When asked why he decided to start the KidsPlay Foundation, Vancouver police office Kal Dosanjh said, “It’s very [easy] for us to take a very simple, apathetic, complacent role within the community and just accept things the way they are. I’m not willing to do that.” Dosanjh was drawing on his experience as a beat cop in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Often described as one of the most destitute neighbourhoods in Canada, the Downtown Eastside is a hub for petty crime, drug abuse, poverty and prostitution. Dosanjh’s job was to police a population of people who were cut off from the greater community, seemingly abandoned and set adrift by the mainstream because they were so consumed by their inner demons. This was heartbreaking for the police officer so he decided that he couldn’t be “apathetic” or “complacent.” Instead he needed to be a proactive community builder.
So in 2015, Dosanjh spearheaded an initiative called the KidsPlay Foundation. It’s goal: to get disaffected youth engaged in their communities through education and sports before the gangs could draw them in. According to Dosanjh, “I was seeing a steady stream and proliferation of youth entering in that lifestyle of drugs and gangs and it bothered me. From a law enforcement perspective, we were arresting kids, putting them through the criminal justice system and they were being spewed out on the other end into a perpetual cycle of violence and becoming hardened criminals.” To Dosanjh, education and sports could be the ticket out of the cycle.
In theory, Dosanjh and his associates believed that, if a young person had something to look forward to (like a soccer or basketball), they would be less likely to be pulled into the drug and gang culture that was all too prevalent in the Vancouver Lower Mainland. It turns out his theory was on target: as of 2019, close to 50,000 youth have participated in KidsPlay events.
It all started with a soccer tournament that Dosanjh organized prior to the founding of KidsPlay. From a relatively small soccer gathering at a park in the Downtown Eastside, the soccer event has ballooned into the Super-Soccer Tournament where close to 1,000 young athletes come out for a day of fun and food at B.C. Place stadium – home of the Vancouver Whitecaps. The target group remains disaffected youth from lower socio-economic circumstances.
Along with the meteoric rise of the soccer event, KidsPlay has adapted and evolved, emerging as a community leadership organization in Vancouver and surrounding areas. Certainly the sports tournaments are having an impact. The KidsPlay website is promoting a myriad of events at any given time of year. These include soccer, volleyball, ball hockey, flag football, badminton and golf events. They even hosted a kabaddi tournament (a sport from South Asia that combines wrestling, rugby and tag).
KidsPlay also hosts community awareness activities:
- In 2016, they hosted an Anti-Guns and Gangs forum that drew 700 people. KidsPlay felt the need to stage this event after a spike in area shootings (54!) and over 71 overdoses. Their goal was to help forum attendees avoid gang life and drug use. According to KidsPlay volunteer Austin Batra, “I got mixed up with the wrong crowd. I wanted to be one of the cool kids and started participating in activities I shouldn’t have. But an intervention from my father along with having mentors like Kal Dosanjh changed my life.” KidsPlay hoped first-hand accounts like the one given by Batra would help youth make more constructive – and less destructive – life choices.
- In the spring of 2018, they hosted a Fighting Against Racism forum in Surrey. The event was designed to raise awareness of the prevalence of prejudice and racism in society. KidsPlay offered youth attending the chance to be a part of a “scholarship raffle” where $2,000 worth of education funding would be given out to a number of attendees. All they had to do was attend the event to be eligible to win the money. In other words, every kid had a shot at being awarded some school funding.
- In the fall of 2019, KidsPlay hosted a tree planting event to highlight environmental awareness. Participants planted 200 trees in an afternoon in Surrey.
KidsPlay is a tight-knit, well organized group. This explains their success over a short five year period. Because they see it as their mission to steer disaffected youth away from drugs, gangs and violence, their volunteers seem to operate with more of a sense of purpose. This isn’t just about letting kids play sports. This is about using sports to build community and eliminate the desire to go down a less desirable path. Volunteer Jessica Sherman joined KidsPlay after her brother, Harwin Barringh, was gunned down in Abbotsford. The police believe the shooting was gang-related. Sherman and her parents had no knowledge of Harwin being part of the gang life. Shortly after her brother’s death, she joined KidsPlay to see if she could make a difference in the lives of young people. She says, “I’m my brother’s keeper, and I’m going to keep working toward building his legacy.” Today Jessica Sherman is the director of operations for the Abbotsford branch of the KidsPlay Foundation.KidsPlay is a dynamic and growing organization that appears to be succeeding in its mission to steer Vancouver area youth away from drugs, gangs and violence. They are doing this by using sports to get kids off the streets. KidsPlay volunteers, a motivated and passionate group, are driven to stay on message: every kid has a place and that place isn’t with a gang. At the start of this article, Kal Dosanjh was quoted as saying he wasn’t willing to be apathetic and complacent in the fight against drugs, gangs and violence. He punctuated this point by adding that none of the KidsPlay volunteers are willing to do that either. Maybe it’s the collective willingness to stare down apathy and complacency and provide concrete solutions to societal problems that has led to the success of the KidsPlay Foundation.
By Sean Dolan