B.C. Boys Club Network takes steps to emphasize plight of Syrian refugees

The walk was the idea of Sentinel Secondary students Yigal Bruk, left, Marcelo Gonzales, Kameron Karimi and Manuel Rojas. — Laura Neubert photo PNG

About 200 boys from around the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley hit the seawall in West Vancouver on Tuesday to raise awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees.

Coming from as far afield as Abbotsford’s W.J. Mouat Secondary, the youths are members of the Boys Club Network, a mentorship program designed to engage at-risk boys before they drop out of school, join a gang, try drugs or otherwise are disenfranchised.

“We started Boys Club because we were losing so many kids through the cracks,” said club co-founder Jim Crescenzo, a theatre and film teacher at Vancouver’s Templeton high school who has appeared in movies such as Happy Gilmore and Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch.

“They weren’t getting involved in sports, they weren’t involved in fine arts, they weren’t joining the regular clubs.

“This is a net we can catch them with. We provide a relationship with these kids that they don’t otherwise get, we surround them with a family-like culture.”

The organization is bankrolled by a handful of local business people who, many from modest means, made fortunes in real estate, the food industry, natural resources, automotive and media, people such as philanthropist Frank Giustra of the Radcliffe Foundation (now building housing for Syrian refugees caught between Greece and Macedonia).

After hearing a talk by Giustra, one group of students at Sentinel Secondary in West Vancouver came up with the walkathon idea: Yigal Bruk, Marcelo Gonzales, Kameron Karimi and Manuel Rojas.

“The boys discussed his talk, it was a story that resonated with them and they wanted to do something to make a difference,” said Scott Bruce, a counsellor at the school. “They came up with this idea, they’re walking barefoot like many refugees did, it’s their brainchild.”

Most of the boys, more than 90 per cent of them, have not been involved in criminal activities and either join the club voluntarily or are guided to it by school counsellors, said Walter Mustapich, a former vice-principal at Templeton who co-founded the Boys Club Network with Crescenzo. (It is not to be confused with, and is not associated with, the Boys and Girls Clubs.)

“They’re disenfranchised, they’re suffering anxiety,” Mustapich said.

“In a lot of cases it’s because they’ve had a negative male influence that mom’s brought in.

“We’re teaching them the rules of the game, the ways to treat women, the ways to treat the community.”

Mustapich said the men brought in to talk to the boys in off-the-record sessions — “What’s said in the room stays in the room,” in Mustapich’s words — have often themselves come from hardscrabble backgrounds and upbringings.

“What the boys learn is that if you embrace your adversity you can have success in life, because these men talking to you have been in your shoes.”

Or as Chris Kennedy, superintendent of schools in West Vancouver, put it: “The boys get to see a world of possibilities, that there’s no linear path, that there are a whole bunch of different ways that you can be a different man at 21 than the boy you were at 14.”