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May 10, 2006

Post-Mexico Reflections: Time To Get Involved

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (see my Post-Cuba Reflections from last year), there are a few things that I am always reminded of when I come back to Toronto from a longer trip abroad, particularly after going to less-developed places like Cuba and Mexico:

1. When I spend time I always realize that my lifestyle here is far too hectic. I run a full-time business plus I run this travel website and as a result I wear so many different hats, and I have a tendency to get myself into these 15 hour work days. Not very healthy, physcially, emotionally and in terms of relationships. I realize I have to slow down a little.

2. Coming back from Mexico, just like after my return from Cuba, I realized how good we have it here in Canada. Don't get me wrong: Mexico is an absolutely gorgeous country and I had the opportunitiy to see and stay in many beautiful places. And I have met some absolutely phenomenal people.

But the fact remains that Mexico is still a developing country, and more so than that, it's plainly obvious that resources are divided extremely unequally in Mexico. You'll see beautiful gorgeous villas whose owners enjoy an unbelievably privileged lifestyle including a number of servants, such as gardeners, maids, cooks etc.

You see mansions, hidden behind high walls, with lush tropical gardens and electronically controlled sprinkler systems, while people in a neighbourhood 5 minutes away only receive municipal water twice a week for an hour each. And 5 more minutes away you see people living in cobbled-together shacks, built without building permits, with no electricity, no water supply, no sanitation.... The contrast between rich and poor is simply astounding, and the minute you move outside of the big resort areas, the harsh realities of Mexican life hit you right in the face.

While in Cuernavaca, I went to the bathroom at the local McDonalds, and a very young indigenous girl was waiting outside the stall. She had seen my backpack on the floor and I had one of those mini-bottles of yoghurt stashed away in a mesh pocket on my napsack. She patiently waited for me to exit out of the washroom and then asked me in a very quiet voice if she could have my small bottle of yoghurt. If that doesn't pull at your heartstrings I don't know what will.....

I spoke with many Mexicans, and some of them came from very privileged backgrounds. I had a conversation with one local person about the fact that I take the local bus all the time and I enjoy riding with the locals. Her response was "We don't take the buses. We don't ride with those people because they are ugly and they smell...". That comment almost knocked me off my socks.

3. Over the last year or so I have spent a lot of my time seeking out and interviewing individuals and organizations that make a difference. I have done interviews with Doctors without Borders, with Servas ("Travel for Peace") and many non-profit organizations and private individuals that make a positive contribution, locally and abroad. Even this time in Mexico I interviewed or wrote articles about 3 different local charity organizations that dedicate themselves to helping the poor, particularly the local indigenous people who suffer not just from poverty, but also from many other social problems, including racism.

This latest trip to Mexico has pushed me over the edge. When I saw how wealthy people just ignore and walk by the less fortunate, I said I can't sit on the sidelines any longer. I have to get involved myself, I have to move from interviewer and writer to becoming an active volunteer for social causes myself. I was reflecting on which cause was most important to me, and one of the interviews I did earlier this year, with Kevin Lee, from the Scadding Court Community Centre, impressed me so much that I decided to dedicate my efforts to Kevin and his organization.

I met Kevin last Friday and he took me around his facility which is located in downtown Toronto in a low-income neighbourhood with a substantial proportion of public housing. This community centre is really a social agency for this entire area and provides low-cost daycare services, ESL lessons for new immigrants, basketball scholarships for talented local youth, a community garden, programs for seniors and new immigrants and many other programs. Kevin said they are even starting a local restauarant for the neighbourhood and they have a fully equipped doctor's office staffed by 2 family physicians who come in and donate 30% of their medical services free of charge to people who don't have medical coverage.

This organization impressed me so much, even more so since virtually all the initiatives that the Scadding Court Community Centre gets involved in are funded purely by fundraising efforts with no public funds at all. The city only contributes the building and costs for maintenance and repairs. All the rest, the salary for 110 employees, the supplies and the money for all the programs is generated through fundraising efforts. I was honestly blown away by this degree of commitment and resourcefulness that benefits so many people in the City of Toronto.

The International Scholarship Program at SCCC is a city-wide intervention program that targets at-risk youth that are in danger of getting involved in a gang lifestyle. The scholarship recipients get sent for four months to India where they get involved in a local charity organization that dedicates its efforts to the children of Indian sex trade workers. Prior to leaving they learn how to teach English and computer skills to the children in India. Once they come back they receive pre-employment and job search skills. In all, the International Program is an entire year long and gives young Toronto people a chance to experience life in India and what it means to dedicate themselves to serving community causes.

Experiences like these absolutely change lives. Many of these young people come back to Toronto as different people and get involved in positive community endeavours. So, the International Scholarship program at the Scadding Court Community Center truly embodies the idea of harnessing cross-cultural connections to make an important difference locally and internationally, and they help at-risk youth find their way towards a meaningful adult life with positive ties to the community.

This cause is important to me since I believe I am truly fortunate to live in a city like Toronto, this most multi-cultural city in the world. It's a clean city, it's a safe city, it's run reasonably well and efficiently, and among all the places I have visited in the world as a travel writer, it's unique. I am not saying Toronto is perfect, but what I am saying is that Toronto is a more diverse and more inclusive place than any other place I have seen in the world. Getting involved with the SCCC's International Scholarship program is a chance for me to help improve this city and do my part to make it a better, even safer place. And it will also benefit people in need on the other side of the globe.

So, over the next few months I am going to be involved in working on a fundraising project with SCCC that will benefit the International Scholarship Program. The details are still being worked on, but the seeds have been planted.

It's funny, being exposed to all these wonderful people who dedicate a good chunk of their time and energy to community causes, locally and abroad, is contagious. I've caught the bug....

Related Articles:
The Scadding Court Community sends at-risk youth to China, India and Mongolia for life-changing experiences
Ignite the Night - A circus evening in Toronto benefits street kids in Peru
Bruce Poon Tip - Global travel entrepreneur with a conscience
Fundacion Comunidad: A Cuernavaca organization empowers indigenous women
The Cuernavaca Newcomers Club works on social causes and creates ecological awareness
Casa Vamos in Cuernavaca: multiple initiatives help local indigenous people living in poverty
Interviewing 2 Cuernavaca non-profit organizations and a guided eco-hike
Skills for Change - Toronto-based agency is an expert in immigrant settlement
Legacy International - US-based NGO focuses on peace-building, leadership training and international exchanges
Farzana Hassan - A progressive voice in Canadian Islam
Preview: Chioma - a beacon in Toronto's black community
Danielle Weiss - Sustainable tourism expert makes a difference in Peru
Voices of diversity - Two Toronto women create a Holocaust documentary
The 26th Annual Bedzzz Race - An important Ottawa Kiwanis Club fundraiser
Dr. Scott Rains - An expert on disabled travel and universal design
Pablo Chufeni - Servas member, creator of international youth language exchange programs
Danielle Lafond mortgages her Toronto condo to start a non-profit organization in Peru
A walk through Vancouver's downtown East Side
Mary Jane Mikuriya - Servas traveller and commited volunteer in San Francisco
Robert & Bette Allekotte - Servas members, volunteers for peace & the environment
Mony Dojeij and her 5000 km Walk for Peace
Helga Smith - Servas traveller, volunteer for the blind
Doctors without Borders - global volunteering opportunities
Pier 21 - Canada's front door to millions of immigrants
Servas - Travel for peace and intercultural exchange





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