Over a hundred years in the making, Moorelands Community Services – one of Toronto’s oldest charities – has evolved to being one of Canada’s most cherished and impactful charities focused on bridging the opportunity gap for kids. Through Moorelands programs annually, about a thousand kids and youth experience the fun and leadership opportunities designed to strengthen their confidence, competence and character and to build positive connections with peers and caring adults. Moorelands sees many young leaders blossom; inevitably, one young person stands out and shines among their peers.
One such youth star was recently awarded Moorelands’ first Young Leaders Award, and with it, a one-time $2,500 bursary for their first year’s tuition at a post secondary institute of their choice. That special person is Joanne Aghighi—Paz.
Joanne is on the Moorelands team as one of its summer 2017 camp leaders.
We recently interviewed Joanne to gain insight on why she stood out in the crowd to receive Moorelands’ first Young Leaders Award, what drives her to help kids, and why she feels that Moorelands is a special place that not only helps youth but helped formulate who she is today. Here is a summary of Joanne’s responses to our questions.
Joanne, how did you find out about Moorelands, and why did you choose to be a staff member at Moorelands?
It’s funny how things happen. They say that, “mom knows best” and I think my mom knew that I needed some life experiences to help boost my confidence and to be less shy. I was this shy kid and had never been away from home. So, one day, several years ago, my mom discovered Moorelands Community Services – she had done her homework on summer camps and felt that Moorelands would offer me an experience to help me grow out of my shyness – and she had heard that Moorelands was a fun and safe place for young kids to learn and grow. So, six years ago, my mom, Ezesmeralda, chose to enroll me in Moorelands Camp on Kawagama Lake, located about three hours north of Toronto. I had never been away from home and I was scared to leave the safety and comfort of home; but my mom insisted and there I went. Long story short, after that first week at Moorelands I discovered that I could in fact leave home, experience fun and new life lessons, and make new friends. From that point forward, I never looked back; I started to come out of my shell and build the confidence I needed.
How long have you worked at Moorelands? What is your role at Moorelands and what inspires you to help kids?
Since I didn’t want my time to end at Moorelands, I felt the best way to do this was to join the staff team. So last year I decided to apply for a cabin leader role; I was lucky – I got the job and had a great experience of teaching campers the same lessons that I had been taught. I wanted them to have the same great experience that I had. And now, I’m in my second year as a cabin leader. Basically, I am responsible for the kids in my cabin group for an entire week. The girls I guide and watch out for are range in age from 8-14 years. I want each camper to have an enjoyable time and I work with them to reach their individual and cabin goals for the week. On the very first night of camp, for example, I ask each camper what their goals are and I also share my own experience being a camper at Moorelands. I tell them about how shy I was, that I also feared being away from home and then what I learned. Sharing my story with these young girls, specifically, about my early fears, what I learned, and where I am today starts to boost their confidence to do it too. This sharing, along with their own early experiences at Moorelands camp helps these young people to fully understand and appreciate the Moorelands camp experience. That inspires me!
Do you feel called to do what you are doing for the youth community?
Yes. I ensure the safety and security of the kids in my care and help them identify their strengths; this important to me because I can lead a child towards a better path. Camp is a great place to learn about yourself and what you’re capable of; but the real benefit is when these young people return home and apply what they’ve learned about themselves and the lessons from Moorelands.
You have been recognized for your leadership quality (character and skills). Why do you think Moorelands has identified you as a young leader?
Oh my gosh, that’s a tough question. Short answer – I really don’t know exactly why I was singled out by Moorelands; but I know I’ve learned some great skills. These skills, and insights gained, for example, is to understand the balance between being a leader and being a friend. This is important because to guide you need to be a leader; and, to build a relationship, you need to be a friend. As well, being part of a caring community gives you a sense of your place and helps you shape your character. Some of the character qualities I know I have are being honest, kind, and thoughtful.
What is your passion? What do you care about the most; and how do you think that passion will shape your life and career choices?
I’m passionate about seeing young people grow. It’s important to me. And, while at Moorelands, I get to see kids go through many stages of personal growth. I really care about kids and helping them out – it’s part of who I am. It’s almost like gravity – I just got pulled to it. I never imagined that I’d work with kids.
I have always wanted to be a chef; but now, because of my experience at Moorelands and what I’ve learned about myself I now want to be a social worker. I want to help other people by guiding them to build the courage and develop the tools to help themselves and to reach their full potential.
Moorelands is all about leadership. So, at Moorelands and in your own personal community, who are you leading with?
Giving a helping hand is very important, not just at Moorelands. I try to help where I can. I like to lead when I get the opportunity. I’ve been a part of a committee of young people focusing on a “Me to We” initiative in my school. I’m a part of a team helping to support youth experiencing homelessness. With my mom and my brother, Alexander, we volunteered at our local community centre. Within my own social group I also share what I’ve learned about leadership with my peers. My Mom has been a great example of leadership and I can’t thank my Mom enough for this.
How do you deal with challenge? What guides you in your thinking?
My past experiences and inner strength have taught me to push through challenges until they are solved. I also think it’s important to seek advice from people that you can count on. I have some very good friends and adult advisors that I trust.
Everyone has a weakness or area of development. How have you worked at addressing this area?
I’m going to college in the fall; a new place with lots of new people. By nature, I will struggle with shyness, but I’m learning to overcome that. I also know that solving problems or overcoming hurdles isn’t a simple thing. In the past, my shyness has prevented me from trying new things. So I’m trying to overcome that. When I struggle, I try to identify a reason why I’m feeling shy and build a course of action to solve the problem. Failing all that, I turn to my Mom to help me out!
What two or three pieces of advice you can share with other young people starting their life journey?
I’m just starting my journey as an adult so I don’t have a vast list of ideas or advice. What few things I can share are based on what my experience has been and what has worked for me.
First and foremost, I want everyone to believe in themselves. It’s not always easy but if people can get to an, “I can do it” attitude, then that’s half the battle. That’s one of the things I learned from Moorelands.
Second, everyone needs to learn some leadership principles that can help in any situation, whether you are at camp or at home.
Third, every young person should have a dream – think about what they want to accomplish, or who they want to become. The key is to always push forward no matter how hard it may seem. It’s just tough. I know it.
And of course, every kid should experience camp. It will help them to reach their potential.
So, Joanne, what’s next in your stars? What are your next steps beyond Moorelands?
In September, I will be attending Centennial College to study social work. My plan is to transfer to university and finish up with a degree. From there, I don’t know exactly what is in my future, and I don’t have a crystal ball- but will move forward, do my best, and continue learning. I just know that whatever I choose through life, I will always want to help others. It’s in my DNA.