This former football star turned pastor credits Sun Youth for his success. Now, he's paying it forward
Andrew Henry's initiative aims to lower dropout rates in schools, increase number of graduates
Before Andrew Henry held distinguished titles such as professional Canadian football player and beloved Pointe-Claire church pastor, his life was headed in a different direction.
A new Canadian immigrant at the age of 14 and son to a single mother, the Jamaican-born teen lived in a rough Montreal neighbourhood and hung around with a tough crowd.
"We're in [Place Benoit in the Saint-Laurent area], boys are getting in trouble. Unfortunately some got murdered, unfortunately some went to prison," he said. "What do you do when you're in a situation like this? How do you function, where do you turn?"
Enter Sun Youth, a Montreal community service agency offering programs to help keep young people active, part of the community and out of trouble.
The organization took Henry in as one of its own after seeing the talent he displayed playing football on the St. Laurent Spartans team for a few seasons, a team he joined on a whim after being asked by a friend.
"Here I am, a stranger coming from the crosstown rival [of the Sun Youth Hornets] and from day one, I was embraced," he said.
Henry trained and worked out at Sun Youth's facilities, including their gym, a resource he'd never had access to. He was even able to access summer jobs through the organization.
After honing his skills, offers began rolling in.
'Sun Youth gave me another pathway'
Henry went on to play football at Murray State University in Kentucky on a full scholarship. After graduating, he was drafted fourth overall by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and played in the Canadian Football League (CFL) for eight years before calling it quits.
"My whole career started [at Sun Youth] as if they knew from the beginning," said the former CFL athlete, smiling. "Sun Youth gave me another pathway; it showed me another pathway," he said.
Fast forward more than three decades, and Henry is giving back by teaming up with the same organization that helped him get to where he is today.
As administrator for the Lester B. Pearson School Board in the continuing education department, Henry created an initiative in partnership with Sun Youth and the Ministry of Education to get children off the streets and into physical activity.
The goal is to lower the dropout rate in schools and increase the number of graduates by redirecting youths to non-traditional educational pathways and supporting them through different opportunities toward success.
Alicia Wright, who's known Henry for some 20 years, says this isn't the first initiative he's spearheaded to see youths succeed. Fresh out of the CFL, Henry worked at Riverside Park Academy in LaSalle, where he coached Wright's touch-football team.
In the school, he created the concept of a "planning room," where he would work individually with students who were causing trouble instead of having them suspended or expelled.
"Pastor Henry has really been somebody who has set a great example, not just for me, but everyone who he's in contact with," said Wright, who works with Henry at his church.
"He has shown single-handedly and by example what it means to work hard."
For Ann St Arnaud, communications director for Sun Youth, having Henry come back to the organization to help out is a huge motivator for youths.
"It's important to show hope, to show people that it's not always like that, it's not always a struggle," she said.
She says Henry's initiative is the ultimate goal of the program.
"This is what Sun Youth is all about, that's all we want in life is to have kids succeed in life and be good citizens and want to give back to society."
Henry said without Sun Youth's support, he wouldn't have had the career he had nor the position he holds today as pastor at the Wisdom and Life Apostolic Church in Pointe-Claire. He said he owes his success to the organization.
"I have a definition for success," said Henry, "It's the acquisition of a feat, a dream, through hard work and dedication. But it cannot be without support. Sun Youth was that support.
"And here we are full circle, not only back then was I the one getting the help, today I'm a part of this whole process of giving help."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
Based on reporting by Kwabena Oduro