A group exercise in the main studio at SKETCH. Photo courtesy of Sonya Reynolds.
When people in Toronto talk about “The Street,” they usually mean one of two things: the current state of affairs in the boardrooms and trading floors of Bay Street, or life amongst the down-and-out who are scraping by on the city’s spare change. John Andras is equally at home in both of those worlds. As an investment manager and senior vice-president at Research Capital, he’s lived the ups and downs of the market every day for years, and as a tireless advocate for the city’s poor, he knows exactly how far down the ups and downs of life can really get.
Andras is the chair of the Recession Relief Coalition, and has been the co-founder of many poverty-relief organizations including Project Warmth, Project Water, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, and the Learning Support Council of Canada. Today, he steps down as the chair of the board of SKETCH.
Walking into a drop-in for homeless and street-involved youth can be a daunting prospect, especially dressed in Bay Street suit and tie. However, as so often is the case, expectations can be very deceptive.
Walking up the stairs, there is a growing cacophony of noise. You can hear piano, drums, and guitar, in a confused mixture of rap, rock, folk, and ska. Voices are singing, talking, and laughing. The smell of spices and cooking mixed with sawdust, turpentine ink, and paint excite your nose.
Walking through the door, your eyes take a moment to sift through a kaleidoscope of shifting colours. Paintings and artwork cover every available inch of wall space in a confusing pattern of shape, tone, and meaning. Young people wearing a dizzying assortment of costumes smile, dance, and create. The piano is in the corner, with a couple of drummers keeping time and a guitar strumming and singers singing in and out of tune. Painters are painting. Clothing is being made. T-shirts are being screened. Every window is full of fresh greenery. Food is cooked in the middle of the studio. There is eating, discussion, and laughter. Plates clatter. Water runs.
Farther back, computers are synthesizing beats, mixing tunes. All is intensity and concentration. Across the hall, people are moving to the rhythms of taekwondo. Farther back, recording takes place, muted noise, harmonic voices.
It’s another day at SKETCH, a place where young people who come from all backgrounds, all colours and creeds, united by the streets, gather to create art, community, and hope. It’s a place where perceptions, expectations, bias, and preconceptions fail. These are young people who have challenges, who deal with poverty, police, and prejudice.
Society seems to believe that if you are young and homeless you are somehow deficient, as if youth are responsible for the abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, or mental illnesses that may have led them to the streets. Here, though, what society believes doesn’t matter: there are dreams to dream and there is potential to be realized. There is a community to be built.
Over the past six years visiting this magical space, I have learned much about the resilience, strength, and beauty of humanity. I have learned that people, especially youth, have an incredible capacity to move ahead if only given the support of acceptance and belief. In the community of SKETCH dreams are realized, potential is celebrated, and confidence is restored. Everyone who enters is welcome and leaves changed, even a suit like me.