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Toronto MLSE LaunchPad is an unprecedented venture aiming to help Toronto’s at-risk youth

Tanya Mruck, executive director of MLSE Launchpad, pushes back the divider panels at the soon-to-be-opened sports facility on Jan. 23, 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The shell of an unfinished roller-rink project sat empty and neglected in downtown Toronto for 20 years. Now the 42,000-square-foot space is finally getting new life in a unique project from the charitable foundation of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

The newly transformed space at 259 Jarvis St. is being unveiled this week as MLSE LaunchPad, a sports facility for the city's at-risk youth with free programs that also prepare them for school and work. Situated in the bottom two floors of a community housing building in Moss Park, it has brand new multisport courts, classrooms, a rock wall and a teaching kitchen. The space will act as a living lab to explore how sport can improve the lives of underserved youth.

LaunchPad's playing courts – branded with the Raptors, Maple Leafs and Toronto FC logos of MLSE's teams – will start bustling with youth in mid-February. The programs, which are aimed at youth ages six to 29 living in community housing or facing other social barriers, will also integrate life skills, such as meals and nutrition, preparing for job interviews or training in technology. Local community groups specializing in youth development will help with programming, bringing to life MLSE's aim of creating a hub full of community collaborators.

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Since 2009, MLSE Foundation had invested more than $24-million into refurbishing some 47 local sports facilities across Toronto. Installing new gym floors, hockey boards and soccer pitches was a big help and it promoted the brand, but there was often a disconnect with those places after the projects were finished. The community sometimes failed to maintain their new facilities, and the MLSE Foundation found it tough to quantify just how many youth were benefiting.

MLSE Foundation began collaborating with Toronto Community Housing on projects: a soccer program for at-risk youth, or Hockey in the Neighbourhood for kids who needed to borrow equipment and get a little on-ice instruction to try out the game. They also contributed funds and programming for the new Regent Park Athletic Grounds. Still, MLSE's dream was a facility it could control – one where it could drive programming, bring its athletes to engage with kids, create social change and gather its own metrics on success.

"We wanted to build a pathway to education and jobs, a place where sport could help at-risk kids achieve their academic goals, so we started to do a lot of research on sport for development," said Tanya Mruck, who led MLSE Foundation as director of operations, and now becomes the executive director of MLSE LaunchPad. "Right to Play put that kind of teaching on the map internationally, but we started to wonder why no one was really putting those techniques to work here. If they can go to Africa and get kids there playing soccer and find ways to work in messaging about AIDS prevention, why can't we use that style of programming in North America?"

Ms. Mruck visited the empty, unfinished concrete roller-rink a few years ago, and it sparked her imagination. The bowl where people were once meant to roller skate had room for three sports courts, and it could be surrounded by classrooms, while the second-floor mezzanine overlooking the surface could be offices where local community groups could gather to collaborate. A room that seemed once intended as a concessions stand could be transformed into a teaching kitchen, full of appliances just like those in the Air Canada Centre kitchens.

Toronto Community Housing (TCH) controlled the space and had been trying to lease it out. Many groups sent proposals – a boxing academy, a basketball arena and a storage facility – but most flinched at the cost of getting it up to code or failed to get their permits. Its only use had been as a concrete backdrop for a handful of TV shows and movies, such as the Robocop remake of 2014.

Like many MLSE projects, it came together quite quickly. Construction cost $6-million, with funds coming from MLSE, TCH, the Government of Ontario, the City of Toronto, several sponsors and individual donors who all have their names subtly displayed throughout the space. The groups will continue to fund the non-profit venture, which will need an estimated $2.5-million a year to operate. One of the foundation's most reliable fundraisers is the 50-50 draw at its teams' games.

"MLSE LaunchPad is breaking new ground and I felt strongly about contributing to it," said Aris Kaplanis, who is a MLSE Foundation chairman as well as a donor. "This is a huge leap of faith for us. We've never done something like it before, but we hope it will be the first of many centres like it in cities across the NBA and NHL."

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Last year, during NBA All-Star week in Toronto, MLSE Foundation gave a hard-hat media tour of the LaunchPad as construction had just begun. NBA commissioner Adam Silver came; so did basketball legend Dikembe Mutombo, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

"These are the ideal kinds of partnerships we like to see in our league," Mr. Silver said. "MLSE, the city, the province, private donors and the NBA also gets involved. It's a combination of giving back to the community and investing in our future as well by keeping kids healthy and active and making sure they learn sports the right way."

The foundation visited many different facilities across North America and couldn't find anything quite like what they envisioned for LaunchPad. They consulted 90 community groups in Toronto and invited them to collaborate in the space. They researched the surrounding neighbourhoods, which have lots of community housing, and struggle with street violence and drugs.

"We have really high hopes for the facility," said Greg Spearn, president and CEO of TCH. "I think it's a unique partnership with MLSE. It allows us to stretch our very limited resources to give our residents access to programs and facilities that help them thrive. Parents want their kids busy with something constructive. The youth in Toronto need a little helping hand, and this is going to be a big one."

MLSE Foundation is building its own data-gathering technology to analyze information from the youth who use Launchpad, hoping to measure the programs' impact on things such as graduation and employment rates, and continued sports participation. They then hope to share that technology with others in the sector in the hopes of creating a huge database shared by all.

"There's a lot of bad stuff that goes on in our streets, so we need an open space so kids aren't out looking for trouble," said Zakai Quintyn, 18, a resident of community housing in nearby Regent Park. "I hope there are programs for my age that are open without too much structure so we can feel comfortable to hang out and play basketball. I'm hoping I can find a job there at some point, maybe coaching or something."

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MLSE LaunchPad hopes to involve some 25,000 youth in its first year.

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