It’s about 800 steps from Whalley’s “Tent City” to the turf. It doesn’t sound like much, but Tom Binnie Park couldn’t feel further away from the Whalley Strip for eight young men, their CFL player-coaches and the Wraparound mentors cheering them on.
Today is about flag football. Not problems at home, friends joining gangs or worrying about someone stealing your football tickets.
The “Lions Pride” event held Saturday (May 5) is the result of many hours of practice and perseverance for the kids from Surrey, Abbotsford, Burnaby and North Vancouver who’ve joined the Wraparound program (Wrap), hoping to find a positive outlet for their energy.
Jamie Taras, director of community relations with the B.C. Lions football club, said he’s proud to see how everything has come together.
“Today is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of fun. Today is about fun, but it’ll still be a competitive tournament to see who will be crowned this year’s champion,” Taras said.
“I think part of why we started Lions Pride way back when, the reason was that young people were getting into some unhealthy things like criminal activity, gangs and violence. So we thought about creating this program called Lions Pride,” he added.
May 5 marked the ninth year of Lions Pride, a flag-football tournament involving at-risk youth from the Lower Mainland. The CFL’s Lions and their players annually partner up with Wrap, the Ministry of Public Safety, the Solicitor General and supporting partner Coast Capital Savings to bring the kids a day of football, food, friends and fun.
The Surrey Wraparound Program is a partnership between the Surrey RCMP, Surrey School District and the City of Surrey aimed at keeping at-risk youths safe and off the streets through recreational activities, providing kids with opportunities that might not otherwise be available due to financial stress or any number of other issues.
RCMP Const. John Wilson, with the Wraparound Program, said they even work with kids who might stray and need a little help.
“Our mandate is to identify, work with and support the community’s at-risk-youth, change their path and put them onto bigger and better things. It is very rewarding,” he said. “We’ve changed a lot of lives and helped a lot of kids.”
Last Saturday, looking around the field at the nearly 100 youths, you’d be hard-pressed to find an unhappy soul. But come game time for the Surrey Savages, the rag-tag little group of kids from the Whalley neighbourhood put their game faces on.
“Someone just told me in my school. So I was like well, I’m an athlete kid, so I might have to just come here and show these little kids what’s up,” laughed Mohammed Abdi, the Savages’ wide-receiver.
Watching Abdi on the field is tantamount to watching an Eagle swoop down on its prey. His speed is his strength, and he presents himself with a tough edge. Even though Abdi knows Surrey can be a tough place, he’s still proud of where he’s from, and doesn’t let negativity affect him. But even the young receiver isn’t immune to the struggles of life around Whalley.
“I’ve had a lot of fun here, you know. Some guy tried to sell my football ticket, but I got to see these guys (the B.C. Lions) play anyways,” he said proudly. So excited about getting to see his Lions, Abdi couldn’t tell you the score or who they played, only that he knew for sure they’d won.
“I feel like Surrey is a hard place. If you’re not in Surrey that long, it’s a hard place; I say go back to your home. This place is my home bro, I’m telling you this place is home. If you’re here long-term, this is your hometown, too,” said Abdi, his hand beating against his chest.
“Being here, playing football with these boys, that’s what I like. I’m going to be one of them one day,” said Abdi pointing to Surrey Savages coach and B.C. Lions running-back Jeremiah Johnson.
Johnson said he can definitely relate to what these kids go through on a daily basis, and is happy to be there helping out in Surrey.
“I came from a similar background to some of these kids, you know, single parent household, my father wasn’t around and it was tough growing up, but this is a time where these kids can have someone positive in their lives to look up to, “said Johnson.
“Whatever little bit I can do to help in their lives, I am more than happy to be out here with my teammates and my family making that happen and it’s truly a blessing for to be able to help.”
Representatives of the Lions and Wraparound Surrey say they are hopeful that the lives of these boys and girls will be changed for the better. Whether it’s football, camping trips or just having someone to talk to on the regular, Const. Wilson and his group are all about prevention and allowing these kids to flourish.
“Surrey is a funny place. It does seem to make the news for all the wrong reasons, but it’s not unlike any other growing city where you have hiccups and a few problems,” Wilson said.
Policing in Surrey, Wilson said, is focused on three key areas: prevention, intervention and, if all else fails, enforcement. Wilson’s own career has been spent trying to keep things from escalating to enforcement, but even he admits it’s a struggle.
“Sadly we know of 10, 12, 14 young kids that are no longer with us because some young boys and girls have run afoul, gotten involved in criminality and ended up shot,” Wilson said. “It can be heartbreaking, but we also have amazing stories of young men and women now in their late-teens/early-20s (who) are coming back and telling us we saved their lives and they’re on a positive track.”
“You can put people in jail, but what will fix things long-term is breaking the cycles, helping the families, keeping these kids in school and you need to give them opportunities,” he said from behind his reflective sunglasses as he paused to cheer on the Surrey Savages’ rusher Skyler White from the sidelines.
Skyler White isn’t the biggest 7th-grader on the field, but he can rush like nobody’s business. He said he enjoys making the opposition sweat when he steps onto the field as the Savages designated rusher on defence.
“Yeah I know they get a little intimidated when they see me. I’m just really passionate about football,” he said.
Passion is something none of these kids lack and Jessy Johal, with the Wraparound program in Surrey, said he is proud to see the small Surrey team having so much fun.
“You’ve got kids out here, getting riled up, excited and this is really good for them,” said Johal. “They could be sitting at home right now doing nothing, but they’re out here winning games. It’s great atmosphere for them.”
“These kids are from the Whalley area. It’s a rough neighbourhood,” he added.
“The Whalley strip is two blocks from here. I can see the tents from where I’m standing and yet these kids are out here working hard at 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday when they could be doing anything else, anywhere else,” said Johal.
Not wanting to take any credit, Johal said it’s inspiring for him to see these kids’ improvements over the past year, including the last month of Lions Pride flag football practices.
“These kids do it themselves. We motivate them a little bit, but you just mention Lions Pride and hey, they’re here.
“What motivates me is seeing a kid score a touchdown, you see the smile on a kid’s face, they’re having fun and we’re having fun, it’s great,” he said. “Seeing these boys being happy is all the motivation I need to come out on a Saturday and do this.”
Johal and his fellow Wrap workers from the Surrey School District and the RCMP spent early Saturday morning driving around, picking up the kids (wherever they needed a ride from) to make sure they arrived at Tom Binnie Park. A few stragglers took some time to get to the field, but by the time things got underway, everyone was accounted for, smiles and all, for a great day of football.
“This is so much fun, I’ve been doing this every year since Grade 6,” said TJ Flett, a young man who stands out on the field for his height and enthusiasm during the game.
“I feel lucky, because not many kids get to do this. Maybe they’re busy or they don’t want to put in the time, but we’re really lucky that the B.C. Lions want to come hang out with us and teach us stuff,” Flett said.
Flett scored two touchdowns in the team’s first game of the tournament, against Abbotsford Knights.
“Whether I get a couple yards or a touchdown, I just love that feeling of having the ball in my hands and being with my team.”
When you mention Lions Pride to these kids, 800 steps might as well be a thousand miles.