Growing up as the son of a single mother as a new Canadian in Montreal, Paul Evra was on his own a lot in a neighbourhood where those around him didn't always choose the right path due to lack of opportunity.
With his mother – a Haitian immigrant who came to Canada alone at the age of 18 – working hard to support herself and her children, he quickly learned the value of family, community, and the power of a home cooked meal.
"I lost many friends who took another path in life, and often ended up in jail," he said. "I grew up with my mother and my siblings, and every day I saw the sacrifices she made for us and I didn’t want to disappoint her – I also wanted to be a good role model for my siblings."
Now, as the Executive Director of Centre Lasallien in St-Michel, Evra is working to build opportunities for young people from various backgrounds who are growing up in similar circumstances to his own, to help give them a chance at being their best selves.
Prioritizing the most vulnerable
Centre Lasallien is a socio-educational centre dedicated to the integral development of young people, according to an inclusive approach that prioritizes the most vulnerable. Through its educational action, with young people and their families, the Centre aims to reduce inequalities and increase the chances of social and educational success.
By offering a stimulating environment, the Centre helps young people to become engaged, open, proactive and responsible citizens.
“We work with schools and local community organizations to form partnerships," Evra said.
"With their help, we have after-school and other programs, like learning to cook, music, dance, sport, culture and healthy living. We also offer summer camps, including the first French language camp for allophone youth in Montreal, where we work with new Canadians whose first language is not French to help kids acclimate."
Evra said that many of the kids the Centre supports come from similar situations to his own. Roughly 50% of the population in the neighbourhood were not born in Canada, 37% are single-parent families and the average annual household income is the lowest in Montreal.
Then there's the fact that the first language spoken for 50% of the people here is not French, hence the need to set up programs that will help youth succeed in school.
You can't learn when you're hungry
Learning to cook and live a healthy lifestyle are also key, Evra said, especially when 33% of children in the community have access to only one meal a day and have just one parent, who often may be working when its mealtime.
At the Centre, young people learn to cook healthy food for their families, just as Evra often did for his siblings.
"You can't learn when you're hungry," he said, adding that the cooking lessons are also a solid starting point for fostering academic success for young people.
Evra also hosts an annual BBQ at the Centre to celebrate the end of the school year for the neighbourhood kids. He said it's especially important to celebrate their efforts and achievements, since he knows that for many, this is the only celebration they'll have.
“I'm Haitian, and we love a good BBQ!” adds Evra.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBQ was attended by 700 people, including staff and volunteers from the Centre, local families and teachers, nurses, police officers and officials from the community.
But when the pandemic hit, the Centre shifted its emphasis to help deliver food to more families than ever and wound up coordinating more than 20,000 food deliveries.
"We started with 10 families, but before long, it was 150," Evra said.
And for many, the Centre was a critical safety net, providing food for dozens of low-income families throughout the community.
They even organized an online party for families to help maintain a sense of community.
“It's important to connect, share in something happy,” he said. "We're really proud of this program."
This year, as part of the #TDThanksYou campaign, Evra and his team at Centre Lasallien received a personalized thank you in the form of a donation of $5,000 in kitchen equipment and $10,000 in additional funding to help support the cooking classes at the Centre.
#TDThanksYou is an annual North American program designed to demonstrate TD's commitment to helping enrich the lives of its customers and communities by recognizing each year a set number of customers who have contributed to helping make the lives of others better by personally thanking them in unique and exciting ways.
Nominated by TD employees, this year's campaign is about thanking those customers who are spreading positivity and doing extraordinary things in challenging times, without expecting anything in return.
TD officials made the presentation to Evra and his team at a BBQ held at the Centre for the community catered by well-known local chef Paul Toussaint.
Evra said his mother doesn't know about the #TDThanksYou recognition, and that she will learn when this piece is posted. He describes her as a strong and silent woman who may not tell him directly that she's proud of him, but he says he'll know because “I'll see it in her eyes.”
"Ours is one drop of water in an ocean of making change," Evra said.
"I'm happiest for our team because this means a lot for TD to recognize us. That's important for them – we've been working a lot during the pandemic, and we think we're doing good things, but when someone else recognizes us, it means a lot.”
Discover more #TDThanksYou stories
See how others are spreading positivity in their communities and how TD is surprising them with our thanks for their great work.