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Burger and The Kickback foster love of running in underserved Toronto communities

Hakim Mohamed and his nine-year-old daughters, Amira, left, and Anisa, run up the hill at Riverdale Park in Toronto, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. With sports programs and gym classes shelved by COVID-19's second wave in Ontario, running allows his daughters to burn pent-up energy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Every weekend, Hakim Mohamed and his nine-year-old twin daughters Amira and Anisa run.

They head from their Regent Park house in downtown Toronto toward Riverdale Park. They’ll run for an hour, in all kinds of weather. With sports programs and gym classes shelved by COVID-19’s second wave in Ontario, running allows his daughters to burn pent-up energy.

“Oh man, (they have) a whole lot of energy,” Mohamed laughed. “I don’t like them on their screens, so I try to take them out and let them run and play.”

Running is about more than the ground covered, or energy burned, Mohamed said. It’s also the conversations that occur amid the methodical thump of three pairs of feet on pavement.

“It’s very nice, it allows us time to be together, because we have two other kids (aged one and three) as well, so they see this as something for me and them to share,” said Mohamed, whose family moved to Canada from Ethiopia when he was four.

Their passion for running grew out of a chance meeting Mohamed had with Jamal Burger. Mohamed was walking home after working an overnight shift, and Burger and his Kickback running club were heading out on a run.

“I stopped him and I asked ‘What is this about?”’ Mohamed said. “And he told me to come by next Sunday for running, and I said ‘Can I bring the kids over? I have kids.’ And he goes, most definitely, it’s specifically for kids. So then we went the next Sunday, we started practising with them, and it just took off from there.”

The Kickback club started two years ago, Burger said, hatched from the desire to encourage healthy lifestyles among youth in underserved communities. It’s free and open to both kids and adults, Burger said, to foster “a symbiotic relationship with learning. So we can provide insight to the kids about potential careers or opportunities or how we just did something. And (the kids) can also remind us to be present or just enjoy life or things like that. It’s a combination. It’s like a perfect exchange of intelligence.”

The 27-year-old Burger is a photographer particularly well-known for his work in the NBA. He’s shot DeMar DeRozan for the cover of Slam Magazine, and spent a month in Africa with Raptors president Masai Ujiri documenting Ujiri’s Giants of Africa camps.

Burger is the founder of The Kickback, a group that works to lift up inner-city kids, while also teaching them lessons about empowerment and responsibility in the process.

It began with a sneaker drive in 2016. Including this year’s holiday drive, The Kickback has received over 5,500 donations of shoes.

Burger and Macaulay Madrigal started the running club, but when it scheduled its first run, nobody showed up but Burger, Madrigal, and Christian Epistola (also from The Kickback).

“Like no one took us seriously on the idea,” Burger said. “We didn’t care, we still did (the run).”

The group slowly grew to several dozen people, the majority of which are between 13 and 20. They partnered with Asics to provide shoes and Lululemon for shirts. Before shelving runs in September as a COVID-19 safety precaution when school resumed, they’d completed the Lululemon Canada Running Series 10K virtual race.

In 2019, the group did the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon event. Mohamed and his then-seven-year-old daughters completed the half-marathon.

“I told them, ‘Hey, listen, this is just for fun, we could just take it easy and do the (5K race),” he said. “But a month into (running with the Kickback club) we noticed they were keeping up with everybody. So, they said, ‘Hey Dad, we want to do the 21 kilometres.’ And I said if you can do it, we’ll do it together.

“Honestly, I was huffing and puffing but I couldn’t show them that, they kind of pushed me to go through it,” he said with a laugh.

Like Mohamed, the runs for Burger are about more than just putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a chance to mentor kids in a unique environment while fostering a love of running and reinforcing the importance of healthy living.

“There are conversations and moments while running where we have the opportunity to discuss topics with different kids,” Burger said. “I’ll be running with a kid and he’ll be talking to me about how he feels like an outcast, being the only one who wants to do positive things, and he feels safe in the space here when he’s running with us.”

One girl in the group, upon finishing a 10-kilometre run, told Burger: “This is the first time I’ve ever felt like I had people around me supporting me to do something I never knew I could.”

“It’s just those conversations in the safe space that we’ve been able to create which I’m most proud of,” he said.

The idea for The Kickback sneaker drive was to use shoes as a vehicle to help promote change, providing kids in low-income communities with sneakers while teaching them the importance of paying it forward.

Growing up in Regent Park, Burger said he and his friends would steal headphones and video games to trade for sneakers.

“The messed up part about that is out of the 10 friends that I used to get in trouble with between the ages like 12 and 14, I’m the only one that didn’t end up in a pretty serious situation that would hurt my chances of being successful or even getting a job,” Burger said.

Burger, who also runs the production company Tier Zero with several friends, quickly gained a significant social media following when he started taking photos at age 20.

He thought it ironic that shoe companies sent him free sneakers. He had about 30 pairs taking up space in his closet, and realized the potential of a sneaker drive, gathering about 150 pairs in his first drive in Regent Park, “hoping that at least one kid wouldn’t have to steal or do something wrong to be able to go to school with a brand new pair of sneakers.”

Since the first year, the Kickback has held drives in Vancouver, Boston, Chicago, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

“And we’re doing it in a different way,” Burger said. “The sneaker is so powerful, because it shows the kids in our neighbourhoods that despite how much older we are than (the kids), we speak the same language. We know it will make them feel confident, and we don’t give the sneakers as a handout, but more like a form of acknowledgment. Because you know that the kids go through a lot, and we want to make sure that they’re appreciated for that.”

Community activism is even more crucial now as underserved communities have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Burger said while they haven’t been able to run as a group, The Kickback is exploring ways in 2021 to keep kids active at home.