By Jonathan Spaner
North Edmonton has always kind of been neglected.
When I was growing up, every time I had a hockey game north of 118 Avenue, my dad would say, “This is the tough north end, Jonny.” Put in context, North Edmonton is still full of vibrant communities, but in comparison to the south, there is a distinct change in attitude.
My part-time job throughout my undergrad was working at a rec centre in the north called ‘Clareview Community Recreation Centre’. I was a ‘Gym Animator,’ which is a fancy way to say I handed out basketballs to children, and broke up the occasional fight. I believe the city recently replaced the job with a bin and piece of paper to sign out equipment. To say I struggled to find the meaning in the work was an understatement.
I very frequently got bored, so being in a windowless gym with nothing to look at but my watch ticking down the seconds until I was off shift, I would often start shooting around the basketballs I was supposed to be shepherding. Youth from the community that came every day eventually took notice, and as easy prey, they challenged me to games of one-on-one. Losing to thirteen-year-olds is never ideal, but even less so when you saw them every day.
Over time, I got to know them.
These young athletes were all fascinating, and every one of them had a story to tell. The vast majority were either children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, often from East Africa. Almost all of them came from low-income families. In between games or shootarounds, they would talk to me about their lives. Topics ranged from school to fitting in, to why the Raptors were a trash team to cheer for (that was often said just to get a rise out of me, a passionate Raptors fan).
One kid, in particular, came in every day and shot at least a thousand shots a day, including ending each day with 50 consecutive free throws. He said he wanted to get a scholarship for University.
One day, late into my shift, after the gym had officially closed, a group of kids still hung around, shooting hoops. Frustrated and tired that this group wouldn’t leave after spending all day in the gym, I pleaded with them to leave: “Don’t you want to go home?”
They all laughed, and as they finally left, one of them turned back and said to me, “This is our home.”
I think he was only half-joking.
It occurred to me at that moment, how important involvement in sports is for youth. After that, meaning in my work wouldn’t come from what I did on shift, but rather, who I would interact with while I was there.
The rising cost of organized sports makes community rec centres all the more vital for new Canadians, or those who may not have the money to participate. The infrastructure surrounding more affordable involvement in sport needs to be a priority for governments at all three levels. Youth involvement in sport should be championed by all members of society, as all the scientific evidence in the world points to dramatic improvements in mental health for youth who are also physically active.
All the anecdotal evidence I have working with youth in the rec centre’s of North Edmonton proves that physical activity generates better social cohesion, not only between youth and their peers but between youth and the greater Canadian society around them. If we provide the space for youth to remain active, to remain social, and most importantly, remain safe, then we are well on the road to creating a more perfect Canada.
It’s a near guarantee that none of these kids will become professional athletes. But that’s not a bad thing. Not everyone can be LeBron James or Connor McDavid. But that isn’t the goal of youth involvement in sport. And that isn’t the goal of telling their story.
Sports for young athletes isn’t just a fun pastime, it’s a community hall to discuss the matters of the neighborhood. It’s a theatre to act out the drama that is teenage life. It’s a safe haven from the troubles of a seemingly uncaring world. As a society, if we want to do right by our youth, we need to listen to our youth, tell their stories, and most importantly, build and house these second homes across the country.
Feature Image Photo Credit: Harrison Haines