Obstacles that Shape Us: Overcoming a physical and social icebox
Obstacles that Shape Us is a series of inspiring stories shared by Canadians who have overcome adversity. Learn how their life experiences impacted who they are and what they do today.
Just 18 hours after arriving in Winnipeg from Jamaica in the 1970s, an encounter with a neighbour robbed Ken Opaleke of his chance for a bright new beginning.
The first new toy he ever owned, a dollar store basketball that looked more like balloon with lines on it, was snatched away by a kid named Richard who lived 12 houses away.
Opaleke won’t reveal Richard’s last name but said his neighbour was more than a foot and a half taller and 100 pounds heavier than he was at the time.
“I’m laying on the ground thinking, ‘oh, welcome to Canada’ and he walks away with my ball,” Opaleke said. “That was my first interaction.”
It was during painful moments like this Opaleke held tightly onto the words his grandma always repeated to him in Jamaica, “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”.
When leaving his beloved home country, he was told Canada would be a positive life change but his view of the country quickly changed to, “an icebox, both physically and socially.”
Shortly after his rough welcome to Canada, Opaleke was told not to use “jungle talk” by his first teacher at school who heard his Jamaican accent.
Devastated again, he spent 20 months locking himself in the bathroom at home before going to school. There, he would practice English words for 45 minutes where his accent was prominent, as his sisters banged on the door wanting to use the mirror themselves.
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The word “dem” in Jamaican patois was one of the most difficult for him to change.
“That was the first word I practiced so I was able to say it in a proper way,” Opaleke said. “I have tried so hard, at least publicly anyway to, whether consciously or unconsciously, remove it.”
More than 30 years later, Opaleke uses the adversity he faced when he first came to Canada as motivation to make a difference in the lives of other kids growing up in Winnipeg’s inner city. His dream of creating a safe space for youth to thrive, specifically in the city’s West Broadway neighbourhood has since become a reality.
Opaleke is now the director of West Broadway Youth Outreach (WBYO), a drop-in recreational and life skills non-profit program for youth ages four and up. He has never logged sick a day.
Although he received the Order of Manitoba this year, the highest honour in the province, Opaleke struggles to take any credit for the prestigious accolade.
“Everything about West Broadway is driven by the volunteers,” Opaleke said. “I’m a tiny part, there are seven to eight dozen volunteers who give of themselves after many hard hours of work throughout the day.”
Opaleke said it’s the community, his family and supportive friends that keep him going. He feels honoured to share time with people growing up in the same area he once did.
“Whether it’s an hour, or 20 hours a week with someone’s child, the most valuable part of their lives, they are now sharing that with me, and that’s how we see it.”
His early life experiences are a constant reminder of the obstacles often faced by children spending time at WBYO.
“I just don’t want any other child to go through much of what I, and what others have gone though.”
WBYO ensures local children have opportunities to learn and grow in an atmosphere where their basic emotional, social and educational needs are met and supported by positive role models.
“Every single child should go see a movie, every single child should fly an airplane and everything in between,” Opaleke said, adding that creating life-forming moments and opportunities are key to helping kids grow to be the best they can be.
“A child’s potential ends just beyond infinity.”
There’s a reason behind the logo on the WBYO shirt, which shows kids playing together in a positive way, as opposed to the negative way he experienced with his neighbour growing up.
“That’s all Richard, and then seeing him through the neighbourhood over the next few years, just it fuels positives, as opposed to you know, the opposite direction that it can go for someone,” Opaleke said.
“Everything about us has a message, the yellow is about sunshine and positivity, it’s the centre of my home land’s flag, and I think it’s important to have symbols like that.”
The rest of the logo is about the Aboriginal sharing circle, he added.
WBYO is located at 646 Portage Ave. in Winnipeg. Anyone who wants to get involved can go online here, call 204-774-0451 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch the full interview with Ken Olpaleke sharing obstacles that shaped him
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