'Giving back to back home': How Black Toronto mentors are coaching the next generation of Caribbean athletes
Inspired by Raptors president Masai Ujiri, project aims to help youth become better athletes and human beings
Jhanoi Walker wants kids from the Caribbean to know that setting their sights on being the next Usain Bolt isn't the only way for them to have a successful athletic future.
While the region is known for some of its top soccer players and sprinters, Walker says he knows Caribbean youth can excel at basketball, hockey and other sports, if given the opportunity.
Game Plan, a new collaboration between Focused Dreams Forward — a Toronto-based charity that creates academic and athletic opportunities for youth of Caribbean heritage — and Generation Chosen — a Toronto-based non-profit focused on enhancing the emotional intelligence of youth from under-served communities — thinks it can open up the athletic careers of Caribbean youth and create well-rounded leaders in the process.
Game Plan matches Black Canadian mentors aged 18-25 interested in sport with teens in the Caribbean, with the goal of creating positive connections for the youth.
The mentors aren't scouts, but their aim is to help youth see a future in a sport that might not be as popular or well-supported in their home country, and expand their horizons about where they might be able to go to explore the sport that has them the most passionate.
Walker, a Jamaican-born York University student, who played basketball and soccer in his youth and is now planning on becoming a teacher, is one of these mentors.
The project, he said, is "my way to give back to back home."
For the next several weeks, mentors will lead sessions virtually with youth in St. Lucia, with the plan of holding in-person training in the future, said executive director of Generation Chosen Joseph Smith.
Smith said athletes from the Caribbean may long for the opportunities available in North American sports, but not know how to take those next steps.
The mentors can "really give them a sense of the lay of the land, what things to make sure to keep top of mind as you're trying to branch out and extend your athletic career beyond your time in the Caribbean," he said.
Like Walker, many of the mentors have Caribbean roots, which he believes can foster a deeper connection between mentors and mentees.
One of the things that drew him to the program, he said, is the emphasis on connecting with others in healthy ways and building not only better athletes, but humans.
Fellow mentor Darren Aning agrees. The 21-year-old said the emphasis on mental health and emotional intelligence is one of the most important parts of the project.
In his own life, Aning says he's observed that talking about the key values needed to be a strong athlete — like teamwork or discipline — opens doors to talking about mental health.
More established athletes talking about mental health is also helping people realize how essential that element is to sport, he said.
"It can help play a role in how they perform athletically," said Aning, adding that the relationships fostered by the project make talking about these themes that much more possible.
John Wiggins, CEO and co-founder of Focused Dreams Forward and an executive with the Toronto Raptors, said he's always been a big advocate for the positive role sports can play in the lives of young people.
While Game Plan is a new project for Focused Dreams Forward, Wiggins said he takes some inspiration from Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who founded Giants of Africa, an organization which uses basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth.
"Looking at what he's been able to do for the African continent, it really was, 'I wonder what I can do for my heritage and my culture,'" said Wiggins.
The project doesn't need to find the next Raptor to be a success. As much as it hopes to inspire and find the next great athletes coming out of the Caribbean, he said, it also hopes to find the next great leaders who can take advantage of any opportunity.
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.
With files from Greg Ross