At-risk youth got game

[attach]5724[/attach]Abdi Mohamed believes any child can be successful — it’s just about how you help them learn.

With one of his sons, he says, he recognized the tool he could use was basketball. Mohamed taught his son to play, coached him and went to his games to cheer him on. Afterward, he would take his son to Tim Hortons or McDonalds, where they would eat and talk.

The whole process is very important to Mohamed.

“This child can see you as a person who is supporting him and his life, and then he will listen to you,” he says. “I think sports is something very beneficial as a tool. It helps the coach and the parents in the livelihood of the youth.”

Perhaps it’s this careful approach that caught the eye of the Toronto Sports Council, which has awarded Mohamed with its Volunteer Award for 2012.

In a press release, the Toronto Sports Council named Mohamed’s commitment to improving the quality of life of youth in Lawrence Heights through sport. When he started his first program in 1994, only days after moving to the neighbourhood, he was granted a few two-hour time slots on weekends. Now Mohamed dedicates over 40 hours per week to his basketball programs, all at the Lawrence Heights Community Centre.

But Mohamed won’t take all the credit. Rather, he says it was a community effort as there was a recognizable need after an influx of new immigrants.

“A lot of people from East Africa — Ethiopian, Somalian, Sudanese — parents with many children moved in to Lawrence Heights,” he says. “That’s how the need for sportsmanship and mentoring increased and became a necessity.”

Given his background as a former member and coach of the Somali national basketball team, as well as being a schoolteacher in Somalia, Mohamed mixed his passions and found a way to make it benefit the community.

“When most of these youth are engaged in sports and in education, once they get tutoring and mentorship and sports, they’ve got a lot of things in their hands now,” he says, citing the recent major decline in crime in Lawrence Heights.

“The reason the number of incidents that have happened in Lawrence Heights has reduced so much is because of the number of good youth in the neighbourhood who are focused on education and sports and employment.”

Mohamed points to the sheer size of many families in the neighbourhood as a main reason such a program was vital to keeping youth off the streets and on the right path.

“I have six children, my neighbour has seven, another family has nine and all the children are playing soccer, basketball,” he says. “Sports is part of the need for the youth and the parents are connected to it, so that’s how we’ve really shaped the community of Lawrence Heights in the past couple of years.”

But for all the successes, there have been some failures, Mohamed says. He recalls one time a boy used to come to play basketball, and was a good player from the first time he was there. Unfortunately, the boy’s mother was not as enthusiastic as her son about playing basketball in the program, and she stopped taking him.

“Guess what happened to that child,” Mohamed says. “He became a drug dealer. The child wanted to play, but the parent didn’t like it.”

He uses this example to show how sports and engagement with youth is so important in a neighbourhood like Lawrence Heights.

“It really gives them hope, it gives them a place to socialize,” he says. “It’s like opening the door and laying the foundation for the community.”

Seeing the effort he’s put into laying that foundation turn into recognition means a lot to Mohamed.

“I’m really very, very pleased,” he says of receiving the award. “It really gives you the appreciation that people recognize what you are doing for the community.”

But Mohamed is certainly not resting on his laurels.

“So now we put more time and effort into reaching out into the community and improving the livelihood of the youth, that’s my focus,” he said. “Now we have to double all the work we have been doing.”