Best anti-poverty show in town – Opinion – Best anti-poverty show in town
August 13, 2008. Carol Goar

If you could bottle Dennis Keshinro’s blend of drive, ingenuity and passion and sprinkle it over Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods, hope would break out all over the place. Kids would start believing in themselves. Parents would venture out of their apartments. Gangs would lose their invincibility.

Keshinro came to Canada 11 years ago as a refugee from Nigeria. Today, he is a respected high school teacher who spends his free time – and a large chunk of his salary – providing youngsters in the Jane-Finch area with an alternative to violence. He runs a mobile computer lab, a summer camp, a homework club, a March break program, a soccer team and a Saturday morning parents’ circle.

His introduction to the neighbourhood was brutal. He was beaten so badly he ended up with a concussion.

But he didn’t walk away. He rounded up all the other teachers who had been attacked and founded Belka Enrichment Centre, a non-profit organization designed to combat the negative influences in students’ lives. “If we don’t start a prevention program, they’ll move to guns and full-scale crime,” he told his colleagues.

Keshinro opened a small office, converted his beliefs into activities and scrounged donations wherever he could. Whenever there was violence or grief in the neighbourhood, he was there.

I met Keshinro through John Tory. The Ontario Conservative leader has an extensive network of contacts in Toronto’s low-income communities. It includes not only the big-name charities, but small grassroots groups that few politicians have heard of.

Tory got to know Keshinro at a shopping centre barbecue in the Jane-Finch area three years ago. It was the “summer of the gun.” People had come out to take a stand against the deadly violence in their neighbourhood.

Keshinro had no idea who Tory was or why he was there.

But he gave the white stranger an enthusiastic description of his programs and plans. One, in particular, caught Tory’s attention. Keshinro was trying to turn a decommissioned city bus into a computer lab on wheels. It needed a new transmission and it had to be refurbished. But the young teacher was sure that bringing computers to kids whose families couldn’t afford Internet access would motivate them to do their homework and pull up their grades.

Tory offered to help in any way he could. He soon became instrumental in raising funds (and writing a few cheques) for the project.

The computer lab is now roadworthy. Tory invited me to come and see it and meet Keshinro.

From the outside, the bus isn’t much to see. But inside, it is comfortable, well furnished and equipped with nine donated computers. Keshinro is now busy putting in a radio studio.

He can’t help “contributing compulsively” as he puts it. But it is an expensive habit. He checked his bank balance in mid-July and gulped: $134. How could his summer paycheque have melted so quickly?

Then he remembered. He’d reached into his own pocket to keep the summer program going until the Ministry of Education sent its cheque. And there were the fees he’d waived. And there was Belka’s office rent. And there were all the incidentals: snacks for the kids, craft supplies, gas for the bus.

“If we have enough to eat in the house right now, we’re okay,” Keshinro told his family. “We have committed ourselves to doing this. Let’s do it.”

Fortunately, his wife Michelle shares his conviction. She runs the camp’s academic program, keeps 60 kids in line, and troubleshoots, all with a 5-month-old baby in her arms.

Tory watches the family in admiration and frustration. He can’t understand why the city, the province and Ottawa offer such stingy – and badly co-ordinated – support to community leaders with ideas and energy.

But he can’t change the rules. All he can do, as opposition leader, is offer Keshinro moral and personal support.

In return, he gets a front-row seat for the best anti-poverty, anti-crime, anti-apathy show in town. “People like Dennis make my job worthwhile,” Tory says.

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