximately 250 aboriginal students enrolled at York every year, yet York’s Centre for Aboriginal Student Services only sees around 30 to 35 students on a regular basis. He believes many don’t want to identify themselves as aboriginal because they are afraid of the discrimination they might face if they do. Also, many of these students have to work while they are studying, so their schedules may not allow time for connecting with their cultural community on campus. Whatever the case, he is concerned about the higher rate of depression and suicide among aboriginal youth due to discrimination, harassment, post-trauma from the residential school system and the like. He stresses that it’s not just a problem in isolated northern communities – it’s a problem in cities, too.

As part of his master’s studies, Mayoral Baños wanted to help indigenous youth, and he figured the best way to reach them would be through the one thing they all use: mobile phones. There were already a lot of indigenous apps on the market, but none of them offered a truly safe space. So he set out to ­create one – the Indigenous Friends App, which is now available and free to download via the Apple Store and Google Play.

The process began by consulting with indigenous staff, ­faculty and students at York, as well as alumni and aboriginal elders – 20 people in total – to determine the needs of the University’s aboriginal population.  His intention was to use what he calls an “indigenous software methodology”: making every decision with indigenous values in mind and working with the community every step of the way. “When we started developing the app, we had a ceremony for it,” says Mayoral Baños, “so the app has a spirit within the community … so the community believes in and owns this app.”

In addition to the app’s chat feature, which provides a directory of indigenous people at York that users can connect with, the app also provides access to traditional indigenous counselling, emergency services, forums for group discussion, answers to frequently asked questions, event listings, campus information and links to aboriginal resources in the area – all tailored to York’s indigenous people and their particular needs.

Emergency buttons provide instant access to support for people in crisis. “We were talking with a lot of people who have experienced crises, and they said when you are having a crisis you cannot think,” says Mayoral Baños. “You cannot remember numbers, you cannot even remember names.”

The people he spoke to said if they were able to access emergency lines, they found there was a noticeable lack of experience with aboriginal youth, so they would hang up. This led to Mayoral Baños’ decision to include a network of indigenous elders within the app who can be contacted in emergency situations at the touch of a button. If one elder is not available, there will be a second option, a third option and a fourth option. “The elders know if they receive a call, even if they do not know the number, they have to answer because it is a commitment.”

The last emergency service is a button that says, “I need help now,” for urgent crises. If you click it, your GPS coordinates will be sent to the elder you selected when you set up your profile within the app. When the elder receives the message, he or she knows to call 911 and say there is someone in that area in need of immediate assistance.

Instead of having developers, administrators and users like a normal app, Mayoral Baños explains how the Indigenous Friends App uses seven different roles, each one with unique responsibilities: “Wolves are the staff members, and they are the ones in charge of making sure all the spaces are safe. They can remove people from the app who are harassing others. Bears are alumni or students in their fourth or final years. Turtles are first-, second- and third-year students. Beavers are the developers. Owls are the faculty members, who you can talk to if you have an academic question. Eagles are the elders. And Martens are the non-indigenous people who are allies – they can only join if they are invited by an approved user.”

To ensure safety within the app, no one can register without first obtaining a free access code from the aboriginal office at their university. This extra layer of security, encouraged by the indigenous community, helps users feel more comfortable in this digital space. And despite pressure to include advertisements in the app, Mayoral Baños is determined to maintain his non-profit model: “The moment this [project] starts being for profit it will have a very negative impact on the community.”

Although he has moved onto his PhD in communication and culture, studying how mobile technologies can decrease the suicide rates in aboriginal youth, Mayoral Baños has no plans to halt the development of the app he created as part of his master’s program – quite the contrary, in fact. He has received a lot of interest in his app from other academic institutions, including OCAD, Seneca, the University of Manitoba and Lakehead University. Even Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has met with him about the app and says she sees its potential for Canada’s remote North – once you download the app, you don’t need to be connected to the Internet to use the crisis buttons.

Besides bringing the Indigenous Friends App to other universities and colleges throughout Canada, Mayoral Baños also hopes to create a separate app for indigenous youth in Mexico, and one specifically for aboriginal women: “We really believe we need another space especially for women, because the threats and the problems they are facing are different.”

