By Bana Yirgalem

Jamal Burger was just a young kid growing up in Regent Park with his sisters and his mother. His family didn’t have much as his mother was the sole provider for him and his siblings, which meant luxury items were off the table. Burger’s sneaker fascination started when he landed his eyes on a pair of black Air Jordan 19s. The sleek design of the shoe inspired by the world’s most venomous and dangerous snake, the black mamba, drew curiosity to 12-year-old Burger’s eyes. He felt those sneakers would give him the confidence to take over the world. After a growth spurt during puberty, he could no longer fit into children’s sizes and adult sneakers were too expensive. His mom didn’t have the cash. Devastated yet understanding, young Burger knew he had to do whatever he could to help himself. He stole the shoes.

“Getting in trouble. Like, I wasn’t I wasn’t doing that because I was a bad kid. I was doing it trying to help my mom. That’s just logical for me,” said Burger, founder of the Kickback, when reminiscing back to the day that he fell in love with sneaker culture.

Burger continued on, explaining why children might get into trouble to get things they want when they know their parents couldn’t afford such items. “That’s what happens to a lot of kids who just want to help their parents. They want to support their friends, but the options to do that are very dangerous, and then they end up in harm’s way.”

When Burger began to find success, he wanted the next generation of kids like him to be able to get a pair of sneakers in a safe way — something that younger him never got the opportunity to do.

In 2016, the well-known Toronto photographer founded The Kickback, an organization focused on supporting the needs and creativity of underprivileged youth in the inner areas of Toronto. The organization’s main purpose is to gift sneakers to kids. His love for sneakers is the reason The Kickback was created. Due to his socioeconomic status, Burger didn’t have the kicks he wanted as a kid. Now he wants young people to have the opportunities – and the shoes – he coveted as a child. Once known for taking pictures for Nike and the Toronto Raptors, Burger soon became a lifeline supporting and inspiring youth in lower-income areas. The Kickback is a rare gem in Toronto’s non-profit scene and the organization continues to grow at a fast rate. To date, its impact on Toronto communities has been nothing but positive.

Back in Dec. 2020, the organization ran a holiday drive calling for supporters to donate shoes. An Instagram post marking the event shoes vibrant, colourful shoes and books piled up in an empty room in a Toronto apartment. Big names in the shoe game are visible in the rainbow of colours ranging from Jordans to Reeboks, new and old, high tops and low tops. The books in the mountain of shoes were also donations designed to offer educational lessons and inspiration for their next young owner, hopefully helping them to reach great heights. The Kickback’s annual holiday drive was a great success. The drive met its goal: smiles on children’s faces. “We’re excited to bring smiles to youth throughout this city,” the caption reads. The smiles resonate with Burger, who, as a young kid, was infatuated by sneakers and has been in love with them ever since. As he sees the children walk into that room to pick up free sneakers and books, full of hopes and dreams, he can see himself in each kid. The feeling of the leather stitched shoes with crisp clean laces or books with clean pages and meaningful stories will bless the fingers of so many young Torontonians and give them something they will remember for a lifetime.

Hannah Desta, a member of Kickback and Burger’s assistant, said community and sneakers are two things that are a part of who she is as a person. She realized that the Kickback tied in her two loves and applied to work at the organization. Desta shared what Kickback means to her along with her love for community and sneakers. With community meaning everything to her and her morals, she knew that Kickback was a place where she was able to enjoy the things that matter to her.

“Kickback to me is an organization that I resonate with just because of always growing up in a community. I always felt, like, so close to home with anyone who I grew up with, and having sneakers as, like, one of my favourite things that I go by and I shop for having those two combined put together is something that is like a dream for me.”

In February, the Kickback received a major boost when the organization’s Instagram page posted a series of images and videos of Raptors player Pascal Siakam. Siakam and his own organization PS43 Foundation donated 30 pairs of sneakers and $25,000 to Kickback. In a video posted to Instagram, Siakam sits on a wooden stool behind a white blank wall and shares his love and appreciation for the organization, going into depth about how important Kickback is to youth in the GTA.

“He’s committed to the city. So I think he’s just trying to find ways to support [the] community in a creative way. And he says himself, more sneakers, and access to sneakers is a global challenge.”

In naming the organization Kickback, Burger flipped the script. In his world, “kickback” was once a negative term. The government gives those in need of financial support ‘kickbacks’ – known as Ontario Works  – which some brand as an excuse for low-income folks to live off the government and not have to actually work. Burger wanted to inject new meaning into the word. “I think, rather than trying to flesh that word on its head, right. In the same way, we’re trying to flip the perception. How people see the kids in the community.” 

“I chose to call it Kickback, because I was just thinking, Well, I love kicks, and I want to give back, Kickback. And, you know, at first, I shied away from it just being the word Kickback, because that word has a negative connotation to it,” said Burger.

“I’m trying to create a space where it doesn’t, in fact, create a space where we’re highlighting kids through what’s beautiful, and what they believe in, and what matters to them. What makes them special before where they go wrong, and what they don’t have, I really care about levelling the playing field,”

Burger then goes on to explain why youth play such an important part in how Kickback stands out.

“That’s the reality, like, kids are smarter than adults. And I truly believe that especially these kids who are like figuring out how to stay safe, amongst so many obstacles. So yeah, I think I think what makes us different is that we believe that kids help us before we believe that we have kids.”