Photo by Amy Reid

From at-risk youth to leader, Surrey resident leads anti-gang program expansion

YoBro YoGirl program going into eight Surrey elementary schools

It might be shocking to hear that 15-year-olds are involved in drugs and gangs, but in reality it’s happening even earlier than that said Surrey resident Ary Azez.

He would know.

The 20-year-old joined the YoBro YoGirl program at Kwantlen Park Secondary five years ago when he was in with the wrong crowd.

The after-school initiative is an outreach program for youth at risk of involvement in drugs and gangs, and Azez said many of his friends were going down that path.

Without YoBro, “I probably would have followed them,” he said.

“When you have a close-knit community of friends, as soon as you have some external threat, even if it’s not a real threat, everybody wants to act on it,” he added. “That leads up to these little mini gangs without you even realizing it. Then at some point kids are forming real gangs…. Once you solidify yourselves, and you have a name, a neighbourhood you’re trying to govern, at that point it becomes too much.”

Accidentally stumbling across some other kids practicing Jiu-Jitsu in the gymnasium after school one day in Grade 10 changed his life.

He soon invited his friends to join YoBro. Some did, he said, and those people went on to graduate high school, then to post-secondary or working.

The ones that didn’t? Some have been killed. Others have overdosed on drugs.

“It’s just very common, unfortunately,” he said.

Azez has now come full circle, going from being a participant in the anti-gang program to becoming its current program facilitator, and is in his second year of university studying engineering.

Azez, who currently works out of the Newton rec centre where he runs a two-hour Saturday YoBro program, will be leading the expansion of the program into Surrey elementary schools. He will be responsible for the “new era” of the program, hoped to reach more kids at earlier stages in life.

It’s estimated this year’s summer program will reach 400 Surrey students from eight elementary schools.

Azez said the goal with the elementary students is to “plant that seed” and “build a connection” so when the kids enter high school, they know they have a safe place to go.

YoBro YoGirl programs aim to “deliver education, early intervention and physical training” through after-school activities, such as Jiu-Jitsu or soccer.

“We take the program to them, we don’t charge anyone, it’s free,” said Azez. “A lot of the work we do is, in a sense, subliminal. We don’t sit them down with boring presentations. A lot of the time its just casual conversations.”

It’s important to reach kids early, said Azez, because kids are dying.

“Last week, there was a student at one of our programs who made a disappearance for three months and he came back and one of my colleagues asked him were he’s been. He said, ‘My best friend died from fentanyl.’ It’s amazing because this is what you’re warning everyone against. You’re not expecting it to be taking the life of high school kids but it is.”

YoBro YoGirl founder Joe Calendino, who had a lifestyle or crime before creating the program in 2009, is an inspiration to Azez.

Though Azez been to police presentations at school, none of that took. It wasn’t until he met Calendino that he saw a different way. Azez related to him.

“He had to bury one of his students from a school just down the street. It was always very hard-hitting and close to home, his talks. It was always reoccurring as well, almost every couple weeks we’d have to sit down and here something new from him. He would just sort of inform us, he didn’t push it down our throats…. Knowledge was his way of deterring us away from everything but pulling us in with a fun program that doesn’t feel like it’s a chore. Kids need someone who’s lived their life and been down that road. That was the changing point for us. We looked up to him.”

And that, said Azez, is the key to the program’s success.

But it’s a tough job.

Some schools are more challenging than others, he revealed, with many at-risk youth already sliding down the slippery slope of crime.

“At that point it’s like a salvage job. You’re trying to save who you can,” Azez said slowly. “You start small and you hope it grows. Even if you help one person, it means the world to that one person and their family.”

Azez said the program’s biggest challenge is not being able to help all those who ask for it.

“We’re expanding at such a fast rate that we don’t have enough program assistants to teach the programs. We have schools calling us from all around the province, some even from other provinces, Alberta, Ontario, but we just don’t have enough staff to provide for them. It’s quite sad when you have all these schools who are saying we need help, we have a crisis, and we have to turn them down.

“But we’re doing what we can,” he added. “We’re helping the people that are closest to us.”

Surrey, for one.

“Surrey, unfortunately, the way things have been going for the past few years and perhaps more, it’s going downhill. Whether you look at drug use, even murders. Back in 2015 when there was 22 shootings in Surrey in six weeks, you open the news article and then you see a face and think, ‘Hey I know that guy.’ I knew the guy. I wasn’t expecting it to be somebody I know, these are kids who are 18, 19, and their mug shots are on the news. At that point, it really kicked in what my program stands for. We’re trying to avoid all of this.”

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com