Safe Haven

Janson Chan (BScN ’15) always knew his brother Joshua was different. He had trouble making friends and expressing his feelings, and he was bullied because of it. Joshua has autism.

He had a lot of treatment growing up and his family was there to ensure he was always safe and had friends around him. “We had reason to believe that through therapy and support, Joshua could be a productive member of society – contribute and thrive and live up to his full potential,” says Chan.

But when the funding was cut for Joshua’s after-school program – where he had spent two evenings per week during his high school years, found acceptance and met his best friend – it made Chan realize how critical these types of services are for autistic teens. As Chan sees it, children with autism are well supported until the age of 12, and then the supports drop, right when these individuals are most vulnerable to mental health issues, isolation and depression. And that’s when, he says, the for-profit agencies often step in and take advantage.

During his undergraduate degree at Western University in London, Ont., Chan decided to take matters into his own hands. He started an autism awareness club with a teen night, where parents and their kids with autism could get together to socialize. When Chan started his nursing program at York in 2013, he knew he wanted to continue his efforts. He applied for funding through the Faculty of Health’s Agents of Change program – the same one that helped launch Fix the 6ix – to establish the Autism Teenage Partnership (ATP) with fellow nursing student Jillian Ferreira (BScN ’15), who has a sister with autism, and Brendon Wildfong, who Chan knew from his undergraduate studies at Western.

He wanted to create a social program that could be run on a modest budget – one where teenagers could come in, be themselves and build a support network of friends their own age. “We really thought this could be a proactive way to ­support teens with autism who are falling between the cracks of the government agencies and the for-profit organizations,” says Chan.

The funding was approved and he launched the program shortly thereafter. Initially intended to be a brief two-month stint, just once a week, Chan quickly realized the impact the program was having on the participants and their parents, so he decided to keep it going. Within the first year of launching, ATP received a $25,000 grant from the Laidlaw Foundation through its Youth-Led Community Change Program. Since then, the team has also taken part in the York Entrepreneurship Development Institute, which provided essential knowledge, skills and mentorship.

ATP is completely youth led and directed, and everyone involved is under the age of 25. It is also 100 per cent volunteer-based, with about 25 students and young professionals helping out on a drop-in basis. “Everybody has an emotional connection with autism, whether it’s a family member or a close friend,” says Chan. “It’s truly a multidisciplinary team that has a common goal and understands the difficulties ­families go through, and that’s what drives our initiative.”

The program runs on weekday evenings for an hour and a half. It is free of charge and open to everyone, promoted mostly through word of mouth, with some help from partners like Autism Ontario. At a typical session, attendees will have discussions, play board games, go to the park, go for walks or go on special outings – this past summer they went to the aquarium, and it was free for the participants. “The challenge we face working with youth with autism is that the autism demands some kind of structure, but at the same time they don’t like structure,” explains Chan. “We let the people who come to the program shape the structure, so if they prefer having more activities then we tailor it to that…. We work really hard to make sure everyone is getting something from the program.”

Chan knows the programs offered by the government and other organizations are usually on a shorter-term basis, and there’s often a massive waitlist. He wants ATP to be something teens can depend on, that’s there during all those in-between times. “There are people who have been with us since the beginning,” he says. “They love it. Some of the parents say this is the highlight of their child’s week, or they woke up specifically talking about coming to ATP today, which is really heartwarming and validates why we do it.”

The program currently serves more than 85 teens across Ontario and their families. Since its inception in July 2014, Chan and his team have launched ATP in two other locations: they worked with parents in Kitchener-Waterloo to open a location there, which is now independently run; and they opened one in Richmond Hill and one in Scarborough. They’re currently working on their next location in downtown Toronto.

Even though Chan now works full-time as a public health nurse with York Region Public Health and his brother Joshua is no longer a teen, but rather a flourishing fourth-year music student at the University of Toronto, Chan’s commitment to this program has never faltered. “Young people have a lot they can contribute and they have the ability to make real change,” he says. “I think we’ve proved that with what we’re doing right now, and we hope to continue.”

In May 2016, Chan was awarded the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers for his indefatigable work with autistic youth. He sees ATP as a system that can be implemented across Canada and the world, and he’s determined to make that happen. “What we’re working on right now,” he says, “is a toolkit we can use to empower other groups interested in supporting their teens.”

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