Standing outside a downtown Toronto park in their grey Kickback sweatshirts, Abel Berhane, Badhasa Ibrahim Abbas and Jamal Omar are an antidote to the pessimism that can sometimes threaten to swallow us whole. They radiate energy and not only look forward to their next races, but also look forward to their lives’ potential—through the mentorship and opportunities of Kickback program, the students say they feel empowered to take on the world.
“To others, Kickback might look like an organization, but to me it’s like a family,” says Berhane, 18, of the non-profit organization supported by ASICS that he says is changing his life. “We might live in parts of Toronto that aren’t particularly privileged, but Kickback has opened new doors for me and allowed me to believe in what’s possible, and that motivates me to keep doing good, because suddenly there seems like more options.”
Options, as runners well know, are all about freedom—the chance to grow and achieve, experiment and experience new things. At Kickback, a non-profit, volunteer-run community initiative that photographer, activist and youth worker Jamal Burger started at 27-years-old in Regent Park, the team has fostered a youth culture where kids can come for a run club or play basketball, and receive real world applications for achieving in life.
Abel, Badhasa and Jamal, recently back in Toronto after experiencing—via Kickback—the LA Marathon, say they appreciate the camaraderie of their in-person social network, but also the encouragement and tangible professional help. Like anybody, all they want is the chance to succeed.
“If any of us are ever like, ‘I want to try something,’ there’s immediately thirty people at Kickback offering advice and willing to roll up their sleeves and help with the work,” says Jamal Omar, 22, who took all these pictures and started at the program as a student and now works as a Kickback adviser part-time. “If you’re applying for school and need a reference letter or want to talk about professional options, there’s this whole team of people standing right beside you. I never had that before and, for real, it means the world.”
To Jamal Burger, comments like that are music to his ears.
Kickback Run Club, like the basketball pickup games, are meant to give its members a positive after-school outlet. But that’s not enough. Burger wants his kids to have every opportunity—opportunities disproportionately ladled out to the more affluent parts of town—to prosper: personally, professionally, in business and in life.
“Every kid wants to make their lives better, but when you don’t have guidance or opportunities that leads to rash decision making and the police system is waiting for us, which makes it ten-times more likely we won’t get hired for that new job,” says Burger, co-founder of Tier Zero, a growing Toronto-based strategy, production and design firm. Burger, who comes from Regent Park where Kickback is based, is a self-made success story who got to the top and decided to pull up as many people as he can. He’s fueled by the success he sees in the kids that he helps.
“Human beings are designed to pursue what we believe in and when I’m helping others I believe I’m helping myself because I don’t want to wait for change to happen,” he says. “I want to give people who look like me and come from where I come from a template to address the things we need the most—right now.”
Kickback, which recently moved into its office space, has grand designs and the kids in the park talked about seeing it expand not only across Canada, but also around the world. After seeing Los Angeles and wearing their ASICS on the Santa Monica Pier and in the LA Marathon, the guys see no reason for Kickback mission to be completed within their own lives. Inspired by Burger, their goals of lifting up the kids behind them are the same.
“We’ve all watched Jamal and the biggest thing now for all of us is to show the next generation that if you take things seriously, anything can happen,” says Badhasa. “We want the kids behind us to be better than us, that’s Kickback philosophy: we want them to surpass us on every level.”
Photographs by Jamal Omar.