We all know the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” At the Y, we also believe it takes a peaceful village to raise a peaceful child. That’s why, this morning, we celebrated three individuals who have dedicated themselves to building peace at our annual YMCA of Greater Toronto Peace Medal Awards.
These awards are a YMCA tradition that dates back three decades. But with a record number of killings this year, they are perhaps more important than ever. This year’s recipients were Dale Swift, a police officer who is working tirelessly to build healthier relationships between youth and police, and Loizza Aquino, whose non-profit provides youth across Canada with safe spaces to talk about mental health. We also introduced a new tradition: our first-ever President’s Peace Medal, which I awarded to Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri in recognition of the support he provides for youth and women both through his charity, Giants of Africa, and right here at home.
We need people who are committed to building peace and inspiring others to do the same, so we can shape that peaceful village where our children and grandchildren have their fair chance to flourish.
We’re all in the same boat
In an illustration you may have seen, four people are at sea, their boat on the verge of sinking. Two are in the back, frantically trying to bail out the water that’s quickly filling the vessel. The others are lounging in the front, still high out of the water. One smiles and says to the other, “Sure glad the hole isn’t at our end.”
Of course, they are all in the same boat. They are all in immediate danger. And if they all helped repair the leak, together, they might keep their boat afloat.
When it comes to peace, we — residents of the Greater Toronto Area — are all in the same boat. Violence has long been a reality in certain neighbourhoods. But today, it’s seeping into more.
I strongly believe that together, we can do better. What gives me hope are the incredible successes I see every day at the YMCA and the inspiring individuals we honoured with YMCA Peace Medals this morning.
Our three recipients show that everyone is responsible for peace. Each one of us — whether we’re well-established in our careers and community or just beginning to make our mark — can make a difference.
Peace is so much more than the absence of violence. Peace means fairness, inclusion, empathy, and respect for diversity. It means striving for these conditions every single day. That’s why today’s YMCA Peace Medal recipients are being celebrated for doing the hard work of championing these values.
These leaders are setting an example for the kind of action we all need to take. I don’t just want us to patch the holes in our boat or barely keep our communities afloat. I want to work together so our communities can sail forward and we can build a healthy, safe future. That ambitious goal demands commitment from every single one of us. It’s not enough to be inspired by the acts of peace we celebrated today; we each have a role to play in building a peaceful, prosperous place to call home.
How the Y is doing its part
We’ve long known that peace is an ambitious goal to strive for. It’s threatened by many factors, including unemployment, poverty, racism, housing shortages, and poor health. Every day, the YMCA provides programs designed to address these complex problems: employment services, emergency housing for youth experiencing homelessness, youth addiction programs, child care, accessible Health & Fitness programs, and immigrant services.
But the Y is about so much more than its programs and services. It’s about creating those foundations for peace: fairness, inclusion, empathy, and respect for diversity. It’s about feeling comfortable at the gym, no matter your size or shape. It’s about feeling welcomed and supported when you drop your kids off at child care, especially if your needs are different from other families’. It’s about being at home in a country far from your family. And it’s about having more than just basic shelter: YMCA Sprott House is where LGBTQ2S+ youth can feel safe to be their authentic selves, surrounded by others who can understand what they’re going through.
The Y does all of this — and more — to make sure people feel they belong, to help them feel included, and to make sure their voices are heard.
Outstanding peace builders
This morning, we honoured 3 individuals who have shown a remarkable commitment to these building blocks of peace. They have each made such significant contributions, several special guests joined us to honour them. My thanks to Toronto Mayor John Tory, newly-elected Secretary General for the World YMCA Carlos Sanvee, Consul General of Colombia Christian Rodriguez, and CTV’s The Social co-host Marci Ien for celebrating acts of peace with us.
Two of our YMCA Peace Medal recipients are local community members who are stepping up to make our neighbourhoods better places to live, and setting an example that shows how big an impact every single individual can make.
The first is Dale Swift, who has served as a Toronto Police Officer for 9 years. He grew up in Chester Le, a vibrant Toronto neighbourhood that also has a history of violence. As a teen, Dale saw first-hand the difference police can make when they invest in building relationships with members of the community they serve.
Today, Dale brings those personal experiences to his work. He’s made it his mission to support at-risk youth outside of his job and help them understand that they have real opportunities for promising futures. He does that by delivering leadership conferences, talks on resilience and mental health, and workshops on gun violence — all supported by his background in social work.
Dale has really stepped up to address an urgent need in our city. Youth need to be able to trust the officers in their neighbourhoods; and those officers need to be able to empathize with youth, exactly as he’s doing.
Our second YMCA Peace Medalwent to Loizza Aquino, a mental health advocate who spearheaded her first fundraiser when she was just 9 years old. The catalyst for her current work came when she was in 10th grade. In just one month, Loizza lost four of her fellow students to suicide — including one of her best friends.
Determined to take action, Loizza created her own non-profit, Peace of Mind Canada, to raise awareness about mental health issues. It now operates in Winnipeg, Ottawa, and here in Toronto.
Peace of Mind runs events called Youth Against Mental Health and Illness Stigma, where young people come together to share their experiences of self-harm, suicide, mental health, and mental illness. About 100 students attended Loizza’s first meeting. By the fourth event, there were 700.
Empathy is a crucial part of peacemaking, and Loizza has shown it to those who need it more than ever. She’s also equipped people with the tools they need to empathize with and support those who may otherwise suffer in silence.
Finally, I awarded Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri with the first-ever President’s Peace Medal — a new tradition we’re initiating to recognize those who use their stature to advance peace. Masai helps youth find their voice, their community, and their sense of leadership, both here in Canada and abroad through his charity, Giants of Africa. He also champions gender equality and has directly supported women in leadership positions by hiring several to the Raptors senior staff.
These YMCA Peace Medal recipients tell us something special: humans share a fundamental need for those building blocks of peace. No matter where you are in the world, people need to be included, feel they belong, and know they have a voice. All communities need these building blocks at their foundation for peace to flourish. I hope you will join the YMCA and today’s Peace Medal recipients in making that dream a reality.
About the writer
Medhat Mahdy is the President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Toronto. He leads a committed team of staff and volunteers in pursuit of their mission to make our communities home to the healthiest children, teens and young adults. As the champion of the YMCA’s Strong Start, Great Future capital campaign, Medhat is dedicated to improving community health by bringing more YMCA programs to more people in more communities.