By Mahad Arale
I’m sitting in a small room with nothing but a table, stack of chairs and a small TV mounted on the wall. The digital clock next to the TV says it is 6:30 p.m. but this all boys group does not get underway until 7 p.m. The first participant has entered the room, Amin Teli, age 19, who is just over 6 feet tall and sports a short beard and wears a headband.
He is one of the 15 to 25 members who partake in the group at Warden Woods Community Centre in Scarborough. The group was put together by David Metilelu – the centre’s full-time youth coordinator.
Tour of Warden Woods Community Centre and the community it resides in.
In Metilelu’s first few years of working with youth, he had a young kid, age 10 or 11, that was part of the after-school program that Metilelu was working in at the time. One day he got a call from police officers asking him to come down to the police station to talk with the young boy (for privacy reasons his name will be Tony).
Tony got arrested for stealing food from No Frills. When Metilelu asked why he stole the food, he replied that the reason was because there was not enough food at home and he hadn’t eaten for three to four days.
Metilelu says that the interaction he had with Tony was one of those situations where he wished the system was set up differently for youth. He wished that he could have done something to facilitate the needs of Tony just a little more.
It was those needs and the needs of young people in the Warden Woods community that Metilelu feels are unaddressed, such as opportunities for jobs that are readily available for youth.
“When you live in an environment where there is not that much resources for you, just looking in this area, there is no jobs for kids to get into. The closest shopping centre is at Warden and Eglinton and it’s about 30 to 40 minutes away from the neighbourhood,” Metilelu says, and he mentions how the lack of resources contributes to how easily it is to be forced into a lifestyle of drugs and weapons because of the scarcity of opportunities.
Gun violence within the Warden Woods community was a big issue when Metilelu first started his work in May of 2014, so he set out to find out the real underlying reasons as to why that was. Among the many factors, one of them was that young people in the community didn’t feel like they had a voice, one that would actively listen to them.
The all boys group addresses that problem. It is about giving the young people of Warden Woods another option, a different avenue that doesn’t just lead to drugs and violent crimes. The all boys group was about giving the space for youth in the Warden Woods area to come and engage with each other rather than being in the streets. It is not necessarily indicative of the negativity of the neighbourhood, Metilelu mentions, but rather life “just happens” and being indoors and “chilling” is better than being outside since it is a much more controlled environment.
And chill was the vibe of the all boys group because the small TV screen mounted on the wall was turned to the Lakers and Pistons NBA basketball game. Everyone is engaged in a debate about the playoff possibilities of certain teams. While the passionate discussions were unfolding, Metilelu walks in with two boxes of pizza.
Not all of the members are present today. But that isn’t a surprise, because the pings of raindrops could be heard hitting against the large window at the far side of the room.
However, among those who were present, was Kercy Mandaku, age 19. He and Teli are friends and so are everyone that attended the group because they all live within the community.
Mandaku shares why he attends the group and what it offers for him and the Warden Woods area. “In general it keeps you off the streets. Usually if you are on the streets there is so many bad influences, when you are just here you are talking about sports and everything, it just keeps you inside … it’s like a small distraction.”
A “distraction” away from illegal street activities. When Metilelu started working at Warden Woods, Toronto saw 33 victims of gun violence, according to data posted by Toronto Police. The data also shows that at the end of 2014, Toronto Police 41 Division, which includes Warden Woods, showed the fourth-highest gun crime rate, with 21 shooting victims. At the end of 2018, 41 Division had the sixth-highest gun crime rate, with 40 victims.
Now although the division dropped down from fourth, it did see a rise in the number of shooting victims. One can conclude that more people have been affected by gun crime in Scarborough and city wide in 2018, than in 2014, showing that the rise of gun violence and the threat to safety is serious problem.
“On a Friday night to have young men between the ages of 17 to 22 just come in to a space and just be there till 10 o’clock, for us, we are able to do that knowing that within the four-hour chunk, they are safe,” Metilelu says.
And that is the significance of the all boys group, the alternative it offers for the youth of Warden Woods. Teli highlights that throughout the week he finds himself unable to talk to his friends often because he is busy with school and other affairs, so to allot one day out of the week to “come in and vibe about anything,” is why he comes.
Chilling and vibing are in essence what goes down in the all boys group. When I went a second time, the small TV was showing another basketball game. However, instead of NBA basketball, it was a NCAA March Madness game. Pizza was again served, of course, and discussions ranged across a variety of topics, from travel to entertainment to Metilelu bringing up a financial literacy program that was being offered at the centre. It was four hours of laid-back conversations, including one about a trip to Montreal that Metilelu and few of the guys went on last year and about how they got stuck in traffic on the way there.
The importance of this group is in what it offers for youth. The range in discussion topics can also include much more serious topics like gun violence and the availability of resources in the community that are geared to youth. As Metilelu says, “…It’s also a more social group, you have 20 different young men in the space, and they respect each other’s opinions and they respect each other’s feelings.”listen listen