NAME: AKSHAY TALEKAR
YNPN OTTAWA MEMBER SINCE: 2017
CURRENT POSITION: FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT YOUTH EMPLOYMENT HELP CENTRE (YEHC)
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
My family is from India and ever since I was young, I travelled all across the world with my family until we finally settles in Mississauga, Ontario when I was 10. By the time I was 16 I had lived in 20 different houses. It’s something that really helped me with what I’m doing with my nonprofit now because it taught me to be resourceful and gave me the skills to work with many different types of people. One of the reasons I have been successful in starting a nonprofit is because of the leadership skills I was able to develop in the cadets program which I was a part of through middle school and high school. When it came time to choosing universities I chose The University in Ottawa because they had a strong Faculty of Science and the research background in Biochemistry that I wanted.
How did you get into nonprofits?
So I really got into the whole nonprofit sector back in Mississauga. There's this program kind of like Big Brothers Big Sisters and it started there, I got the taste for working for a nonprofit through volunteering. When I was 16 I was teaching English in Peru in a city called Cusco for 2 months. Down there I was working with an orphanage and tutored kids in maths and other subjects. I used my experience of teaching from cadets, because at that point I had been teaching classes for 1.5 years. That was the thing that really sparked my interest in the nonprofit world. One, because I like to travel, meeting new people is fun. And secondly because you really do get to see the change that you're creating. My experience with nonprofits have mainly been in client services, working 1-1 with clients. That's what I've been doing so far. I haven't really done advocacy or anything like that. That really sparked my interest and then two years after that the summer of my first year of University I taught English to Tibetan monks and refugees in India in a city called Dharamshala.
Wait, how did you find these summer jobs?
Honestly I Googled them. The thing is, if I didn't do cadets I wouldn't have gotten anything any of these jobs. When you’re in cadets you start teaching when you’re 14 or 15. So by the time I was 16 I already had 1.5 years of experience teaching in a classroom. For Peru I went through an agency that organizes these things; the agency covered my housing and all my expenses once I got there. I had to pay for the flight, but it's worth it when you’re 16. And then with Dharamshala I had enough experience to kind of just apply out of the blue and hope they pick me.
Crazy. Ok, back to Tibet and your amazing summer jobs...
I was working with a nonprofit there called Tibet World. Which is a community resource centre for Tibetan refugees who have been displaced by the Chinese occupation. I ran English conversation groups there. And and helped organize other presentations/ workshops.
It was an interesting experience. I remember the first class. I was sitting down and there's all these Tibetan monks there, in their robes and everything, and you'd assume that they'd be writing down on pieces paper but most of them had iPads. They were asking me for the WiFi password and I'm writing on the chalkboard and saying “I don't know man. Aren’t you guys minimalists?” The monks were a crazy bunch and some of the fiercest debaters I've ever seen.
So by the time I had made the decision to start a nonprofit in Ottawa I had experience working with nonprofits. Whether it'd be working with nonprofits in Mississauga/Toronto or nonprofits abroad I had experience working a whole range of things, like client services and education.
And how did that experience lead to YEHC?
It was just something that happened. Before my summer in India when I was going to Rideau St, along Elgin St, walking by St. George and the Salvation Army the the concentration of homeless people was so high and I thought, that's odd. So I spend a lot of time talking to the people on the streets. I spent months. It's weird because now I know a lot of homeless people since I've talked to them for so long. One of the main things that they kept bringing up when I talked to them was the struggles they had finding jobs, and it was the things that surrounded employment accessibility rather than work experience (or resumes and cover letters). They'd worked before, everyone's worked, it's was ‘I don't have a bank account. I don't have a SIN card. I don't have interview clothing for a job interview. My hair looks like a mess.’ It's things like those that a lot of people like you and I might take for granted that are big issue for homeless people getting jobs.
So I started looking into employment resources in Ottawa and there were a few drop-in centres but either they were not accessible by everyone, they were either capped off at a certain age, or they were only for a certain demographic. And I thought, why not have a drop-in centre that was really accessible, comprehensive and free and I asked friends to help by volunteering and started working on getting resources together.
The first place I went was the OPL main library on Metcalfe. I was just this first year university kid with a huge beard and no haircut going into a library and saying this is what I want to do. Looking back on it I must have seemed so crazy to the librarian. Now we work together and everything is great but at that point, I must have looked like such a crazy person just walking in there saying “Hey, I'm gonna do this. Wanna help me out?”. But she just said “Yes, write up a business plan and if you have a plan we'll be happy to back you”. Which really surprised me... and is something I am very thankful for.
