Toronto·Jane and Finch

'This is for Jane and Finch': Community leaders offering free sports programs to kids who need it

Neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch have produced pro athletes, but those leading the programs say they're more focused on getting kids engaged and on the right path toward any career they set their sights on.

Local organizations offset high cost of sports programs in low-income neighbourhood

Row of kids seated against a wall holding basketballs above their heads. One of several drills during basketball training at Ballers Union Training Centre in North York.
Youth from the Jane and Finch area participate in a free, high-performance basketball program. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Community leaders in the Jane and Finch area have created free programming aimed at getting more youth involved in sport.

Fees for youth sports can often cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. That creates a huge barrier for kids in low-income neighbourhoods to participate. 

To help address that issue, several Jane and Finch-based organizations like Asante Soccer Academy (ASA) and Elite Basketball Training, where Chris Blackwood coaches, are covering those costs for families.

"I'm not just here with them for an hour and a half or two hours every Wednesday and Friday," Blackwood told CBC Toronto.

"I'm here with these guys for life."

The high-performance basketball training that kids receive under Blackwood's guidance would normally cost $75 per hour. The program, held at a venue called Ballers Union Training Centre, runs for two hours on Wednesdays and Fridays, with 20 to 25 kids in each class. But Blackwood says what his organization is doing is far more important than just flattening fees. He sees it as a chance to get kids engaged and teach them some valuable life lessons.

They play basketball — but they're also exposed to other viable career paths should their dream of playing professional sports never materialize. 

'We're making it happen'

Blackwood says priority neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch are known for producing excellent athletes. 

Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, two former No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft, both have ties to the community. Bennett got his start in basketball at the local Boys and Girls Club. Meanwhile, Wiggins, fresh off winning an NBA championship, has worked with Ryan Smith, the lead trainer for Elite's free basketball program.

But look across the court and you'll see Blackwood spending just as much time with youth who are focused on more than making it to the pros.

One of his pupils, 18-year old Joshua Quiah, is a good basketball player already eyeing a career in plumbing, something he said he can see himself doing "for the rest of my life."

Blackwood's connections helped line that up. 

"We thrive in the trades, we thrive in other industries as well," he said. 

Chris Blackwood, right, coaching Joshua Quiah, centre. Quiah says while he enjoys basketball, he's hoping to make a career in the trades. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Blackwood, 40, played university basketball at Montreal's Concordia University from 2003 to 2007. He says he's doing for Quiah and others what older men in the community did for him when he was growing up.

"Stuff like that made me say, 'Let me do the same for these young people.' I'm trying to raise some young men over here," Blackwood said.

"We're making it happen. This is for Jane and Finch."

Outkicking the coverage

Asante Soccer Academy (ASA) spends hours setting up for its programs every time. Organizers paint lines on the grounds of Firgrove Public School, surrounded by several burnt-out floodlights. 

"If it takes three hours for us to get the field ready, we'll take three hours to get the field ready," said Richmond Baah, the vice president of operations with ASA. 

"At the end of the day, the kids are playing and that's more important to us than anything."

ASA, which also runs out of the Jane and Finch area, identified the need for after-school training and developed programs that run all year long at little to no cost to the players. The program is made possible through partnerships with corporations like Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons. 

But Baah says ASA will sometimes pay out of pocket to make sure kids can play.

"If you want to play, it's our job to find a way to make sure you can play."


Dale Manucdoc is a reporter with CBC Toronto. He grew up in Markham and has lived in many different Toronto communities over the last 15 years. He's passionate about telling stories through an inclusive and authentic lens, sports and covering the opioid crisis.