Why John Tory and Pinball Clemons are talking up this Jane and Finch summer camp

The Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education, which is designed to provide out-of-school academic guidance and athletic training for at-risk children from under-resourced neighbourhoods, got a visit Friday from Mayor John Tory, Mike "Pinball Clemons and basketball star alumnus Justin Jackson.

Camp provides academic, athletic training for hundreds of at-risk kids

The Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education runs year-round programming for under-resourced communities. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

For 11-year-old Mackenzie Samuels, the youth program he's attending in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood is more than just a summer camp.

For him, the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education (YAAACE) is a chance to prepare for and excel at school this coming fall.

"I like coming her because usually when I get home I used play video games, and at camp I can meet new people," he told CBC Toronto Friday. 

MacKenzie recently moved neighbourhood and enrolled in the seven-week program, which runs out of C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate Institute and costs participants $150.  It's designed to provide out-of-school academic guidance and athletic training for at-risk children from under-resourced neighbourhoods.

"We learn math, science, literacy and numeracy," said student Darren Boyd, a friend of MacKenzie.

"They help us for when we go back to school ... If we're in trouble or something, [they] help us out."

Students Darren Boyd, left, and Mackenzie Samuels pictured in the gaming room on the last day of the summer camp. (Martin Trainor/CBC)
MacKenzie and Darren are just two of more than 450 students from junior kindergarten up to Grade 8, who took part in the program this summer. 

Students and faculty were joined by Toronto Mayor John Tory, former Toronto Argonaut star running back and head coach Michael "Pinball" Clemons, and basketball star and alumnus Justin Jackson to celebrate their last day Friday.

"This is more than motivational; this is how you develop young people," said Clemons, whose foundation is a financial backer of the program.

"They can think, they can dream to be more and do more."

'This is an outlet for them'

Clemons commended the program for the star athletes it's produced, such as Jackson, who was drafted by the NBA's Orlando Magic this year. 

But he said the what makes the program so significant is that it's grounded in education along with its focus of sport.

Former Argos star and sports executive Michael 'Pinball' Clemons, left, is a big booster of the program, and commends teacher and founder Devon Jones for his work in the community. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"We need to be able to incorporate education all year long," Clemons said.

And that's exactly what YAAACE. does — during the year, students can enrol in a weekend program that allows them to continue sports training and get help with their homework.

But Clemons says it was teacher and founder Devon Jones who inspired him to get involved. 

"His level of commitment was the first thing that really jazzed me," he said.  

Jackson also commended Jones for his dedication and engagement, and says YAAACE is the reason he achieved his dream career.

YAAACE alumnus and basketball stat Justin Jackson remembers 'just being young, playing basketball, trying to stay out of trouble for the summer.' (Martin Trainor/CBC)
"There's a lot of kids that go through some crazy things that you wouldn't even imagine at such a young age, and this is an outlet for them," Jackson said.

"That's what it was for me."

Jackson said he frequently got in trouble with other kids and teachers as a youth, and Y.A.A.A.C.E helped him find a much-needed outlet. He started attending the program when it started in 2007. 

"They introduced me to basketball as an outlet to release all that negative energy I had," Jackson said.

'We've got to expand these programs,' Tory says

But Jones doesn't take credit for the program's success. 

It's an eclectic team of people that make this work," he said.  

Jones says he hopes to one day create a four-hour after-school program during the school year, as opposed to just the weekend program.

This could be possible given the positive feedback Tory says he has received from the federal government regarding funding for programs like this one. 

Mayor John Tory spent Friday afternoon touring the different classrooms of the summer program. (MArtin Trainor/CBC)
"We've got to expand these programs, Tory said.

"We have to have more of them and more communication between them, and we have to take the best of them and replicate them." 

With files from Taylor Simmons