Youth Assisting Youth Story

Mentorship program creates relationships that can last a lifetime

Youth Assisting Youth, which is supported by the Star’s Fresh Air Fund, pairs at-risk kids with like-minded young mentors.

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When Dustin Fromstein was matched with Sam Sajadian as part of Youth Assisting Youth, a Toronto mentorship program, he expected he’d be doing the mentoring.

Instead, the 33-year-old became the mentee to the 14-year-old he was meant to mentor.

“It was Sam teaching me how to look on the bright side of things, how to always have fun, how to be easygoing,” Fromstein said of his experience with Youth Assisting Youth.

The organization’s three-day overnight camp, which is supported by the Star’s Fresh Air Fund, is part of a yearlong program that matches at-risk kids aged 6-15 with mentors aged 16-29.

“(Their relationship) is amazing. They’re always goofing around,” said program manager Suhaila Ali of Fromstein and Sajadian. “This child looks up to him.”

Sajadian and Fromstein will head to Camp Ziontario later this summer, their third time at camp together. The pair’s one-year commitment to the project was meant to help Sajadian adjust in Canada after a move from Iran in 2011 but they’ve become like family.

“It just warmed my heart to build this friendship,” said Fromstein, a TTC overhead line technician. “I see us continuing our friendship and hopefully one day I’ll be able to be at his wedding and see his kids.”

“He helped me with a lot of things, as I helped him with a lot of things too,” echoed Sajadian. “It’s just fun to spend time with someone that is always there for you. I always wanted a big brother.”

The first time the pair met at Sajadian’s house they were wearing the same Toronto FC jersey. A month later, they were at camp for the first time. Since then they’ve attended Blue Jays games together, seen movies and played board games and sports. Fromstein has spent time at Sajadian’s home trying traditional Iranian food.

But camp stands out.

“We can’t get enough of it. I was a little nervous but Youth Assisting Youth made it really easy,” Fromstein said. “For me too to get out of the city and to have an opportunity like that was pretty phenomenal.”

The Fresh Air Fund gives the camp roughly $6,000 a year. This year, that will help send 100 youth to camp.

“Without the Fresh Air Fund, we wouldn’t be able to do this program — end of story. It’s invaluable,” said John van Rhee, Youth Assisting Youth’s director of programs.

In its 41 years, the organization has helped mentor more than 30,000 kids across the GTA.

Still, there’s a mentor shortage, with over 400 kids waiting to be matched.

Before being accepted as a mentor, volunteers must fill out an online questionnaire, undergo a police check, submit two references and do training in youth mentorship, child abuse, mental health, disabilities and diversity.

After being accepted, each mentor and mentee must meet with programmers to discuss their challenges and interests. Matches then meet for three hours a week.

“Our kids are not all perfect,” said van Rhee, who points to camp challenges like being homesick. “We want our volunteers to be ready to help those kids. They can really change and impact a child’s life.”

Fromstein decided to volunteer after he grew up without a father figure and benefitted as a little brother with the Big Brother Foundation — a relationship he still maintains.

“I know how important it was for me growing up to know that there’s a positive male role model in my life and I wanted to make sure that I could give back,” he said. “For underprivileged kids to be able to go outside and see that there’s more to life outside the TV screen, it’s a good opportunity.”

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