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Lorenzo Colocado, grade 12 student at Chaminade College School, is photographed at his North York school May 10/2011. Colocado is the winner of a youth award run by Louise Russo. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Lorenzo Colocado, grade 12 student at Chaminade College School, is photographed at his North York school May 10/2011. Colocado is the winner of a youth award run by Louise Russo. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Stop the Stigma

Teaching troubled youth the power of talking Add to ...

It's not easy to persuade boys to talk about their feelings, but that's exactly what Lorenzo Colocado has been trying to do.

For the past three years, Mr. Colocado, 18, has worked to establish and spread Stop the Stigma - a week devoted to raising awareness around mental health issues in high schools around Toronto.

He has earned an award from the Louise Russo WAVE Foundation for his work on this and another project involving gambling and addiction. Out of the eight award-winners being feted Wednesday at a celebration at Mississauga's Living Arts Centre, Mr. Colocado is the only individual boy to be so honoured.

The awards, now in their fifth year, are the project of Louise Russo, a mother of three who was hit by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting in 2004. She was left paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.

"I thought long and hard, and thought, 'What happened to these men at some point in their life? Why did they choose this lifestyle?'" said Ms. Russo. She started the awards to recognize the accomplishments of young people working to reduce violence in all its forms, and to encourage them to continue.

Three years ago, Mr. Colocado was part of the effort to start "Stop the Stigma" week at his high school, Chaminade College. For one week each year the school hosts events and presents guest speakers in an effort to illuminate mental health issues and promote a positive attitude. It is a challenging task in any environment, but more so in a school full of adolescent boys.

"At our school there was a stigma of what a male should look like - what a male is supposed to be," he said. Talking about feelings, depression and addiction doesn't come easily. In the course of tackling attitudes toward mental health, Mr. Colocado also addresses stereotypes about men by encouraging his peers to be open about their problems and accepting of others.

Mr. Colocado's actions on mental health are a slice of his work at large. He has participated in a youth advisory council on gambling and addiction, earned the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers for putting in more than 1,100 hours of service and coached the basketball team at St. Bernard Catholic School - his former elementary school in the Jane and Lawrence area - to a championship.

Mr. Colocado remembers when his cousin drifted away from him. The two were close. Separated by just two years, they spent a lot of time together until Mr. Colocado turned 14 and his cousin 16. He began hearing from his mother how the cousin was staying out late, involved with the wrong people. "He isolated himself from our family, and it was hard to communicate with him because he was ashamed," said Mr. Colocado. "I always remember that this is where it starts. That this is why I do things. So that other youth and other people aren't going through this alone."

The Stop the Stigma campaign has become a board-wide effort, active at 17 schools across the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Mr. Colocado and his classmate David Cosolo are on the planning committee with the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. Catherine Bancroft, co-ordinator of family and youth programs at the MDAO, said one in five young people lives with a mood disorder, and two-thirds go undiagnosed. The Stop the Stigma campaign, she said, has equipped students with the tools to recognize and seek help for their own difficulties and handle friends having trouble.

Also receiving an award is the Safe Schools ESP Committee at Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School for its work teaching Grade 8 students about responsible dating and avoiding relationship violence. The other winners include students who fight discrimination, homophobia and bullying in their schools. The awards carry a cash value, but Ms. Russo says it's much more than that - she tries to keep in touch with all the past winners and provides them with guidance.

When asked what he wants to do in the future, Mr. Colocado says he's been accepted to three Canadian universities, but is unsure of his exact focus. "I definitely am excited to try new challenges and meet new people and see what I can do."

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YOUTH AWARD WINNERS ($2,000 BURSARY)

Lorenzo Colocado - Recognized for his work on mental health awareness, gambling and addiction, and coaching elementary school basketball.

Safe Schools ESP Committee - The committee teaches responsible dating to Grade 8 students, focusing on healthy relationships free of violence.

Nigarththika Saravanapavan - A recent immigrant, Ms. Saravanapavan helps newcomers adjust to Canada, works on issues surrounding violence and empowerment for girls and works as a peer mediator.

Tiffany Tsui - Ms. Tsui has led the way on a school-board-wide anti-bullying program, organizes fundraisers and works with the York Regional Police on an advisory committee.

Manar Hossain - Ms. Hossain co-ordinates events at her school to combat discrimination by race, gender, religion and mental health, and works with PLAN Canada.

LEADERSHIP WINNERS ($500 BURSARY)

Katelyn Procopio - Ms. Procopio is being honoured for her leadership role in reducing homophobia at her school through events like It Gets Better.

Barane Paramanathan - Ms. Paramanathan organized a campaign to fight verbal abuse at her school and worked on a scholarship for Sri Lankan students.

St. Cecilia's Safe Squad - The group of Grade 7 and 8 students implemented anti-bullying measures at their school.

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