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Since Day 1 - Aaron Belay

March 12, 2024

Meet Aaron Belay. Aaron is 16, lives in downtown Toronto, and has been attending LaunchPad since day one.

Since opening its doors in 2017, MLSE LaunchPad has used sport to help empower youth and help them recognize their potential. Some youth attend seasonal camps, join weekend sessions, or retreat to the gym after a day at school. Some youth, however, almost never leave this place. Meet Aaron Belay. Aaron is 16, lives in downtown Toronto, and has been attending LaunchPad since day one. At just 11 years old, Aaron entered the doors for the first time and immediately felt at home. He attended a basketball clinic, played some hoops, and was hooked. LaunchPad became a staple in his everyday routine. He went on to help run programs as a volunteer and this summer completed LaunchPad's Leaders In Training Program. Now, nearly five years after entering the building as a wide-eyed 11-year-old, Aaron is working as an Assistant Youth Mentor and is intent on paying his experiences forward to help inspire the next generation.

Q: Tell me about your journey through MLSE LaunchPad.

I remember when this place was just opening. I first heard it was going to be a roller rink and I was even pumped for that. But this? Wow.

Growing up, my mom has always been tight on me. I bounced around to a few schools in this area and my mom always wanted to make sure I didn’t get influenced the wrong way. Keeping me busy and playing sports was her main way of doing that. This is right underneath my building. When I found out this place was opening, we knew from that day on… whatever it took… this gym was where I was going to be. It felt like a clean start.

Free programs? It was a dream. I felt stuck and home and stopped playing video games. I didn’t have an outlet for sport back then. When I came to MLSE I got to push myself.  It made me realize what I was capable of. It propelled me into the game of basketball. Friday evenings were it. Open Gym. The runs. It was me and anyone that wanted to be on my team. I had the confidence to take anyone on. That’s important for a teenager. This place gave me that.

I knew I was going to try to work at this gym. I remember when I walked in on opening day. I saw some of the Raptors donated to make this place happen and I was like “wow, this is serious… they care”. At that time, I had never even been to a raptors game. This place looked like opportunity - It was not a chance that I was going to lose.

I honestly feel like I was the first spokesperson for this place. I wanted to be the person to bring friends and spread the word. I would bring them to brag “yo this is in my neighbourhood. This is where I hang out”. We’d look through the glass when it was closed. This is where the connections start. Where the community starts. Chantal would greet me. There are so many personalities. Dane and Adel were our first youth mentors; when it comes to MLSE and working with MLSE… there’s a feeling of – well - I used to look up to them. If I could give that feeling to another kid… that’s everything to me. They were family figures to me.

Q: Why did you want to join the LIT program?

The history of LIT goes back 2 years for me. I was 14. Dane told me there was an opportunity to become staff.  How can I work in this place? I know I have to work somewhere. To pay for school and stuff. This was the dream job. I saw all these people a few years older at Jarvis going to MLP and I was like wow I want to be like them. I had my sights on this program for years.

It was huge when I got it. But also had a commitment with my church this year. I would travel a couple hours a day after LIT to make this work. Funny story, I used up all my phone data on the first day of LIT. I was at my church on a summer program and I couldn’t get home in time so I used my data to join the program training. I haven’t told anyone until now but there I was, in a quite space in my church doing LIT training off my phone data just to try to make this whole thing work. No data for the rest of the month… I made sure I was on wifi after that.

Q: What do you aspire to? What’s your big dream?

The community connections. The feeling you get when you leave as a family. The fun. You don’t even feel like you’re working. When I got my first cheque in the mail. I didn’t even know we were getting paid for this - I actually forgot. We were learning and gaining skills but it was so fun.

Another story: I got food poisoning on the last day that the LIT group was going to OVO Centre. I was devastated. These were my people this summer and here I am on the last day and I can’t make our final goodbye? I took a nap hoping I’d recover, felt decent later on, and made my mom get my younger siblings in the car to drive me over just so I could squeeze and hour in with this group. I felt bad but I needed to be there.

Q: What do you think the most valuable part of the program is?

Everything I do, my siblings are staring at me. The little things to the big things. I’m happy they saw me go to LIT.  Then go to church. To try to grind it out and make the most of these chances.  I want them to work here too. They chose their own paths, but I have the privilege of going first. My job is to pass on knowledge and steer them in the right direction.

I have to keep them safe. I tell Ian “when you were born, I got another layer of responsibility”. They have different strengths and weaknesses. They need different levels of coaching at different times but I take pride in my role. It’s cool.

Q: What’s the change you want to see in this world?

Well my grades are good. I want to go to university. To get a job is to keep food on the table but I feel like I am really here to give back. We see all sorts of stuff here and back home in Ethiopia… I want to fix problems.  I’m not chasing money. I want to have enough to take care of people in my community. In my church. Back home. I think that’s always been in me but a place like MLSE has inspired me to really build up communities – it’s powerful.

Free programs? It was a dream. I felt stuck at home and stopped playing video games. I didn’t have an outlet for sport back then. When I came to MLSE I got to push myself. It made me realize what I was capable of. It propelled me into the game of basketball.

Q: Tell me one thing you’d want to tell your younger self and one thing you want the older you to always remember.

Younger self: Remember your values. There’s a lot coming ahead. You’ll get pulled in a lot of directions but respect your values – make sure they mean something to you.

Older self: remember how being 16 feels. How I feel right now as I share this. Remember the drive. Remember the dedication. Commitment. The kid who was using his phone data from church to get through a leadership program. Remember the kid that was trying to propel you. Take advantage of that. Don’t stop. Stay humble. Respect the grind.

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