One of the main reasons I ended up at Youth Unlimited is Jesse James. 

No, not the outlaw. This Jesse James is a friend of mine that I met in my undergrad days. The two of us used to do paper writing/movie marathon weekends together before either of us had a wife and kids. Following that we met every other week for two years at a Montana's in North Toronto. Now we're in a masters program together. Jesse is someone who, when he believes strongly in something he's doing, wants everyone he knows to join him. In this case, that something is Youth Unlimited and he had been trying to recruit me for years. 

I guess I finally caved. 

Anyways, Jesse is doing some really wonderful things in Willowdale and so I decided to share some of that with you on here. Right now he's organizing an initiative to give out 125 hygiene gift packs and personalized cards to homeless youth in partnership with a couple local youth shelters. Here's an interview of sorts I did with him around this project. It costs $28 to give a bag, click the link to give one. What a great way to share with others this Advent/Christmas season. 

Here's Jesse talking about this and the work he's doing with YU. 

Who are you and what are you doing in Willowdale? 

My name is Jesse James. I live in Willowdale, a neighbourhood of 200,000 people in the center of North Toronto. I have been married to Joanna for over 8 years and we have two children together - Julianna Willow and Edmund Carey.

I am currently engaged in full-time studies, pursuing a Masters of Divinity, that may be best described as studying Community Development and Practical Theology at Tyndale Seminary, which is also located in Willowdale. I am also currently employed full-time as a community worker with Youth Unlimited in Toronto, whose vision is to see transformed youth transform our city. I love working with YU and Willowdale’s young people!

What exactly is your role with Youth Unlimited? It's changed a bit over the years hasn't it?

I am a community developer and youth worker in Willowdale. Our Willowdale Outreach team has worked to establish a multi-faceted cycling initiative that teaches cycling and bicycle repair skills. All our volunteers have lived in the Willowdale area and by themselves, not including paid staff, these volunteers have invested 2,000+ hours into the lives of our community’s youth. I am continually blessed by these generous and caring colleagues. 

When I first joined YU I had a vision of establishing a mentoring network in the neighbourhood. After 6+ years, that is finally becoming a reality! Together with Spring Garden Church we have launched the “Sophia Mentoring Community”. I am so excited to see how this will affect our community of people in Willowdale, and also at Spring Garden, as we all grow together in wisdom as a community who mentor.

Jesse with some youth at their Revolution(s) bike camp this past summer. 

Jesse with some youth at their Revolution(s) bike camp this past summer. 

What sort of things are you doing in Willowdale these days? 

We are currently in the process of two pieces of our work in Willowdale. The first is the maintenance of what we have been doing thus far, such as cycling and community service facilitation for youth. The second is an intensive and total discernment process that will determine the future of our engagement with the Willowdale neighbourhood, and its youth.

And what are you discerning?

That the work we do in Willowdale seems to be about creating connectedness in our community. 

This really speaks to your heart for collaboration. Can you share a bit about that?

I see great potential and great need in our neighbourhoods. Both are a part of every community; however, the disparity here is quite pronounced. Among 80,000 households in Willowdale, there are over 24,000 households living at the poverty line, which accounts for an average of almost 30% of our children and youth living in poverty. 

The assortment and urgency of these accumulated needs is too much for me to meet alone. Early on with Youth Unlimited I realized that I needed to collaborate with others to effectively serve our neighbours. So, together with a number of other organizations, churches, groups and individuals - the Willowdale Collaboration Network - we work together to serve our neighbourhood’s young people and their communities. Together, we: Share our Journeys. Foster Peace. Increase Wholeness. Develop Community. 

So what are you working on right now?  

Over the past 6 years, the Willowdale community has worked together to provide holiday gifts and cards for 335 homeless youth through an all-ages, multi-ethnic community skate celebration at Mel Lastman Square with 1000+ people in the neighbourhood!

This is our sixth year doing it and we are aiming to assemble another 125 holiday gift bags, providing necessary hygiene items and personalized holiday cards to every youth in three youth shelters in the city. 

So you're doing this in partnership with Eva's Initiatives? How come? Why not keep it a Youth Unlimited thing?

Because no one serves homeless youth in Toronto like Eva’s Initiatives, since its shelters are immensely well-equipped and their staff are both compassionate and resourceful. And, of course, Youth Unlimited’s own Light Patrol is unique in Toronto since their services are mobile, and they began the work of creating gift bags for homeless youth. Thus, collaborating with both organizations is key. Why would I try to duplicate what they’re doing? Is it not better to partner with them, and expand and deepen what they are already doing by facilitating dozens of Willowdale’s youth to richly engage with their homeless peers through collaboration?

I really do believe that most things are better when done collaboratively. This is, however, more difficult than creating your own thing. Collaboration requires submission. Collaboration requires sharing. Collaboration requires selflessness.

How can someone help?

Easy, either: 

1) Sponsor a gift bag through “Operation: Good Thing”, a program of Light Patrol – a community of people serving young friends on the streets of Toronto. One bag is only $28!

2) Join us for the Celebrate & Skate event at Mel Eastman Square on December 22 to celebrate the holiday season and meet some of the remarkable youth at Eva’s Satellite and Eva’s Place and Eva’s Phoenix!

Awesome. Last question, why do you love working for YU so much?

I love people. I see that young people, in particular, embody a certain kind of potential and hope for the world that God uses for whole-world transformation. I haven’t engaged another youth organization, let alone a Christian variety, that better serves the community it inhabits. Youth Unlimited is golden. And I want to be with YU for, perhaps, the remainder of my life.

Well, hopefully Jesse's words have inspired you somewhat. If nothing else, consider giving a gift bag to a homeless youth this Christmas. It'll only cost you $28, the deadline is December 22.

Or, come out to the skate and meet Jesse and hear more about Willowdale Outreach, yet another reason I love working at Youth Unlimited

Jesse (+ family, minus Edmund) at the Bayview Bike Park they restored as a community initiative. 

Jesse (+ family, minus Edmund) at the Bayview Bike Park they restored as a community initiative.