By RON FANFAIR
As a youth growing up in Scarborough and Rexdale, Sheldon Blackbourne did not attend high school and was often in trouble with the law because he hung out with the wrong crowd.
He was on a dangerous path leading to either a long-term jail sentence or perhaps becoming another gun violence statistic when the MicroSkills Youth Exchange program rescued him three years ago.
Like most troubled youth, Blackbourne had a skill – culinary – and his aunt guided him to the service agency when she saw a flyer advertising free full-time training in food preparation and menu planning.
“I was nearing 22 and really heading nowhere positive when this opportunity arose and I seized it,” Blackbourne told Share last Thursday night after being honoured with a MicroSkills Youth Leadership award at the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration in Brampton.
“I was at a point where I realized that all the negative stuff I did in the past was not helping me to move forward in life, so I was ready for a change when the opportunity presented itself.”
With the help of MicroSkills youth services manager, Derrick Williams, Blackbourne was accepted into the Cook Pre-Apprenticeship program that the organization and Humber College jointly offer to young people between the ages of 18 and 24. He graduated in 2007 and also secured many valuable professional and life skills during the eight-month program that combines training with on-the-job experience.
He has opened a catering business, prepares delicious dishes for private and community events, volunteers at MicroSkills and mentors five young people.
“In the same way I was given an opportunity by people who believed in me when I did not know what I was capable of doing, I want to help other youth that may need guidance in the same way I did a few years ago,” said Blackbourne, who came to Canada from Jamaica at age six after his mother passed away.
Zacharia Omar also came to Canada at age six – in 1994 – from war-torn Somali where his mother and father were separated during the civil war. He spent some time in Saskatchewan before relocating to Toronto.
“I used to get into a lot of trouble and I was really messed up as a kid,” he confessed. “The one good thing for me is that I did not get arrested.”
Omar assumed the leadership role in home where he lived with his mother and sister and in his school and community where he spearheaded youth programs in the Dixon/Kipling area to increase positive participation.
While in Grade 12, Omar fell ill and was hospitalized for two weeks.
“There was this one particular nurse who took a special interest in me and I remember saying to myself that I wanted to be just like her and help other people,” recalled Omar who is now pursing nursing in college.
Jamal Senior graduated from North Albion Collegiate where he sat on the student council, and plans to pursue a career in tourism management at Humber College. Raised in a single parent household in Rexdale, Senior has become a role model and advocate for change for young people looking for inspiration.
He’s a member of MicroSkills Boys Club and the Bridge to Success Program that helps youth achieve academic and social success.
“MicroSkills has done a lot for me and this award means that I have to step up to the plate when called upon and play an even more meaningful role,” said Senior, who is also an accomplished saxophonist.
Certified General Accountants of Ontario business development manager, Carmen Jacques, who presented the three youth awards, noted that the recipients are role models that communities are desperately seeking.
“Though they are different people, they are similar in the sense that they are bound by a commitment, determination and hard work to rise above all obstacles and realize their dreams,” she said.
Prior to expanding its outreach to young people, MicroSkills provided aspiring immigrant and visible minority women entrepreneurs with a physical space to acquire business skills, operate their business, network and also share resources, information, experiences and expertise.
In 1998, the organization launched the MicroSkills Entrepreneur Awards to recognize the Women’s Enterprise and Resource centre graduates. This year’s winners were Sandra Andrade, Mervat Saber and Nigerian immigrant, Onuwa Ogbolu, who came to Canada in 1989 with her husband and settled in Ottawa.
A professional artist and a university professor in Nigeria with a Masters in Fine Arts, Ogbolu trained as a computer engineer in Canada and worked as a computer instructor and network manager before sustaining a severe head injury in a car accident 12 years ago that left her catastrophically and cognitively impaired.
Nurses took care of her 24 hours a day for six years and she had to learn to walk and talk again.
“I was seriously depressed and I thought I was worthless because everybody was doing everything for me,” she said.
To compound a bad situation, her marriage fell apart, forcing Ogbolu and her now 20-year-old son, Onome Natuse, to move to Toronto in 2006 and start a new life as a single mother. It was while researching on the Internet that she came across MicroSkills.
“I was painting and trying to get an art gallery in Detroit to take my work on consignment,” she said. “I had the business idea but what I needed from MicroSkills was for them to give me the tools and resources to set up my business, and that is exactly what they did.”
Ogbolu’s business has evolved into Canada Mi Dream Holdings, a consulting firm where art, culture and heritage are used to motivate, inspire and empower.
“In essence, MicroSkills taught me that my brain could still function,” she said.
Former Ontario cabinet minister, Mary Anne Chambers, presented the Margot Franssen Leadership award, of which she was the recipient last year, to Annamaria Menozzi while Woodbine Entertainment Croup was recognized with the MicroSkills Corporate Spirit award.
Since its inception, MicroSkills has also established a women’s technology institute, an information technology resource centre and a Centre of Excellence for women and newcomers and established partnership projects with Dixon Neighbourhood Youth Centre, North Albion Collegiate and Humber College.
“We have intensified our involvement in community development because we believe this route will give community members opportunities to determine and achieve their vision of the kind of community they want to live in,” said MicroSkills executive director, Kay Blair.
MicroSkills started out in 1984 with four full-time staff, four computers and a budget of about $300,000. The service organization now employs 130 full-time personnel and its annual operational budget is nearly $8 million.