When Stephanie Ajodhar saw a television report about a double-shooting in April 2016, she barely thought about it — it was just another instance of gun violence in Toronto.
The next day, she learned one of the victims was her best friend Cynthia Mullapudi, who she'd met on the first day of high school.
"It was the first time death had hit so close to home," says Ajodhar, now 25 and a finalist in the Miss Universe Canada pageant.
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Ajodhar, a registered naturotherapy practitioner from East York, is hoping to use the competition to raise awareness about gun violence and the toll it takes on victims and their families.
"I feel like people are so desensitized to gun violence because it's so prominent in our city, myself included," she told CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond on Tuesday.
'There are a lot of other innocent victims'
Ajodhar first met Mullapudi in a Grade 9 technology class at East York Collegiate Institute. In a room filled with boys, Mullapudi waved to Ajodhar — and the pair became fast friends, a bond which lasted past high school.
Last year, Mullapudi was killed inside an SUV in Scarborough only an hour or so after being picked up to go to a party, cutting short her dreams of attending medical school after being the first person in her family to graduate from university.
Her death came as a shock to Ajodhar, who says it took an emotional toll on her. Mullapudi was an innocent victim and not the target of the shooting, Ajodhar adds.
"There are a lot of other innocent victims this happens to on a regular basis," she adds, her voice breaking.
429 shooting victims so far this year
In Toronto, shootings have been on the rise in recent years — from 177 in 2014, to 288 in 2015, up to 407 last year.
And last year alone, 41 people were killed in shootings, according to Toronto police data, up from 26 deaths the year before.
"I just really want people to understand the impact of gun violence," says Ajodhar.
"We're so desensitized that we don't understand the consequences of what we see on the news."