Faiza Haji was shy and unsure when she entered the Dixon Grove Yoga program two years ago.
Through the ProAction Cops & Kids-funded program, the 13-year-old is now much more confident and assertive to the point where she started an empowerment program for girls at her school.
The Grade Seven student was recognized with a ProAction Youth Award at the organization’s annual general meeting on May 29, in the Toronto Police Service (TPS) auditorium. ProAction Cops & Kids funds initiatives that link youth to police mentors.
“She was very quiet and shy,” recalled Constable Jen Sidhu, the yoga program instructor. “I have seen her grow and develop into a wonderful young woman.”
Constable Ramandeep Sandhu, who worked with the Somali Liaison Unit out of 23 Division at the time, helped start the program.
“Faiza is now a role model for other girls,” said Sandhu, who made the presentation. “She helps organize the class and often takes the lead role in a lot of our initiatives.”
Just after the start of the 2017-18 school year, Haji reached out to Sandhu for assistance to start a program for girls at Dixon Grove Junior Middle School.
“She wanted me to go and talk to her principal about the idea,” said Sandhu. “When I got there, Faiza had everything set up and the girls ready to go.”
The eldest of nine children, Haji said she was privileged to have Sidhu, Sandhu and other caring people in her life.
“Their support has given me opportunities to develop my voice and make it heard,” she said. “Yoga has helped me build confidence. It has changed my lifestyle and view of police officers. I used to think that yoga was just about stretching, but I now know that, whenever I come out on a Wednesday afternoon, I would feel my body change after the stresses of school are gone… I think it’s powerful to develop positive relationships with the police and caring adults in communities like the one I live in, where young people experience negative interactions with police and people in authority. I will continue to advocate for girls and other people to have their voices heard.”
When Staff Sergeant Anthony Charles was looking for assistance to start a soccer program for youths in the Don Mills & Shepherd Ave. E. community, shortly after he was transferred to 33 Division in 2013, he found a willing ally in Ahmad Maiwad Mirza-Gul, a student then at Georges Vanier Secondary School.
“This guy was ready to support me as soon as I approached him,” said Charles, who is assigned to the Primary Report Intake, Management and Entry (PRIME) unit. “I was looking for about 100 players to start the program and he brought me about 50 the first time he showed up.”
Mirza-Gul was the recipient of the ProAction Cops & Kids Leadership Award.
“I love helping people,” said the aspiring Toronto Police officer, who completed the Police Foundations program at Seneca College and is an Army Reserve. “I chalked up hundreds of hours of volunteer service at school. While this honour is nice, I don’t do volunteer work for accolades. I have got a lot of parents who have come up and said they love what I do. I appreciate that. However, when a young kid tells me the same thing, that’s much more significant because I know this kid is going to grow up to be something special.”
Born in the Soviet Union to Afghan parents, Mirza-Gul and his family came to Canada a decade ago.
“He is one of the most driven and kindest young people I have ever met,” said Georges Vanier Special Education Teacher Janice Sera. “He leads from the front and completes any challenge he’s assigned. He’s just a great all-round young man.”
Constable John Freeman, of 12 Division, was presented with the Jack Sinclair Award.
Sinclair was a ProAction Cops & Kids founding board member.
Three years ago, Freeman started the Miniature Painting Club program that’s a social experience built around arts and hobbies. It allows youths to sit around a table and chat while painting.
“Programs such as this allow officers to engage with youths in challenged communities in positive ways to strengthen the bonds of respect and friendship,” said Freeman, who joined the Service in August 2008. “In this era of social media and internet isolation, this club offers young people the chance to have a meaningful face-to-face interaction with me, other police officers and their peers.”
Freeman’s father passed the hobby on to his son.
“My dad painted miniature soldiers as a kid and he was kind enough to let me play with his soldiers as I was growing up,” said Freeman.
Staff Inspector Jim Sneep was community-minded and seized every opportunity to encourage young people to join the Service.
When he died, in 2006, ProAction Cops & Kids established an award bearing his name.
Constable Edward Parks of 51 Division was this year’s recipient. The Regent Park Neighbourhood Officer started the Successful Youth Program (SYC), See Your City, Express Yourself, the Amazing Race and a bike program.
“I am extremely proud of this officer,” said Superintendent Tony Riviere, 51 Division unit commander. “He’s a living example of what we expect from policing in a community where you mentor local kids. He not only believes in this but puts what he believes in into action.”
Since its inception in 1991, ProAction Cops & Kids has become the largest private funder of Toronto Police programs for young people.
Toronto businessman John Bitove conceived the program idea after seeing the positive effect that police foot patrols had on enhancing police/community relations.
Over $7.8 million has been raised for 2,100 programs reaching about 410,000 young people since the program was established. In addition, approximately 18,000 police officers have participated in programs.
In 2017, Pro Action supported 125 programs, engaging over 7,000 young people.
“As families with young children continue to struggle in a challenging economy, and as we welcome more newcomers to Canada yearly, it is increasingly important to provide our young people with new skills and networks that lead to better futures,” said ProAction president John Lago. “We are proud to work with our police partners to achieve this common goal through programs that build positive relationships, trust and collaboration throughout communities.”
ProAction police partners are Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara, Durham and Halton Regional Police Services.