When Jason Leo Tait began rapping at 12 years old, he didn't know he would one day use it as a tool to fight addiction and give back to at-risk kids such as himself.
Tait grew up in a broken home. He spent much of his life in and out of foster homes. His mother and father were both addicted to alcohol and drugs. His parents listened to hip-hop music when they were partying, he said, and he grew to love it.
Tait was nearly blinded when he was 15 years old. He was accidentally shot in the eye with a paintball gun and lost most of his vision in his left eye.
When he moved to Edmonton at 18, he joined a gang and sold drugs to support himself. He began struggling with alcohol and drug addiction and found his life spiralling out of control.
"Just to eat, I would sell dope. I thought it was cool at the time. It kept me fed but I wasn't really contributing to society in a positive way. But drugs were just a normal thing -- a normal part of life," Tait said.
At 20, Tait made the decision to get clean because "something bad was going to happen. I was gonna end up killed or in jail."
He severed gang ties, quit alcohol and drugs and moved back to Winnipeg to start over. To cope with the transition, Tait turned to hip hop.
"When I first started rapping, I was about 12. Back then it was all about being gangster and impressing your boys. But when I was getting clean, it started to evolve to me expressing myself. Instead of keeping feelings bottled up and eating at me, I'd put it on a piece of paper and release it," Tait said.
While building his career as a rapper, Tait found Reaching E-Quality Employment Services, an employment service for people with physical disabilities. REES teaches interview techniques and conflict-resolution skills.
After REES helped Tait find steady work, he wanted to give back some of the success he's found through music.
Tait, now 21, was awarded a paid internship with REES and began the Underground City Rap Project -- an after-school drop-in rap program for inner-city kids. The program runs three times a week out of the Graffiti Gallery's Studio 393.
"I see so many kids in this city and they are just like me. They come from broken homes and are just around negative influences all the time. Music has just helped me so much stay right and stay away from the bad things that I used to struggle with. I wanted other kids to get to experience that too," Tait said.
REES is able to offer programming such as the Underground City Rap Project thanks to financial support from United Way. Last year, United Way donated about $17,000 to REES. This financial support is just part of a larger initiative by United Way to build stronger communities by empowering youth.
Just two months into the program, Tait said it's the most rewarding experience of his life.
"When you see a kid finally get a rhyme right, or just getting in front of a mike and expressing something that's really going on in their life, it's just such an amazing thing to see. You see them feel empowered and like they can do anything," Tait said.