Windsor·Photos

How an at-risk youth program is using a $468K grant to fill a gap left by the city

If you've ever doubted if good things truly come to those who wait, Mehari Hagos, the founder of a fitness program for at-risk youth, is sure to make you a believer.

Mehari Hagos says city-run programs at Water World don't give kids in the area what they truly need

Mehari Hagos says he launched MH100 after noticing a lack of city-run programs catered toward at-risk youth. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

If you've ever doubted if good things truly come to those who wait, Mehari Hagos is sure to make you a believer.

A decade after the 31-year-old Windsor man launched a fitness program for at-risk youth, Hagos ran into some good fortune — nearly half a million dollars in grant money from the province's Ontario Black Youth Action Plan.

The fitness program, called the MH100 Teen Bootcamp, is free and goes beyond the limits of physical fitness.

Take "Money Mondays," for example. That's when kids learn about financial literacy. MH100 also offers nutrition education as well.

Mohamed Mohamed, 8, says Hagos taught him the importance of working out on a consistent basis when he joined the program four years ago. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

The program lives on the upper level of Water World, located in Windsor's Glengarry neighbourhood where there's a population of at-risk youth.

Hagos used to rent the space from the City of Windsor every month, but the grant from the province's Ontario Black Youth Action Plan has allowed him to renovate the space and lease it for a full year.

"When we first started, we had 20 kids. And then we grew to over 65 kids. And after the grant, we're up to 150 youth now," said Hagos.

How MH100 is changing lives

MH100 was the turning point for 15-year-old Loay Aly, who moved to Windsor from Egypt in June 2016. Aly said within two weeks of moving to Windsor, he joined the program.

Loay Aly, 15, says he'd like to see the city financially support programs like MH-100 because there's a lot of kids 'like us who can't get help.' (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

At the time, Aly admits he weighed a little more than he does today. When he joined Catholic Central High School as a ninth grader, he tried out for the school's junior basketball team — but he didn't make it.

However, the guidance and motivation of Hagos prevented him from being discouraged.

"I have homework club after school, so I do my homework and presentations and assignments — and then I come here around 5 [p.m.]," said Aly, adding he works out every day using MH100's workout facilities.

Hagos, far left, leads a leg workout with five participants of the MH-100 program. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Since joining MH100 two years ago, Aly said he's lost about "30 to 40 pounds." And when he tried out for the basketball team again this year, the result was a little different.

"I made it."

Through the grant, Hagos has been able to purchase new workout equipment, like dumbbells, medicine balls and turf flooring. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

MH100, however, doesn't just offer kids a place to work out. It also gives them the resources they need to pursue their dreams.

"There's some people that don't find basketball shoes, backpacks and stuff like that. So Mehari's the type of person who helps us. He buys it for us," said Aly, adding his parents couldn't afford to buy him new, athletic wear.

"He does giveaway days for people that are working hard. Thank God he gave me shoes and my bag."

MH100 has also been able to hire three employees, including Dico Angelo, left, and Mutakal Said, right. They assist Hagos in running the program's operations. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Hagos said there have been a number of teens from MH100 going on to receive academic and athletic scholarships.

"My biggest goal from the start was to make sure that kids don't end up in jail, because that's what was happening in Glengarry," said Hagos. "I wanted to stop that."

Why existing city-run programs aren't enough

MH100 sits on the top floor of Water World. But on the main floor below, city staff currently run three programs of their own:

  • An after-school program which runs daily during the school year from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Lunch time fitness for people who work downtown.
  • EarlyON activities for families and their children.
Scott Bisson, managing supervisor of Water World, says the city's after-school program has been 'very popular' among children in grades six and under. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

According to Water World's managing supervisor Scott Bisson, the after school program serves to complement MH100. He said the city program is targeted toward elementary youth.

"We deliver after-school programming and give things for kids to do, and as they get older and are looking for different experiences, his program has been able to fill that role."

Three state-of-the-art exercise bikes have also been introduced to MH100, thanks to the grant. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

But according to Hagos, none of the city's programs are tailored toward the struggles of at-risk youth in the city.

The city program, for example, finishes at 6 p.m. But according to Hagos, kids in the area who play in their respective school's basketball teams aren't freed up from practice until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.

Additionally, the city program doesn't run during the summer — when at-risk youth have more time on their hands.

My biggest goal from the start was to make sure that kids don't end up in jail, because that's what was happening in  Glengarry ... I wanted to stop that.- MH100  founder Mehari Hagos

Hagos said he grew up in a home close to Water World, so he knows what kinds of services the neighbourhood youth need. And the city is "missing that one part" with its program.

"It's hard for somebody to come and run a program in a neighbourhood where they never grew up in." 

Eight-year-old Mohammed Mohammed, left, stands alongside his mentor — wearing new boxing gloves in front of 'aqua' punching bags. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

The City of Windsor says an average of 25 and 30 participants attend the city's after-school program at Water World daily — about one-sixth of MH100's attendance numbers.

The future of MH100

Hagos has been able to install state-of-the-art workout equipment, like turf, dumbbells, punching bags and exercise bikes using money he's received so far.

The grant has allowed Hagos to hire mural artist David Derkatz, who is currently working on a piece featuring Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Windsor-Essex Sports Hall of Fame inductee Fred Thomas and images of the Underground Railroad. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

The grant has also allowed him to hire three employees to assist with program operations, as well as a mural artist who is designing inspirational artwork on one of the facility's walls.

The grant is paid to Hagos in monthly installments of $13,000 for three years, meaning he'll have received $468,000 by April 1, 2021.

As renovations continue on Water World's top floor, where MH100 calls home, a view of the building's pool which closed in 2014 can be seen down below. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Once the funding is a thing of the past, Hagos said he plans on using his connections around the city to keep the program alive.

After all, that's how Hagos did it for the first 10 years.

About the Author

Sanjay Maru is a reporter at CBC Windsor. Email him at sanjay.maru@cbc.ca.

with files from Stacey Janzer