THE BLOG

How Gladys Okine Is Changing Toronto One Family At A Time

09/10/2013 04:06 EDT | Updated 11/10/2013 05:12 EST

Gladys Okine is the latest recipient of the African Entertainment Awards for her humanitarian work. She shares with me her work in the community, the mission of the organization she leads in honor of her late mother and educates me on how we can all get involved to help her movement grow.

Gladys -- Tell me about yourself

I am Gladys Okine. I am a first-generation Canadian and my parents came to Canada in the late 70s from Accra, Ghana. My father is a retired engineer and my mother owned a African restaurant making her favorite dishes from back home. I have 3 siblings and one niece. I have worked in the non-profit sector since graduating from the University of Toronto in 2001.

My career started at the YMCA of Greater Toronto where I worked as Job developer helping youth find jobs. I moved through several positions at the YMCA and eventually became a Manager of the Rexdale Youth Employment Center. From there I moved to WoodGreen Community Services as Manager, Youth Employment and then Toronto Community Housing Corp where I was the first Manager, Community Economic Development. Now I am proud founder and director of Sesheme Foundation.

Tell me about Sesheme Foundation

Sesheme Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting family and culture as essential components of healthy community development. I founded the organization in honor of my mother who passed away in 2001. She was the biggest cheerleader I ever met. She encouraged everyone who came to see her with a problem. No matter what the problem -- missing loved ones, out of a job, kids having trouble in school, medical problems, and broken relationships, no place to live -- she was a source of strength and support.

For newcomers, she had a special soft spot in her heart. I can't tell how many people stayed in our home until they found work and/or found a place of their own. She believed that everyone deserved an opportunity to live a happy and safe life and that it was everyone's responsibility to support one another if possible. So when she passed away so unexpectedly, thousands of people came to the aid of our family. Some I had never met or heard of. They helped us through a terrible time. They shared stories of how my mom had helped and supported them. It was founded in 2010 and continues her work of treating strangers like family to build community.

What is its mission?

The mission of the organization is t because she was there them for they needed it. It was she offered encouragement and support. She spent hours working and in a city as big, rich and diverse as Toronto we still experience poverty, hunger and isolation. Life is so busy that it is easy to turn a blind eye to what's happening around us. It's so common to live in a neighborhood and not know your neighbor. It's easy to see families struggle to make ends meet and feel powerless. It works with families to support other families in need.

Our programs include an annual Back2School Backpack drive, Sesheme Seniors Clubs, Youth Internship program and the Gratitude Awards event. We are small but mighty, operating through volunteers and small grants to support hiring. We fundraise and self-finance internships, seniors clubs and the gratitude Awards.The organization is led by a very active board of directors consisting of 7 members including Scarborough MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan. Sitsabaiesan has been very supportive and incredibly helpful. I don't know how she finds the time to help us with her super busy schedule as an active public person.

What does winning the Humanitarian Award from the African Entertainment Award Canada mean to you?

It means a great deal. It lets me know that the work of Sesheme is meaningful to the African community and that is so important. My mother died, never knowing how she impacted the lives of so many. The African community was so near and dear to her heart since that is where we are from. For me to be recognized in this way, also brings light to her efforts, for that I am immensely grateful. The award also challenges me to ensure we stay true to our mission and continue to work hard in serving GTA families regardless of what race, faith or color.

Who is one public mentor you admire most and why

I don't have one specific mentor as there are many people I admire for various reasons who are not public figures. My top three are definitely my former college teacher and current friend Mrs Rose-marie Nigli. She was one of the first people who encouraged me to be creative, trust my instincts and invest my ability. The other person would have to be Sheri Salata.

Sheri Salata is President of OWN/HARPO studios. I call her Oprah's secret weapon. I believe in the importance of details in execution. I am in awe of Oprah's ability to vision and select the right people to execute her vision. I admire Sheri's ability to execute Oprah's brilliant vision almost impossible vision over so many years. I hope to help Sesheme grow with the same level of precision and excellence in the years to come. She is someone I would love to talk to one day. Maybe I will get lucky and Oprah will join our conversation.

What support would you want to make your efforts become more effective?

Two things: space and expertise. I would love to secure a dedicated space for the organization. Right now we work from my home, my car and a temporary space we use in the summer for the internship program. In terms of expertise, I would the expertise and assistance of a business strategist to help us continue planning for the future. Money is also good, but at this time, knowledge is invaluable to us. Starting an organization is not easy, it is a business. I have learned so much in the past 4 years and continue to learn every day.

One of the biggest lessons, it is not enough to want to do a good thing. You need to be smart about how you do things when you don't know where the next dollar is coming from, especially when the dollars being used are not yours. I want to ensure Sesheme is just as financially savvy as any other major charity out there. Many thought I'd never it this far because we had no money. Most foundations start with an endowment. We started with nothing and so far we've supported 10 interns with paid learning opportunities, sent 1000 kids back to school with new backpacks and school supplies, provided winter supplies to newcomers, financed socio-recreational programs for seniors, provided 2 scholarships young women in need.

I just keep rubbing my pennies together and they multiply.