A decade ago, Francis Atta dreamed of playing professional sport. The star basketball player at James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic Secondary School wracked up huge points and rebounds while eyeing the National Basketball Association (NBA) as a potential destination.
While his numbers on the court were steadily rising, those in the classroom were dropping dramatically. He averaged 25 per cent in at least three subjects in Grades 11 and 12 classes.
Life off the court was not easy for Atta either.
He lived in a homeless shelter for a short period and was on the wrong side of the law.
When a knee injury and the fear of failure ended Atta’s professional hoops dream, he was forced to re-evaluate his life’s choices and change direction.
The classroom became his new playing court and he started to embrace friends who were positive influences and attend church regularly.
With a new sense of purpose to work with young people and help them overcome some of the obstacles he faced in school and growing up in the Jane & Finch community, Atta launched KEYS (Knowledge & Effort Yields Success) in 2010 to inspire and encourage young people to succeed by sharing his personal stories.
In the past four years, he has authored a book – The Flip – and received numerous accolades, the latest being the Keith Forde Youth of Excellence Service Award presented by the Black Community Police Consultative Committee at last week’s Toronto Police Service’s Black History Month celebration.
“I have received a few awards, but this one is very significant because of where it’s coming from,” Atta said. “Just imagine being homeless, having a criminal record and getting 25 per cent in some subjects in high school. That was my reality. I am so honoured to receive this award and to be able to inspire young people.”
Two years ago, Atta – at age 26 – was the youngest recipient of the Top 25 Canadian Immigrants recognition. That year, he returned to his native Ghana for the first time in two decades to reconnect with family members and volunteer at an orphanage.
He plans to enrol in Ryerson University’s youth & child care program later this year to secure his degree.
“I want to move from being a front-line worker to a supervisory position,” said Atta who is a child and youth worker with the Toronto District Catholic School Board and Covenant House.
One of 12 children, Atta shared the spotlight at the TPS Black History Month celebration with trailblazer Larry McLarty who was the recipient of the Service’s Black Internal Support Network (B-ISN) Award.
Arriving from Jamaica in 1957 where he was a police officer for eight years, McLarty anticipated he would have to pay his dues and do jobs outside his chosen field before resuming his law enforcement career.
He was right about that.
However, what he did not know at the time was that the face of the Service was completely White.
Employed for just a day as a railway porter, McLarty spent two years as a catalogue book packer at Sears, a night cleaner at the Bank of Canada and a helper in Toronto Western Hospital’s kitchen before making his move.
His first application to the TPS was rejected when he was told he did not meet all the requirements to become a police officer. He was one-eighth of an inch too short.
Two months later while being fitted for a new suit, McLarty asked the customer service clerk for his measurement. When informed that his height matched the TPS’s job entry prerequisite, he reapplied and was hired on January 25, 1960, becoming the Service’s first Black officer.
Trinidad & Tobago-born Gloria Bartley joined the organization the same year, becoming the Service’s first Black female member.
McLarty and his wife of 59 years –Nona – attended the event that featured spoken word artists Jemeni, Dwayne Morgan and Brooke along with vocalists Ray Robinson, Jermal Humphrey and the Revivaltime Tabernacle Choir.