08/23/2012 08:27 EDT | Updated 08/28/2012 05:54 EDT

Our Greatest Person: Lekan Olawoye Of For Youth Initiative In Toronto


“This is crazy,” Lekan Olawoye thought when he received a call saying four friends fell prey to gun violence one day during his high school years. Olawoye, now 27, had lost friends before, but never four in a matter of hours.

“I went home, distraught, and spoke to my brother and I said something has to change,” he said.

Olawoye did. Following his brother’s example, he became interested in programs benefiting youth, eventually earning his BA in social work and becoming executive director of For Youth Initiative in Toronto. And while incidents such as the recent Danzig Street and Eaton Centre shootings still occur in the city, he continues to work with at-risk youth and rectify what he believes to be the cause of gun violence.

“It doesn’t start with someone pulling a gun and shooting. Many things have happened before that time; we’re talking employment, we’re talking dropping out of high school,” he said. “To this day it’s still just issues in communities that lead to violence.”

Such was the case in Olawoye’s Rexdale neighbourhood, which he describes as low-income with a high population of immigrants and single-parent families.

“It’s like any other neighbourhood, except there’s not of money in that community, and there’s not a lot of support,” he said. And without support, negative situations snowball.

“You may get into selling drugs because there are no jobs in your community. As a result of getting into selling drugs, then you get into issues... Unfortunately you get into street justice,” he explained.

That’s where For Youth Initiative comes in. The program operates in Weston Mt-Dennis, a “priority neighbourhood," and has provided support services and leadership for youth since 1995. It offers space for free recreation and one-on-one support, in addition to programs for newly-landed immigrants and girls who have unique issues.

Rewards aren’t immediate, especially as kids enter their high school years and become difficult to reach. It takes at least six months for young people to open up and trust mentors, Olawoye pointed out, and much longer to solve systemic issues leading to gun violence.

It’s a point of view Olawoye has explained to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty as part of his 30-day report around reducing violence following this summer’s devastating and fatal shootings.

While many community leaders and organizations have thrown their two cents in, Olawoye met with the premier and recommended facilitating a government strategy that unites programs to see a kid through childhood, difficult teen years and eventually into adulthood. He expects McGuinty to reveals his official strategy mid-week.

As for immediate solutions to Toronto’s gun problem, he acknowledges the need for a police presence, albeit a balanced one.

“Police will never ever stop gun violence. They won’t. They’ll catch a perpetrator after it happens. But they will not stop it from happening,” he remarked. “Of course we want to take guns off the street, but we’re not dealing with the root issue.”

Having supportive education, employment and mentorship programs, however, might resolve the underlying causes of Toronto’s gun violence, and save the lives of people like Olawoye’s high school friends, he argues.

“If we had the right structures... that are actually providing mentorship to the most hard-to-reach young people, there’s a few that I would guarantee would still be here today and be in a good place.”

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