After spending years in jail for petty crime, Donovan Brooks found the path to change his life in an unlikely place: the lobby of his Lawrence Heights apartment building.
“One day I was in my building, going outside, I looked out my glass door to my lobby and there was a paper that said ‘Project Wildfire’,” Brooks recalls. “It said something like ‘Do you want to turn your dreams into a business?’”
An unexpected location, perhaps, but also a fitting one because Brooks picked up that flyer and is now launching a business that aims to improve his community.
Project Wildfire is a social business incubator targeted at young people age 19 to 29 with a focus on Toronto Community Housing neighbourhoods. It aims to help fund and launch businesses that have a mandate to create social change.
Brooks is one of four finalists who won a $2,500 grant as well as access to The Centre of Social Innovation’s workspace for a year. Wildfire director Mike Brcic said Donovan was selected because the judges sensed a genuine desire to create positive change.
“It really resonated with me and our judges, seeing somebody who so earnestly wants to create change not only within himself but also within his community,” Brcic said.
The 27-year-old Brooks is in the process of establishing Great Heights Home Repair. The goal of the business is twofold: he hopes to create jobs for youth in the area and to offer home repair services to a community that suffers significant infrastructure issues.
“I want to reach out to everybody, but specifically to the people in my neighbourhood, because I’ve seen their everyday struggles,” Brooks said. “I know exactly how it is.”
As he walks the winding paths of Lawrence Heights, speaking softly over a chorus of barking dogs, Brooks elaborates on some of those everyday struggles, which he knows well.
“Over here, we’re accustomed to hearing the sounds of bangs and sirens and police kicking in doors,” Brooks said. “It’s just different.”
Lawrence Heights, built in the early 1960s, primarily consists of low-rise community housing and over the years has gained a reputation as a haven for crime, drugs and violence.
Brooks said that, while the reputation is not necessarily unwarranted, people don’t understand the root causes of the community’s challenges.
“You put a bunch of poor people that are struggling in one neighbourhood, throw in some drugs and guns and what do you expect?” Brooks asked. “It’s just a cycle and a lot of people don’t understand that cycle.”
But Brooks said he knows a way to break the cycle. All young people need is a voice and an opportunity to change.
“That voice is people like me,” Brooks said. “I’m not fully changed, I’m on the verge.
“But if you give these young people a voice, you can make them feel more confident and say ‘Yes, I can do this’.”
Not long ago, Brooks was in the same position as many of the area’s youth. Born and raised in Flemingdon Park, Brooks moved to Lawrence Heights at a young age and lived in a large family household that included his grandmother, aunt, siblings and cousins.
Soon after moving to Lawrence Heights, Brooks started getting into trouble. As a child he felt misunderstood and acted out in class as a form of rebellion. He was frequently suspended and got involved in drugs early in life.
At 22, Brooks was charged with possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to five years in prison. The stint forced him to reflect on his life — and his future.
“What made me change while I was there, was that I had the opportunity to find myself, to actually sit down and think about all the things I did and all the people I hurt,” Brooks said. “I was tired of seeing my family cry.”
Now, Brooks said he hopes to prevent youth from making the same mistakes as him by providing them with a positive opportunity.
“The biggest motivation for me right now is to produce change,” he said. “I added so much negativity, to not only this neighbourhood but to other people’s families, so I think they deserve it.”
Great Heights Home Repair is still in the early stages of development. Brooks has registered and incorporated his business, recruited his first employee and is waiting for insurance so his team can work safely.
As part of Project Wildfire, he had to go through an exhaustive recruitment and proposal process where he garnered online votes, pitched his idea and learned the basics of establishing a business in various free workshops.
While Donovan originally envisioned repairing homes in Lawrence Heights, the idea has some challenges: Firstly, it’s unclear if he would be allowed to repair Toronto Community Housing homes and secondly, many local residents are financially strapped and unable to afford repairs.
“I’d love to do a project with (Toronto Community Housing), because that’s basically where my ideas stem from,” Brooks said. “But if I was to try and fix up the whole community, my business would go straight to the ground before it even opens.”
Despite the hurdle, Brooks said he hopes to kick-start change in his community. But still for Brooks the most advantageous aspect of the program is it has allowed him to create change within himself.
“My dad’s been so disappointed in me for the past however many years,” Brooks said. “I told him I won and ever since that it’s like his heart smiles.
“It’s not like he’s hearing his son’s going to jail anymore.”