At Yorkwoods Community Church in Toronto, a corps situated in a high-needs area of Ontario’s capital, a new sports program reaches youth who would otherwise have had no interaction with The Salvation Army.

The program, costing only $20 to register, offers youth more than just a place to play soccer on Thursday nights. It gives them an opportunity to develop valuable life skills and build relationships with new mentors, and it opens the door to learning about Jesus. As the program continues to expand, attracting attention, participation and partnerships, it brings positive change to a community in need.

A Safe Space

“Jane and Finch is an area of Toronto that is notorious for violence and crime,” says Captain Dae-Gun Kim, who was corps officer at Yorkwoods Community Church until June 30, when he took up a new appointment at White Rock Community Church, B.C. “We did an assessment of the needs in our community and what programs we could offer. We discovered that a large percentage of teenagers here do not graduate from high school and participate in gang activity.”

The Yorkwoods sports program gives children and youth a place to make friends, engage with positive mentors and learn about Jesus

That assessment was done in response to The Salvation Army’s territorial innovation grants program. Introduced in 2021, it asks ministry units to look at the communities they serve, find the people who are being missed and put creativity into action to reach them. According to Captain Kim, their community assessment recognized a need for affordable, accessible programs for children and teens.

In September 2021, Yorkwoods received an innovation grant to implement its sports program for youth. “We offer a safe and positive space for young people to play any sport, while building a relationship with us and hopefully Jesus. We want to become their mentors and their friends,” says Captain Kim, who hosted team sports every Thursday night out of the gym at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, a nearby high school.

Because there is a large population of refugees and new immigrants living in the area surrounding Yorkwoods, it was important to start with a sport that is widely recognized, rather than a Canadian sport such as hockey. They began with soccer, a global sport that most of the participants knew how to play, and have since expanded to include a basketball program in collaboration with the Toronto Police Service 31 Division.

“We started with 20 students in our first year and now we have 50 students in our second year,” says Captain Kim. Though there are still some students on the waitlist to join, offering the program outside in the summer allows them to accommodate more players.

The Value of Sports

“Parents are happy that we’re making a positive impact,” says Captain Kim. Many of the youth involved like to play video games in their free time. Now, instead of spending time online, parents report their kids look forward to playing soccer on Thursday nights with the rest of the team.

Cpt Kim gives a lesson to participants before a soccer game

One 13-year-old participant, Jeydon, considers the team his second family. “He values the sense of belonging, and being part of soccer has taught him the importance of teamwork, co-operation and communication,” says Captain Kim. Another participant, Joshua, also 13, likes being part of the team because he can learn more about the game and improve his soccer techniques. It has also taught him to be more disciplined, focused and committed. Joshua says that in soccer, you need to work hard, be patient and keep learning in order to succeed, just like in life.

“During the game, they may get competitive or lose their temper, but we teach them life lessons along the way. We teach them how important it is to be consistent and have a goal, and we teach them about the value that each of them has,” says Captain Kim. “You can go to a convenience store and buy a bottle of water for a dollar, or you can buy water in a restaurant for three or four dollars. Depending on where you are, the value changes. And when the children are with us, even if they don’t see their own value in school or in their communities, they are valued here.”

"We want to be a louder voice in the community. There are good things happening here and it starts with The Salvation Army." - Captain Dae-Gun Kim

It’s Better With Jesus

By involving youth in team sports, the program introduces them to valuable lessons on teamwork, collaboration and community. It also introduces them to The Salvation Army. At the beginning of each meeting, Captain Kim talks to them about Jesus. “Some of them don’t have any understanding of Jesus at all. I ask them why we celebrate Christmas or Easter, and they don’t have any idea,” explains Captain Kim. “They may not have any Christian adults or influences around them.”

Before playing a game, the youth can talk, ask questions, share their own stories and listen to lessons about Jesus, the creation story and the Bible. “We teach them life lessons, but at the same time, we can teach them that everything is better with Jesus,” says Captain Kim. “We give them hope.”

Good Things Happening

Neighbourhood community officers from Toronto Police Service 31 Division visit Cpt Dae-Gun Kim and the youth at the Yorkwoods sports program

The sports program at Yorkwoods has attracted partnerships with other organizations, including WeTogether and Toronto Police Service 31 Division. “It’s not just us. We have many organizations and volunteers getting involved with The Salvation Army,” says Captain Kim. “One pastor involved in the program through WeTogether has now started attending our corps and is becoming a soldier.”

Members of the Toronto Police Service visit the sports outreach programs regularly to interact with the youth in hopes of building more positive relationships between police and young people in the community. “Often, when these kids encounter the police, it is because of a problem. We hope this program will help us become better friends, make this community better and make a difference,” says Captain Kim.

“We want to be a louder voice in the community. There are good things happening here and it starts with The Salvation Army.” 

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