Empowering youth through the arts

Murray Bender: RBC Investor Services presents insights on the challenges and opportunities confronting corporate and institutional investors. For today’s podcast, we have some very special guests. I’m pleased to welcome Pari Rajagopalan, Executive Director of Thrive Youth. Now, Thrive Youth, previously known as DAREarts, is a nonprofit organization that utilizes arts-based learning to develop youth leadership skills. Welcome, Pari.

Pari Rajagopalan: Thanks for having us here, Murray.

Murray Bender: To start, Pari, can you briefly talk about Thrive Youth’s mission and explain the concept of arts-based learning?

Pari Rajagopalan: Yeah. I’d love to. So at Thrive Youth, our mission is really to create safe and supportive spaces where children and youth can explore creative expression, learn about themselves and the world around them, and really take their place in their  broader community. But we do leadership development in a slightly different way.

So arts-based education is really the foundation for leadership development for children and youth who otherwise might not have those opportunities. So we don’t really believe in leadership as a set of skills we have to impart, and then kids have to learn and practice. For us, it’s really about taking a step back and first building a young person’s self-confidence. It’s about teaching them what they’re capable of, especially for those who haven’t seen their own potential yet.

So then we build on this foundation with opportunities to practice the hard skills associated with leadership. So that is communication, teamwork, problem-solving and the like. We have an excellent team of facilitators and artist educators that run programs that really meet the children where they are and offer young people a turning point in their lives that allows them to see themselves within their own social groups and within their broader community.

Murray Bender: Excellent. Now we’re really excited to have two of Thrive Youth’s alumni with us today to talk about their experiences with the program.

Pari Rajagopalan: I’m so proud to be here today with Shahla Lafeer and Sylvia Prodhan. They’ve been in our programs right from grade four all the way up until our program for our oldest youth, YLI (Youth Lead Impact). And they’ve just been fantastic members of our volunteer team and they’ve been involved with Thrive for so long. So I’m excited to hear what they have to say as well.

Murray Bender: Shahla and Sylvia, it’s very nice to meet you. Now, Pari briefly introduced each of you. But can you please tell us a bit more about yourselves? And Shahla, why don’t we start with you?

Shahla Lafeer: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you so much, Murray and Pari, for having us here today. A little about myself. I guess I’ll start off with, I’m a first-gen Canadian and my family migrated from Sri Lanka to Canada in ‘94. And just a few years later, I was born.

As a child, I overcame a lot of adversities, especially having grown up in an underserved community and being raised by a single parent for a majority of my life. A lot of basic necessities were very hard to come by. I have vivid memories of going to the Salvation Army with my mom and using food stamps to get groceries for the week and clothing for the year to attending subsidized summer camps provided by Thrive Youth. At one point in my life, my family was nearly homeless. We were living with other family members for months at a time.

At a very young age, I realized that financial literacy was a barrier to a lot of the opportunities I missed out on, but that it was an obstacle that I could control and change for the better future for myself.

I eventually ended up putting myself through university and graduated from the Toronto Metropolitan University with a degree in business law and French in 2022. I even got the opportunity to purchase my first home during the pandemic all on my own. Currently, I work as a compliance analyst at Scotiabank. I’m also part of a couple different nonprofit organizations related to empowering children and youth, including as an ambassador for Thrive Youth and as a social media coordinator for COPA National.

In my free time, you can catch me playing the flute with the Scarborough Concert Band, which I absolutely love, or coaching children’s gymnastics at Riverdale Flip and Tumble. Thank you. And I guess I’ll pass it on to Sylvia.

Sylvia Prodhan: Thanks, Shahla. Thank you for having me. I am Sylvia. I’m currently in the midst of completing my Bachelor of Arts degree in childhood education. Right now, I am working at York University Childcare Centre, as well as a restaurant on the weekends. I’m a grill cook at Gold Standard in Roncesvalles. I really enjoy working, which sounds really weird. But I think it’s quite a blessing to be able to make money and provide for my family, as well as provide opportunities for my friends and I just to have fun.

In my short term right now, I’m hoping to finish my degree and then go on to teachers’ college because I really want to be an educator. But in the long term, what I really want to be able to do is have enough experience and knowledge in the field in order to start my own practice. And my goals for that practice are very similar to Thrive Youth’s, actually, where I want the focus of it to be building well-being for children and an idea of how to really cope with adversity in life. And I also want to work with underserved communities in order to provide them with a feeling of belonging.

Murray Bender: Excellent. So, Sylvia, just following up on that, why did you decide to participate in the Thrive Youth program?

Sylvia Prodhan: I think I was in grade four when my teacher approached me about the program. And at the time, I was struggling quite a bit with a lot of things going on at home, lots of violence, lots of emotional trauma, physical trauma. And so going to school every day was kind of my escape. But even there, there were some things that I couldn’t control.

What I really wanted at that time was to be noticed because I was a child, and to feel special. And so going to DAREarts for that first year, I realized that there were so many people like me and there was a place for me where I was being seen, where I was being treated as someone who was special.

And so, the years after that first year, I kind of realized that what made me feel important in that moment, being in that space, it wasn’t just that I was special; it was that I’m contributing to something so much greater than me. And I could really see that my actions had importance, which is why I decided to stay with Thrive Youth for so long and keep going back and volunteering and working. Yeah.

Murray Bender: Oh. Wow.

