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This article was published 24/8/2017 (1396 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The True North Youth Foundation launched a new public awareness campaign Thursday in an effort to thank Manitobans for their ongoing support of the organization's programming.
Starting Sept. 4, billboards and advertisements will spring up across the city, with one featuring Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler alongside 9-year-old Keyauna and 12-year-old Jabez, two participants in the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy.
"I thought it would just be a picture of all of us," Keyauna laughed after the billboard was unveiled at Camp Manitou, one of several organizations supported by the foundation.
"I was really excited," Jabez added.
The pair are among about 750 participants in the hockey academy, which has grown significantly since starting as the Little Moose Foundation 12 years ago. In its first year, the program had only 25 participants.
"It's a holistic program that involves in-school programming as well as after-school programming where we give these children an opportunity to participate in field trips, have an opportunity to go to various locations around the city, and give them an opportunity to feel like they can achieve anything they want," said Dwayne Green, the foundation's executive director.
Another endeavour funded by the youth foundation is Project 11, a cross-curricular mental-health coping program named after the jersey number of former Moose and Jets fan favourite Rick Rypien, who died in 2011.
While a lot of the work is done behind the scenes by foundation employees, Jets players such as Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Nikolaj Ehlers and Adam Lowry have worked with children involved in the various organizations as role models and ambassadors.
Wheeler was at Camp Manitou for the campaign's launch, where he emphasized the value of Jets players' involvement in such significant causes.
"It's the most important thing we can do with the platform that we have, especially in the province and within the city of Winnipeg, to get behind things like this. At the end of the day, giving kids an opportunity to fulfill their dreams and do the things that they love to do — that's what makes doing what we do for a living worthwhile," Wheeler said.
In 2016, the foundation invested $2.4 million into Manitou, Project 11 and the hockey academy. Troy Pilon, a father of two hockey academy participants, was grateful for the financial support.
"Organized sports for any kid is crazy expensive, so to put two in is kind of almost unfathomable," Pilon said. "When they offered the program, we jumped on it."
Pilon said his daughter Jade and son Chase have incorporated hockey into their routine, and during the summer months there's something missing from their lives while hockey takes a break.
"When the season ends, we're kind of lost," he joked.
He's seen a positive change in both of them since they started playing a few years ago.
"They're loving it," he said.
Keyauna and Jabez love it, too. They're nervous to see their faces on the billboards next to Wheeler's, but they're thankful for the opportunity to play hockey.
All they can think about is getting back on the ice.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.