Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Awards recognize young people working toward positive change

For Sophia Gran-Ruaz of Mississauga, the cause is care packages for homeless kids.

For Revati Kinkar of west-end Toronto, a safe school environment was the focus.

And sisters Laurece and Leanne Prendergast of Woodbridge have put bullying and social exclusion on the top of their to-do lists. They've even written a book on the topic.

Story continues below advertisement

What links these disparate teenagers is that all are past recipients of the Louise Russo Youth Awards, an innovative program of grants spawned by tragedy and now gearing up to name its next group of winners.

"Youth inspiring youth, that's what this is all about," said Ms. Russo, paralyzed for life in a bungled underworld shooting as she queued at a North York sandwich shop six years ago.

"Maybe something gets triggered, and someone says, 'Know what? I can do this. I can achieve this if I truly believe in myself.' That's my key message, that life is all about choices," Ms. Russo said.

The awards, eight in all, help fund scholarships, camp fees or post-secondary tuition costs. Five are worth $2,000 apiece and three are worth $500.

The awards are available to anybody aged nine to 19 who is active in combatting violence - school violence in particular - and in other worthy causes.

Now a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at John Cabot Catholic Secondary School, Ms. Gran-Ruaz was just 11 when she launched Snug as a Bug, Kids Helping Kids, which collects and distributes care packages for homeless children living in shelters.

From teddy bears to makeup, books, toys and crayons, more than 13,000 such packages have so far been given away by Ms. Gran-Ruaz, who secured one of last year's Russo Awards and will deliver a speech at the upcoming presentation in May.

Story continues below advertisement

In January, she was named Canada's Top Teen Philanthropist, and, courtesy of the financial company Mackenzie Investments, was given $1,000 towards her university costs (she hopes to be a surgeon) and a $5,000 donation to the charity of her choice.

So did the Russo Award make a difference in her life?

"I'm sure it did," she said. "I don't know if we would have been able to do the charity on such a grand scale if I hadn't won that award and brought so much attention to the charity."

Creating a program from scratch can be daunting, she concedes.

"I think a lot of people want to start something but they don't know how to go about it, or to get involved. They think they're by themselves... The awards highlight the fact that there are kids out there doing things, and inspires them to finally take that step."

This year's batch will be announced May 11 at the Paramount Conference & Event Venue in Woodbridge. Applications are Canada-wide. Details are on Ms. Russo's website.

Story continues below advertisement

As with fellow Torontonians Jane Creba and John O'Keefe, both innocent citizens killed on the street by bullets allegedly intended for other people, Ms. Russo's tale quickly became a metaphor for urban gun mayhem.

As the mother of three waited in line late one evening in April, 2004, she was struck in the back by a bullet aimed at a man who owed a $130,000 gambling debt.

Five men were subsequently convicted in the shooting, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Ms. Russo never walked again, and since then, her community work has drawn widespread acclaim.

"Louise Russo has done, and continues to do, extraordinary work towards creating safer communities," said Toronto Deputy Police Chief Tony Warr.

"She deserves our admiration, respect and support."

Now 51, Ms. Russo says that of all the things she was robbed of in the moment her spine was shattered, it's the ability to care for her severely disabled daughter, Jenna, 22, that she misses most.

But her energy and courage remain formidable, and she is busy.

Aside from her work with WAVE (Working Against Violence Everyday), she is active with the Office for Victims of Crime, an advisory panel for the provincial Attorney-General's office, and with Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley's accessibility committee, a forum for promoting the rights and needs of the disabled.

"I'm doing fine," she said. "I feel more together than I've ever felt, like I've gotten to the place in life where you know what you want."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.