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Three teens dressed in hoodies, baggy pants and basketball sneakers were walking along Sewells Road in Malvern yesterday afternoon, when a second, larger group of young people approach from behind.

"Yo, this guy is whack!" yells one of the kids.

Immediately, the two groups begin to shove each other. And just when it starts to look like a clash of youths, they break out laughing.

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This is just friends horsing around on their way to a recreation centre in Malvern where young people in the neighbourhood congregate after school to get homework help, play basketball and chill out.

"If it weren't for the rec centre, I'd be bored right now, sir," said Angelo Walker, a 14-year-old clutching an old-school blowout comb.

At a time when some community centres in troubled neighbourhoods are being closed for safety reasons, city officials are also grateful.

At a downtown office tower last night, the Toronto Community Foundation showed its gratitude to 26-year-old Neethan Shanmugarajah, who works out of the Malvern Family Resource Centre as manager of youth programs, with a Vital People award worth $5,000 to be used for training or development. Eleven other Torontonians received the grant, which recognizes the accomplishments of community leaders who make the city a better place to live.

"There's so much potential here," Mr. Shanmugarajah said earlier yesterday while sitting in a food court in a Malvern mall.

On a regular basis, about 1,000 young people flock to the neighbourhood centre on Neilson Road near Sewells Road, which operates on an annual budget of about $250,000 that is funded by all three levels of government.

Mr. Shanmugarajah, a Tamil who came to Canada 10 years ago, grew up amid the political turmoil of Sri Lanka. He said that experience motivates him to keep going during the 70 hours a week he logs working in the community.

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"I saw a lot of discrimination happening to people in Sri Lanka, which made me realize how important human rights are."

Increasingly, Mr. Shanmugarajah said, young people in communities such as Malvern are being stigmatized as a criminal subculture.

"I'm fighting a battle here in a different setting for the same reasons. Not just for Tamil people, but for other marginalized people."

Along with managing the centre, where he acts as a conduit between the young people who use the programs and the bureaucrats who fund them, it has been a busy two years for Mr. Shanmugarajah.

Recently, he launched a campaign to improve Malvern's image in the media.

He also helped create The Malvern Youth Cabinet, which works to increase the positive image of youth and gives neighbourhood youth a voice, and the Law and Order Team, made up of youths interested in law or police careers and which strengthens the often-shaky relations between police and neighbourhood youths.

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TCF president Anne Swarbrick described Mr. Shanmugarajah as "an excellent example of youth coming forward to help build their community."

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