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Devon Jones wins praise for changing lives for the better
Teacher in Jane-Finch area makes a big impact on the kids he coaches to make smart choices in the classroom — and in life. He was given an honourable mention in the Star’s Teacher of the Year awards.
Working with some of Toronto’s racialized and marginalized students at Brookview Middle School, in the Jane and Finch area, Jones strives to show his students “how to make smart choices, how to be civically engaged (and) how to be part of the larger social fabric.”
That’s because he’s been there too.
“I can relate to them because I share some of their lived experiences,” said Jones, 42, who grew up in Toronto. “I share some of the reality and I have a willingness to connect, so I have a willingness to try and understand what they’re going through.”
His commitment to young people in an area of Toronto that’s been branded the most dangerous area to be a kid has extended beyond school boundaries and hours and has inspired thousands of young people. Jones was given an honourable mention in the Toronto Star Teacher of the Year awards.
In 2007, Jones, a behavioural teacher, co-founded the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education, a community organization to help marginalized and poor youth through “year-round comprehensive programming and activities.” It now helps about 600 kids annually.
The program was founded “primarily to create a viable alternative to guns, drugs and gangs,” said Jones, adding “I want a young person to know that you don’t have to do that, you don’t have to get involved.”
“In my eyes, Mr. Jones is the godfather of Jane and Finch, and I say that in the most positive way,” said Ardavan Eizadirad, a former participant in the Summer Institute program, part of Y.A.A.A.C.E.
The summer program was created in part to address educational attrition during the summer months which many students experience, while also providing a fun and safe environment. It takes in around 300 students from kindergarten to Grade 8 each summer for a relatively affordable $150.
“A lot of people have stopped believing in these kids and they’ve stopped investing in the things in order to make these kids flourish,” said Eizadirad.
Not so for Jones.
“I can tell you he’s impacted thousands of kids in that neighbourhood,” said Elizadirad, through creating Y.A.A.A.C.E. and other programs like a partnership with the University of Waterloo to test kids’ eyesight and give them free glasses.
Eizadirad, now a teacher himself, counts himself among the many whose lives have been changed for the better by Jones.
It was through the same summer program that Eizadirad participated in that Augustine Obeng, who grew up in the Jane-Finch area, met Jones.
Obeng was applying for his first job as a camp counsellor in the Summer Institute program.
“For me, this was like my first real, real, real job where I could depend upon getting a cheque every two weeks and not having to do other things for income, which could be destructive,” said Obeng, 27.
“That feeling for me was amazing because I knew you can work, I can be a working guy and get cheques and get paid and do meaningful work and it inspired me to want that.”
Obeng went on to “model (his) life after Mr. Jones.” He became a teacher and a community person and is now doing his Master’s at the University of Toronto in social work.
“(Jones’s) specialty is taking at-risk, volatile kids on the margins, and giving them hope, letting them know it’s possible to change lanes,” said Obeng, adding positive black role models like Jones were hard to come by when he was growing up.
But not every student that Jones has taught has been able to achieve the success of Obeng and others.
Jones has also seen the lives of students he’s taught end in tragedy.
Jordan Manners, Kwasi Skene-Peters, and Emmanuel Osae were his former students.
Manners was shot and killed while at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute when he was 15. It was the first fatal shooting in a Toronto school.
Osae died suddenly after being transferred from the Toronto Jail to Mount Sinai Hospital while on trial for murder.
And Skene-Peters, 21, died in hospital after being shot in a police confrontation. He was wanted on first-degree murder charges in the deaths of two men.
It’s a cycle of violence Jones said can be hard to escape for some people in the Jane and Finch area.
“You might be a kid who’s not involved, but based on the fact that you’re a resident of a particular place in Jane and Finch, you’re pretty much immersed in that conflict, as much as you want nothing to do with it.
“Part of my teaching is always to let kids realize that this is a bigger world, this is a bigger space — the world is a lot bigger than the neighbourhood you live in.”
It’s a lesson he’s spent his entire career teaching.
“As Mr. Jones once told me,” recalled Eizadirad, “ ‘Anybody can teach a well-mannered child who knows how to follow instructions, but it takes courage and patience to teach those that do not conform to the system.’ ”
Despite the challenges, Jones is committed to helping his community in every way he can.
“I’m proud of my job. I think being a teacher, I have one of the best jobs in the world,” he said. “I’m also a life coach, and I take much pride in being that and in doing my civic duty.”
