June 15, 2019

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Why volunteer? Y-Not?

Retired teacher provides inner-city children with alternatives to forces that take them down dead-end streets

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Margaret Eve MacKinnon (from left), sempai and program and development assistant for MacKinnon’s Y-Not? Anti-Poverty Program; karate student Glenn Kennedy; sensei Alan Taylor; assistant sempai Warren Hotomani; Brian MacKinnon, founder and director of the Y-Not? program and volunteer Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon attend a karate class at the University of Winnipeg.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Margaret Eve MacKinnon (from left), sempai and program and development assistant for MacKinnon’s Y-Not? Anti-Poverty Program; karate student Glenn Kennedy; sensei Alan Taylor; assistant sempai Warren Hotomani; Brian MacKinnon, founder and director of the Y-Not? program and volunteer Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon attend a karate class at the University of Winnipeg.

Giving a young person from the North End the chance to swim, run track or learn karate is helping to lift them out of poverty.

The idea was the brainchild of Brian MacKinnon, a teacher who retired from R.B. Russell Vocational School almost 13 years ago. During his career, he set up a charitable program, Mac­Kinnon’s Y-Not? Anti-Poverty Program, to use athletics to break the cycle of poverty. A few years ago, he created another program: Y-Not? Inner-City Karate Program.

Mehr Rakhshani knows what it is like to grow up poor.

Rakhshani is in his second year at the University of Toronto as he works toward a career in medicine. Just a few years ago, he was growing up downtown in Manitoba Housing and getting social assistance after his parents couldn’t get jobs in their chosen fields after immigrating from Iran.

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Giving a young person from the North End the chance to swim, run track or learn karate is helping to lift them out of poverty.

The idea was the brainchild of Brian MacKinnon, a teacher who retired from R.B. Russell Vocational School almost 13 years ago. During his career, he set up a charitable program, Mac­Kinnon’s Y-Not? Anti-Poverty Program, to use athletics to break the cycle of poverty. A few years ago, he created another program: Y-Not? Inner-City Karate Program.

Mehr Rakhshani knows what it is like to grow up poor.

Rakhshani is in his second year at the University of Toronto as he works toward a career in medicine. Just a few years ago, he was growing up downtown in Manitoba Housing and getting social assistance after his parents couldn’t get jobs in their chosen fields after immigrating from Iran.

"I did not have very good access to gyms and workout facilities due to financial circumstances within my family," he said. "In poor neighbourhoods there is limited familial support, so youth try and find a family to belong to.

"It is then that we try and fill a void in our life... by turning to the main provider of these in poor neighbourhoods: gangs, drugs and violence. I know this, because I once was faced with these challenges and, luckily through sport, I have found a family and have rejected any negative influences."

Rakhshani signed up for Y-Not? while he was in high school and, armed with his free pass to the downtown YMCA, he went every day to play basketball and work out. It helped him excel on the court, leading to a basketball scholarship to the U of T. (He has since received a different non-athletic scholarship to cover university expenses.)

"As a kid, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but through the right guidance, the right program and the right people, my focus started to be medicine," he said.

Now in its 19th year, MacKinnon’s Y-Not? Anti-Poverty Program focuses on helping inner-city grade 9 to 12 students get involved in sports and recreational activities.

Students can also get food, clothing and other basic necessities, as well as counselling, workshops and seminars on various topics, including drug and alcohol addictions, crime prevention and health issues.

"We’ve teamed with hundreds of Winnipeg School Division principals, teachers — especially phys-ed — as well as counsellors to help kids get a Y membership," said MacKinnon, who grew up in River Heights and began his career at St. John’s-Ravenscourt before moving to R.B. Russell to teach English three decades ago.

"I was just overwhelmed seeing kids in poverty," he said. "I’d see young men smashing their heads in frustration against the brick wall. I wanted to do something."

MacKinnon said the first three students told him they would play racquetball if they had YMCA memberships, so he provided the $8 monthly charge.

Working with the YMCA to help eliminate the cost for inner-city students at his school, about 350 were granted access to the Y during the second year and, by the third, there were 798 members.

Currently, Y-Not? Anti-Poverty Program provides memberships to 13 families, seven children, 54 teens, 18 young adults and six adults.

Since the karate program began in February 2016, it has already had 200 participants, with a core group of 30 moving through the belt levels.

MacKinnon has received several honours, including a City of Winnipeg commendation, a Standing Up for the North End commendation, YMCA-YWCA Canada Peace Medal and the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Former NDP MP and MLA Judy Wasylycia-Leis said MacKinnon is "one of the most tireless and tenacious community activists I have known."

"From his transformative teaching methods at R.B. Russell to his indefatigable promotion of the Y-Not? and karate programs he founded, Brian understands that access to recreational, educational and cultural programs is the key to overcoming poverty and empowering youth."

His wife, Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon, a volunteer with the charity, said the karate program is now the main emphasis of the organization’s charitable work.

"We want to expand the karate program as much as possible," she said. "The program helps with self-esteem.

"It is so uplifting and it is a real multicultural club. They’ve come from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. It is wonderful to see them advance... but none of this would happen without the huge volunteer components," she said.

"While Brian does the job, there is a large network out there."

Margaret Eve MacKinnon, the program’s development assistant, said there are plans to create yoga and gymnastics sessions and, someday, have a standalone Y-Not? facility to operate in.

"When you’re trying to secure a well-rounded recreational lifestyle for people, this program is fabulous," she said.

"We’re removing the obstacle of finance, which usually is what stops them."

Warren Hotomani’s wife and four of his six children are enrolled in the karate program, which runs three times a week at the University of Winnipeg Duckworth Centre.

"It’s just not about karate," Hotomani said. "It’s about helping families in the community."

Hotomani said he is on medical leave and the program has helped his family cover some expenses, including groceries, a monthly bus pass and a month’s rent.

"This is why we need the inner-city karate program to continue and flourish for many years. And to have continued donations through the many years, so this karate dojo can grow and prosper in the community and continue to help families such as mine."

Rakhshani said MacKinnon’s effect on his life has been "huge."

"Brian changed everything for me. Without basketball, I wouldn’t be here. Basketball taught me to be a leader and taught me a lot of life skills," he said.

"Brian could have just been a retired teacher and did his own thing... He really wanted to make a difference, and he has."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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