That's when things really started to take shape. During that summer in India I worked online and started getting resources together with a friend who was in town. Calling nonprofits like Dress For Success and asking can we partner with you and refer clients to you? Places like Ottawa Mission and St Joe's saying “if we have a client here you doesn't have food, doesn't have housing can we refer them to you?” We did that for 4 months. A lot of cold calling, a lot of rejection. We'd call hundreds of places and 2 or 3 would say yes. And 2 or 3 places were good enough to keep us going but the amount of rejection was unreal.
How did you keep yourself going with all of that rejection?
There were 2 things that really kept me going, one was realizing that really there's no alternative. I realized starting out: No one's going to do it for you, if it’s something that you really care about or something that's really bugging you, you can't wait for other people to fix it for you. Another thing that kept me going were the volunteers and my friends who agreed to help me out in this endeavor, they have been with me every step of the way and have been instrumental in the success we’ve had helping people.
It happened organically and we didn't realize it at the time but we ended up creating a 2-prong support system.
- We're helping clients with their employment needs and things like that.
- We're also helping our student volunteers get proper job experience in things that they want to do. As a small nonprofit, we can give our volunteers the flexibility to do almost anything that they want with the area. If there is anything experimental that they want to try I'm more than willing to do it. Because that's how the volunteers are going to grow and that's how the nonprofit's going to grow as well.
When did you officially start?
So far we've gotten minimum 70 new clients and a bunch of those 70 come back. We're open Wednesday's 4-6:30pm. And no appointment is needed. Anyone can walk in. We focus on youth services just because as student volunteers we have the most experience finding jobs and providing resources for a youth client base (16-24 years old) but we won’t turn anyone away. We've had clients who have been 65 and wanted to get back into teaching and we've helped them with that. It doesn't matter what age you are, who you are, if you walk into our doors and need our help we're gonna help you out. And if we can't help you out we're going to refer you to someone who can.
How did you find your board of directors?
The board of directors have been our team leaders. YEHC is split up by the board of directors and each director leads there own team: partnerships, funding, marketing and client operations. It's a student board, student driven, student culture. We support each other. Because we're all students and we all understand the struggle of trying to do something good and balancing it with trying to do your school work. As an organization we try to help our volunteers by having a social environment and hosting regular de-stress events, otherwise you have people just burning out which is not good for anyone.
What's next on the horizon for you?
We're actually expanding, it was almost serendipity the way it happened because we weren't considering it. During the first year of operations I thought about expanding but I didn't think it would come this soon, I thought it would be at least a couple years down the line. But a volunteers friend in Toronto heard about what we were doing and they were planning something similar to us on their own in Toronto. We had a phone call and what they explained is very similar to what YEHC does so I said “Hey! Why not just do it under one name. We already have the infrastructure set up, the partnerships, the nonprofit registration, everything there. You don't have to grind away like we did.” We went through the same kind of process we went through in Ottawa but it was a lot more efficient this time around the Toronto location is now open at Lillian H Smith Library in downtown Toronto.
Now YEHC has become a place where students can do good in their community and not have to struggle like we did. You know, the struggles with rejections the struggles with putting in the grinding of hours and hours. It's turned into a vessel in which other people can use what's already built to do good in their community.
So you've gone from...
Crazy person walking into a library to being the ED of an expanding nonprofit. I guess.
Impressive! How did you find out about YNPN?
I found it on Facebook and thought “This seems interesting!” I went on the website to see what they do and the things that I saw there was that YNPN helps build a community of nonprofit professionals. And the thing is, me having the experience of running a student nonprofit and knowing the amount of untapped potential, of student groups (universities, colleges, high school). I know now that what we do really works and what we do has a big impact in the community, I joined YNPN to help tap more into that potential. I really like the community aspect of YNPN, starting a nonprofit is difficult. But if you have a community of people there to help you it makes all the difference. If I was a part of YNPN before starting YEHC it would have been a lot easier. I want to expose students to the nonprofit world so they know that there is a community of professionals willing to help you out with the struggles you're going to face if you are starting a nonprofit, or joining a nonprofit, because it helps to have a community that's going through the same struggles as you. And deals with the same issues as you do, it just helps.
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