Blue skies ahead for teen thanks to mentorship program
Godwin Boahen who recently signs with UIC along with Marcus Ottey. Credits YAAACE mentor program on their recent success
When gentle Godwin Boahen landed in Chicago Saturday to start at the University of Illinois on a whopping basketball scholarship, the Toronto teen marked a journey of more than miles.
As a young black male from one of Canada’s most troubled neighbourhoods — Driftwood, the heart of Jane and Finch — the school bus driver’s son is smashing stereotypes with a sledgehammer.
This is an 18-year-old who knows how it feels when a teammate is murdered. He has seen a neighbour with a gunshot wound to the eye. He has heard drive-by shootings from his bed. A stray bullet left a hole by the basement window of his house before his mother moved them three years ago to safer ground.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” he says quietly, on a recent visit back to his old street.
Yet the soft-spoken point guard who is off to study business accounting at a big American university, all expenses paid, says his success comes not just in spite of where he grew up, but from guiding hands he got because of it.
For nine years Godwin has been part of an after-school program of sports, schoolwork and social skills led by black male role models whose advice he says will forever stay in his head.
At a nimble 5-foot-11, he is walking proof of the power of mentors.
The non-profit program based at nearby C.W. Jefferys high school — chosen because it’s on neutral ground between gang territories and welcomes youth from both — “offers an alternative to guns, drugs and gangs,” says founder Devon Jones, a teacher at Brookview Middle School on Driftwood Ave.
We don’t save everyone, but these are the success stories that keep us coming back. We foster civic engagement through sports, academics and arts, because opportunity here is quite elusive,” said Jones of the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education (YAAACE.) It offers kids a safe place after school, on weekends and in summer.
“Everyone says the answer to violence is policing and more policing. But if kids have access to an alternative to guns, opportunities to do things they wouldn’t have a chance to like travel across the province and into the States on basketball tournaments, to go camping and horseback riding, it expands their horizons,” said Jones. He and his coaches give kids their cellphone numbers as a lifeline of support.
The philosopher-coach talks about the need for more programs — “pro-social infrastructure” — to counter the social conditions that promote violence and crime.
“The fact is, our disengaged students from the communities in question pose the greatest risk to public safety and place a draconian cost on the justice system.” The answer is wraparound support and more opportunities, he said.
Godwin remembers the early pep talks from Jones and coaches Jordan McFarlane and Carlos Wadley.
“When I was younger they would tell me, ‘You’re going to have guys come up to you trying to get you to do things, but don’t make the wrong decisions — stay focused,’” recalled Godwin, one of more than 400 students from kindergarten through Grade 12 who take part in YAAACE’s wraparound programming.
“So when that happened, I did what they preached.”
Well, maybe not always.
Back in Grade 7, Godwin says he started skipping basketball practice after school to hang around with kids who were flirting with trouble.
“My mom and sister saw me just hanging around, so they called Mr. Jones. When I got home, he was sitting in my living room talking with my mom,” Godwin recalled.
“He told me what the pattern is with neighbourhood kids who make bad decisions (says Jones: “Only two outcomes — dead or in jail.”) He told me to come back to the gym, and I did.”
Said McFarlane: “Kudos to his mom and sister for calling and asking us to help. YAAACE is a safe space. We take them to places like (Canada’s) Wonderland and the museum. We take them out of this environment because we don’t want them to always be absorbing the stress. We want them to be free to be kids and also give them an alternative with what to do with their life.”
With the help of YAAACE and the sports talent incubator Canada Elite, Godwin got into St. Michael’s College School at Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. from Grades 8 through 11, on scholarship.
When young basketball stars hit Grade 11 and need to travel to be scouted by universities, they join the non-profit Canada Elite program, which joins YAAACE in the city’s west end with Triple Balance Community Services from Scarborough.
The group helped him get into the St. Louis Christian Academy in Missouri for Grade 12 to get more exposure to scouts. Godwin came back to do an extra year at the Hill Academy’s basketball campus in Brantford, for even more exposure.
Jones said sponsors and partners make many of these opportunities possible, such as Canadian Tire Jumpstart, Under Armour, Michael “Pinball” Clemons Foundation, Telus, the Laidlaw Foundation, the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Police Services and Black Creek Community Health Centre, among others.
In Chicago, Godwin will be joined by fellow Canada Elite graduate Marcus Ottey. Former teammate Justin Jackson is off to the University of Maryland.
Is Godwin worried about staying on track so far from home?
“No. I’ll be hearing Mr. Jones’ voice in my head.”