Sylvia Prodhan: Yeah. What about you, Shahla?

Shahla Lafeer: Yeah. Thanks. So my journey with Thrive Youth started 16 years ago when I was 10 years old. And at the time, my living situation was very difficult. I was raised by a single mom and there was four of us, so it was just overall, can be chaotic at some times. And I also dealt with a lot of trauma—childhood trauma at home. So lucky for me, I felt like I won the lottery because more than me choosing to participate in Thrive Youth, I felt that Thrive Youth chose me.

And one of my favorite memories with the organization was when I got the opportunity to be interviewed by CP24 during a dance day in partnership with the National Ballet School of Canada. And I remember expressing that Thrive Youth was my home away from home. And that’s exactly what the organization was for me. It was a safe and accepting space where I could just simply be myself.

Murray Bender: So, Shahla, you sort of touched on this a bit. But how did Thrive Youth help you deal with some of the challenges that you were facing as a young person?

Shahla Lafeer: For sure. So I feel like growing up, the words that kept ringing in my head were like, you can’t do this, you’ll never make it, you’re not good enough, from external individuals in my life and also within my home.

But Thrive Youth said, no, that’s not true and you will make it and we’re going to help you get there. And I felt like, as a child, hearing such discouraging words can really impact you so deeply that you believe it’s true and that you stop trying. And I felt for a long time, as a child, that the fire inside me was slowly kind of drifting away and my will to be the best me was kind of going away. But again, Thrive Youth picked me up and said, nope, we’re going to help you get there.

And so it was almost like it was the parent I needed growing up. And it allowed me to be that person for myself and to other children, youth in my community. So really, it helped me when I needed help the most. So that’s how it helped me overcome a lot of challenges in my life growing up.

Murray Bender: Sylvia, how did Thrive Youth help you deal with some of the challenges that you were facing? You, too, sort of talked about this a little bit, but as you were growing up.

Sylvia Prodhan: Yeah. Right. So I think the biggest thing that was my takeaway as a child in DAREarts at the time, Thrive Youth, was genuinely like the sense of community. It affirmed a lot of the beliefs that I already was developing as a child, my strong beliefs in justice, in fairness, in community.

And so, I think above all, Thrive Youth, the lessons I learned from them and with them about, again, the impact that you have on a company of people, on a performance, on things like that, it kind of led to observations in greater life that whatever you choose to do in a community of people will always impact the others around you.

And so, I think I struggled a lot after high school trying to figure out what I wanted to do, what would make me the most money, and not any of them stuck. I did welding, I did science; I hated all of them. And then two years ago when I decided I wanted to be an educator, that’s when it really hit me where I realized that’s what I want to do. I want to be involved with people and making sure that the interactions they have, at least with me, are positive, that it creates an impact in their life. And so to re-answer, to restate, community well-being, community upliftment is how DAREarts helped me with my career pursuits.

Murray Bender: Community is important.

Sylvia Prodhan: Yeah.

Murray Bender: Finally, a question for both of you. What advice would the two of you offer to youth who are looking to develop some of their leadership skills? Sylvia? Let’s start.

Sylvia Prodhan: So I have a few things, and not any of them are physical things that you can see. It’s all in the way that you behave with yourself and with others. Treat yourself with kindness and that will transfer into the kindness that you show others. No matter what, you can never lose when you’re kind to others. That’s how you network. That’s how you create connections with people and how you make opportunities for yourself.

The second, unfortunately, the first impressions we make are breaking and making all of the opportunities we’re going to get in the future. Stay kind and stay true; reflect within yourself constantly. And a tip or advice that was given to me that remains important in my life is, no matter what, yes, money is important, but the decisions that you make in order to achieve success, at all points, you should try to make sure that your success is not in the expense of others.

Murray Bender: Shahla?

Shahla Lafeer: In terms of leadership skills, I strongly believe that young people should invest in themselves, whether it be through education, creativity, or self-care. Invest in who you are and who you want to become.

I think that when you feel good and are confident in yourself and you show up for yourself, you end up having the energy and drive to show up for others as well. And I think that’s what makes a great leader, someone who is confident in themselves and feels whole in such a way that they can show up for others and help others build confidence too. Because I think you end up radiating your positive energy and state to those around you as well.

Something that helped me a lot to be a forward-thinking leader in my community is investing in my education and creative side. So learning about something new and gaining knowledge through my postsecondary degree really helped me have the capacity to offer others advice in topics like finance, investing in real estate. And investing in my creativity, like being a part of Thrive Youth as an ambassador or playing the flute with my concert band, allowed me to stay creative and indulge in my love for music. So just invest in yourself and just be whole.

Murray Bender: So invest in yourself, be kind to yourself, be kind to others. Pari, Shahla, Sylvia, thank you, all, for joining us today. I have to say this really reinforces my faith in the future. And we really appreciate your taking the time to be with us. Thank you.

Sylvia Prodhan: Thank you, Murray.

Shahla Lafeer: Thank you.

Pari Rajagopalan: Thank you so much.

Murray Bender: For additional insights on topics relevant to corporate and institutional investors, including our previous podcasts, visit rbcis.com/insights. I’m Murray Bender. Thanks for listening.

This content is provided for general information and does not constitute financial, tax, legal, or accounting advice and should not be relied upon in that regard. Neither RBC Investor Services nor its affiliates accepts any liability for loss or damage arising from use of the information in this podcast.