There was a time when Francis Atta controlled the paint, wracking up huge points and rebounds for James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic Secondary School while eyeing the National Basketball Association (NBA) as a potential destination.
His priorities have however changed in the last seven years.
Prior to being presented with a Herb Carnegie scholarship last Friday, Atta was working the lobby at a Scarborough banquet hall, distributing his business cards and expounding his passion for helping young people overcome some of the obstacles he faced in school and growing up in the Jane & Finch community where he still resides.
Atta, who celebrated his 25th birthday earlier this month, founded KEYS (Knowledge & Effort Yields Success) last September.
“I truly believe that everyone has a key to their own dreams and future and it’s up to them to use it,” said Atta who is completing his second-year in the George Brown College Child & Youth Worker program.
One of 12 children, Atta admits he only started using his key to unlock his potential a few years ago after stumbling through high school and wasting the next four years after graduation.
While he was an outstanding basketball player in school, Atta’s academics suffered to the point where he was averaging 25 per cent in at least three subjects in Grades 11 and 12.
“I skipped classes and homework was not a priority,” he said. “My focus was just on basketball.”
After knee surgery cut his basketball career short, Atta changed his focus.
“I started to hang out with positive influences and I decided that if I was going to motivate and uplift people, I also had to be educated,” added the Ghanaian-born who migrated to Canada with his family two decades ago. “My GPA is 3.88 and I am now attending church regularly and following my father’s footsteps by working extremely hard to make my community proud.
“This scholarship means a lot because I can now go back to my community and show the young people that they can also achieve an award for academic and community excellence.”
Like Atta, Birchmount Collegiate Institute Grade 12 student Curtis Carmichael also has a passion for young people. He discovered that enthusiasm while serving as a children’s camp counsellor four years ago.
Carmichael, who intends to pursue a teaching career, was accepted by all four universities – Queen’s, the University of Toronto, York University and Wilfrid Laurier – to which he applied.
“The choice is between the U of T and Queen’s because I like their academic and football programs,” said Carmichael who will attend university on a football scholarship. “They are the best fit for me at this time.”
Lakeshore Catholic High School student Mirgine Michel, who plans to study communications, and this year’s Harry Jerome athletics winner Keneca Pingue-Giles, who attends the University of Winnipeg Collegiate, were also among the 30 Herb Carnegie scholarship winners.
The other recipients were Faiza Ali, Kasra Azodi-Deylami, Wednesday Bell, Kiera Brant, Dayna Browne, Kathleen Buchner, Darren Cole, Kristin Flannigan, Krrisha Gnanachchandran, Leanne Huang, Menal Huroy, Karar Jafar, Cara Jeffrey, Amani Kafeety, Emily LeBlanc, Jenny Lemke, Jody Lemke, Joanne Lieu, Jia Liu, Krishanth Manokaran, Shaun Riley, Frances Sarmiento, Sinthuha Sivanath, Sigogini Sivarajah, Jacques-Arnaud Vanier, Jason Yang and Karen Young.
The Herb Carnegie Foundation has given out $500,000 in scholarships since the national project was initiated in 1988. There were 350 applicants this year from 125 school boards across Canada.
In the presence of 91-year-old Carnegie who attended the awards ceremony, Toronto District School Board superintendent Johanne Messner applauded the winners.
“You are here because you, at a very young age, have already made a difference,” she said. “I want you to hold your heads up high because your actions are making this world a better place…Believe in yourself and go out and continue to make a difference.”
Carnegie, who was denied the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League (NHL) because of his colour, established the Future Aces Hockey School in 1956 when his career ended. He initiated the community program by paying for the ice time at Mitchell Field rink.
He later created the Future Aces creed as a means of enhancing the overall development of young participants in the program. The creed is a positive philosophy that instills self-esteem and mutual respect and also inspires educators, parents and community leaders to encourage youth to focus on such virtuous qualities as a good attitude, ethics, service and civic responsibility.
Carnegie is blind as a result of glaucoma.