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Cecil shows his local love by supporting social enterprises—like the one that helped Zoe find meaningful employment and get back on track.

His decision to take action...

Cecil

When I was a student, my dad and I went on a field trip with his teacher buddies—a China-Hong Kong cultural exchange.

We didn't just go to the tourist areas—we went everywhere. I was on my moral high horse, pointing out some fairly questionable places with questionable behaviour. And then, my dad said to me, “Can you speak so casually of ethics if you were in that position? Being raised in that environment and trying to survive, would you do any better?”

That sobering comment really struck a chord with me and led to serious introspection. As much as I would like to say the opposite, if I had been in the position of the people I saw, living their lives, I'd probably do worse. Being born to middle class parents living in a developed country, I’d already won the birth lottery. All things considered, I’ve had an easy life.

Many times, people are simply put into bad situations. A son being born into a broken family, a daughter relocating as a refugee and ending up in a bad neighbourhood. It's the roll of the dice. These are real lives, real people. They’re not numbers. We have to try to break that sense of anonymity and understand our shared pain and experience. I feel that society is often very good at making you not respect yourself. It's nice to talk about people rising above their situations or circumstances, but statistically, it's a crapshoot. It makes a great story, but how many people actually make it?

You can't do it alone—I realized that very quickly. But I think United Way is a great step forward. It brings a human element to so many of the big issues we’re tackling in this city and allows us to see the faces behind the struggles.

We need organizations like United Way to persist in the face of complex, enduring challenges like poverty. We can't solve everything in one generation, but we have to start somewhere. Multiple generations of effort—my own included—are needed for sustaining power to affect any kind of meaningful change.

In order to build strong communities, we need financial capital and human capital. I believe that in today’s world, charity is about more than writing a cheque, and I’m a big proponent of “venture philanthropy.” That’s why I donate my time to supporting United Way-funded social enterprises: businesses focused on profit and purpose. With social enterprises, we wrap charity in dignity. They provide much-needed financial stability, and perhaps more importantly, they build a positive internal narrative of self-respect, dignity and empowerment.

Because at the end of the day, it's not about me. That's why I'm here.

- CECIL
United Way donor

 

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CHANGED HER LIFE

Zoe

I played every sport when I was growing up. As I got older, I decided to focus on basketball. It was very exciting and allowed me to learn life skills. I was a social butterfly. One coach kept coming to my games and eventually, he offered me a scholarship. I transitioned from high school basketball straight into college and it completely changed my life.

My father died when I was seven, so my mom was both a mother and father figure for most of my life. But even though my mom was there, she was working hard to support us so that we could live in a decent area. Really, I raised myself.

When I was 18, my mom went to live in a different country. I had to live with my sister, who I didn't know well. I had to become an adult quickly.

Unfortunately, I got mixed up with the wrong friends, which led me to getting into trouble. After that, I was incarcerated for a year and a half.

I was so devastated making that first phone call to my coach. I said to him, "I don't want to lose everything.”

I was scared about going to prison. Prison is a really challenging environment full of uncertainties. The only people you have to talk to are the inmates that you live with. But this experience changed my perspective. It showed me there are people in prison who have potential and just need a helping hand. I learned skills that I never thought I could, and I used that time to rethink my life.

When I got out, it was very hard. I struggled to find full-time work. I thought, “How can I get involved in my community? How can I prove to myself and show society that I have something to contribute? How can I show that I'm not a bad person?”

A girl who lived in my halfway house told me about the coffee shop where she worked, a social enterprise funded by United Way. Social enterprises are businesses fuelled by profit and purpose, and they help people like me get back on my feet. I told myself that if I got the opportunity to work there, I would use it to make a change in someone's life.

Eventually, I did get a job at the coffee shop, and I've never looked back. Today, I work there full time, helping other people coming out of incarceration to find employment in the community.

Getting this job made me so happy. I felt empowered—it felt amazing that someone actually gave me a chance. I already had a good, supportive environment from my family and friends. Now I have a good job too. I can actually survive. I can regain my independence and make something of myself.

- ZOE
United Way program participant

 

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