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‘Have you ever asked yourself what is possible, or thought about the ability, your capabilities to change the world," opens a poem by Eniola Soetan, a recipient of a bursary from the Rising Stars Foundation.
"That no matter who you are or what you do, the power to do something will always be running through you."
Youth involved in the foundation showcased their athletic and academic skills in a virtual gala Thursday night.
Two participants — including Soetan, who spearheaded a recurring movie — were awarded bursaries for their contribution to their communities.
A highlight reel opening the event showed clips of students dribbling basketballs, sprinting and taking in virtual tutoring sessions.
"Through our tutoring and training program we’ve been developing ourselves holistically," Grade 8 student Tian Sakendu told attendees.
"With Rising Stars, my possibilities are endless."
Foundation founder Wilfred Sam-King said the old adage, "It takes a village to raise a child" rings true to him.
"I’m not blind to the fact that it literally took a village to get me where I was," he said days before the gala.
Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Sam-King and his mother moved to Canada as sponsored refugees when he was six. The former Olympic hopeful credits his success to parents, coaches and teachers who supported him when he was young.
"(It took) my teachers, my mother, my family, my friends and everyone else, but I saw first-hand that a lot of youth don’t get those same opportunities," he said.
The national track and field star founded the Rising Stars program in 2018. He had to leave amateur sports in 2020 because of an injury.
"I started realizing there was more to the world than sports and school," he said.
It had started as an annual fundraiser and evolved into an active living program.
"Originally, it started with the framework to help kids from underserved communities find their full potential, whether it be in arts, sports or whatever," he said.
With a few years of fine-tuning under their belts, Sam-King and the team behind Rising Stars now run tutoring, training and mentorship programs to encourage youth to stay active while pushing toward their academic, creative and life goals.
For 13-year-old Ayaz Alkhalee, who arrived in Winnipeg from Iraq in 2017, the Rising Stars program has offered community, support and a place to pursue his passion for soccer.
After meeting the Rising Stars on a city basketball court and asking to join the game, the Grade 8 student has found a place to learn, play and grow with new friends.
Alkhalee giggles on the phone as he and Sam-King talk about his time in the program, the friends he’s made and the support he found through mentors.
"They cheer me on, and they believe in me, and they help me," he said. "Rising Stars helps me, the teachers, everyone who loves me helps me."
Alkhalee is in it for the sports. He started playing soccer with socks loaned to him by an uncle when he and his family lived in Iraq. Now, the 13-year-old is a defender on a local team and constantly aspires to sharpen his skills. Alkhalee wants to be a police officer, should a pro soccer career not pan out.
Whatever his passions, Alkhalee feels supported to set goals and achieve them with the help of the Rising Stars.
The program’s leaders are largely professional athletes — including 2020 Olympian Jerome Blake, who worked with Sam-King to develop a new national mentorship program called Step in Stone — but their approach to community work is holistic.
"We were only fortunate to make it where we did because of the people supporting and believing in us in a well-rounded way," Sam-King said.
"Not thinking you’re just an athlete, you should also make sure you do the school work, you do the community work, and you put yourself out there, because if you are well-rounded you can use what you learn in sport to develop any other skills."
In the flagship tutoring and training program dubbed TNT, Stars do at least half an hour of schoolwork before sports training and end their days with conversations about their lives, goals and inspirations.
New participants also take part in goal-setting, allowing them to think about who they want to be and what they want to do in the world with the support of mentors and community members.
"This is really important to me and the youth, because most of the time they don’t get to answer these questions," Sam-King said.
In addition to the athlete founders and volunteers, the foundation works to bring in guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds to inspire the youth to discover new passions.
"For a lot of these kids, it’s just getting them to witness different things that they’ve never been around before to kind of spark those interests," Sam-King said. "Even if they don’t have big aspirations, by the time we start to develop their goals, they start to dream a lot bigger because they start to believe in themselves."
Also central to the Stars program is an effort to incorporate cross-cultural teachings and provide a path to success for all youth, no matter where they come from. The program’s logo contains a medicine wheel — with the blessing of an Elder — representing people of all races, and the four realms of mind, body, emotion and spirit.
"In everything we do, we want our youth to be as well-rounded as possible — we want them to care about the environment, we want them to care about themselves, the community around them and for a brighter future," Sam-King said.
The impact of the program is tangible. As highlight reels and student interviews play throughout the Night of Excellence, youth from diverse backgrounds share the way two years marked by a pandemic, racial justice movements and isolation weighed on them, challenged them and pushed them to explore new talents. Students expressed their passions for sport, their drive to excel in school and a love for the communities they found in each other through the foundation.
"The impact at the end of the day is we will see more youth that are excited to make a change, more youth that are confident in what they do, more youth who don’t feel as though no one cares for them," Sam-King said. "We’re growing new leaders."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.