When Aamer Esmail first arrived in Canada as a young gay man, he found solace and community in a group of like-minded individuals. As a member of Supporting our Youth (SOY), an initiative of Toronto’s Sherbourne Health Centre, he became involved in an organization that would prove to be an essential part of his new life.
“SOY became my home away from home and it was there that I found my chosen family and my community,” he says.
Boasting over 12 different groups — including ones aimed at racialized youth, trans youth and youth with mental health issues — SOY brings together queer adolescents to help ease what is often a formative and difficult period in their lives.
More than a decade later, as the facilitator of SOY Express, a program aimed at young LGBT newcomers to Canada, Esmail is helping to continue the success of the program that helped shape him. And now, his efforts are focused squarely on one of the organization’s most important events — SOY’s Sensational Bowlathon.
Entering its 17th year, the Bowlathon is the organization’s largest and longest-standing fundraising event.
“The funds raised from the Bowlathon will continue to support the over 250 weekly youth visits and 13,000 annual youth client encounters for LGBTQ young people who depend on SOY to grow, gain confidence and build resilience in a safe, positive community space,” says Jamie Louie, communications officer for Sherbourne Health Centre.
The event, being held Saturday, Oct 22, 2016, at Bowlerama West, brings together teams from across the city for an afternoon to raise funds for an organization that cuts across dozens of segments within the queer community. A devoted and enthusiastic advocate of the Bowlathon, Express is participating again this year as LGBTQ Youth Matter (Express Group), and fundraising efforts are being driven almost entirely by youth members.
Financial sponsorship of the teams has tangible results: a donation of $25 provides one hour of immigration counselling to LGBT youth newcomers; a $100 donation funds anti-oppression trainers to visit schools; and $1,000 helps keep open Monday night drop-in dinners for homeless and underhoused queer and trans youth.
An estimated 90 percent of SOY Express participants are refugees and 40 percent of SOY youth are homeless. Despite these incredible obstacles, Esmail has seen the success of the program and knows SOY has deep and lasting impacts on LGBT youth.
“In our LGBTQ community, people thrive and organically make relationships, but what we need is that space to meet,” he says. “The level of isolation is quite high for immigrant and refugee youth at the beginning phases of their arrival in Canada.” Esmail says that many of these youth live outside of the downtown core, and therefore away from both the Church-Wellesley Village and the majority of services available for queer youth.
SOY, and particularly Express, go beyond simply bringing people together to make connections and share experiences. Participants are also given important, life-changing access to information and resources.
For queer newcomers, Esmail says the hurdles are substantial. “By attending, [participants] may get connected to a worker who can help them fill out their forms for a work permit or fill out the forms for Ontario Works, find out where to find affordable housing . . . or how to apply for school or [student financial assistance].”
There is another major hurdle for all youth, regardless of where they come from. “Another challenge is just navigating adulthood,” Esmail says. “Most youth arrive by themselves and are looking for support.”
Support can be provided in many ways, and those unavailable to participate by creating a team or sponsoring an existing one for the Bowlathon event can still get involved.
SOY is always looking for volunteers, particularly adult LGBT mentors from diverse cultural communities. Each mentor is paired with a youth participant for a minimum of six months to form a substantial relationship and to help guide them in their journey into adulthood.
From Albania to Vietnam, more than 40 countries are represented by SOY’s membership. Because of programs like SOY, youth from all over the world can now call Toronto a home away from home.