She started a program to help newcomers make connections. It helped hundreds find jobs

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HALIFAX—Thirty years into a successful business career, Robyn Webb can still empathize with those who are just starting out.

Her soft voice becomes a bit sombre when she talks about the social and financial pressure on the jobless and underemployed — people who may have families to support, or student debt looming over them.

Though it’s been decades since she faced a job hunt herself, she conjures the stress of it easily because every day she works with people who are in the thick of it.

For the past 14 years, Webb has worked for an economic development organization, the Halifax Partnership.

In the beginning, her clients were Halifax business owners. By virtue of the city’s middling size, many of those businesses were small, and Webb would help them plan and grow. Each business seemed to have its own unique needs, but one thing they all shared was the difficulty in finding the right people to fill their jobs.

“Over the years, no matter whether the economy was doing really well or not so great, one of the top three issues facing all businesses was finding the right talent,” she says.

But Webb knew the talent was available and looking — sometimes desperately — to fill those very spots. It was as if both sides were grasping around in the same dark room and Webb simply thought to flick on the light.

In 2009, she spearheaded the creation of a program that introduces job-hunters to people in their industry, starting with a group she believed was in most need of introduction: immigrants.

Now making those connections is the centre of Webb’s work, and she says helping individuals build the foundations of their careers is what gives her job meaning.

Since its inception, the Halifax Connector Program has helped more than 1,000 people find jobs in Halifax, and organizations in other cities have taken notice. Webb’s model has now been implemented in 35 communities across Canada, working with almost 5,000 newcomers.

Read more from our Changemakers series

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Webb has shared her program with groups from Sweden and Switzerland, and earlier this year saw the launch of the Pittsburgh Connector Program in the United States.

She calls it “intentional networking.” While the ultimate goal is to find jobs for the job-hunters — or “connectees,” as Webb calls them — she doesn’t actually put them in touch with people who are hiring. Webb recruits industry insiders, or “connectors,” who can offer frank advice and direction.

“What we wanted them to do is just to have a connection, have a cup of coffee with a newcomer from the same industry, and let them learn a little bit about the industry: what the upcoming needs are, how do they fit into that, where are the opportunities?”

“And then the most important thing is that each connector that becomes part of the program agrees to provide three referrals into their business network. Then the connectee meets with those three and has the very same experience. So before long, that person now has 12 people looking for them, keeping an eye open for them, and seeing if there are opportunities coming up that they can connect them to.”

Connectors help newcomers navigate the job market in a new place with an unfamiliar culture. Webb says it can be especially hard for immigrants to find work, not because they’re unqualified, but because they don’t have access to the so-called “hidden” job market.

“A lot of (small businesses) don’t have an HR person,” Webb explains. “So how do they mitigate the risk when they’re hiring? It’s by picking up the phone and phoning a trusted person that they know and saying, ‘Do you know anybody?’”

If newcomers only know other newcomers, and perhaps some staff or volunteers at immigrant settlement organizations, then job prospects may seem scarce.

Recognizing that, Webb reached out to staff at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), the city’s largest immigrant settlement agency, and asked them to recommend people to be the program’s first participants.

They found 34 people who were “job ready,” which to Webb means their English is at a professional level and they have a post-secondary education.

She then sought out 34 professionals and matched them up.

“The very first connections that we made, we were very selective as to making sure the connectors that we brought on would be really dedicated to … making those three referrals, because that’s the key; we only make one match, so we really need to make sure that that person is engaged,” she says.

Webb attributes the program’s success to that careful scouting and preparation of connectors.

And almost a decade later, it seems to still be in practice, according to one connectee.

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Abinaya Rajendran moved to Canada from India in September 2017. After a couple of months in Toronto — the only city in Canada she and her husband had any acquaintances (a couple of friends) — her husband landed a job in Halifax and they moved.

Although Rajendran’s resumé boasted a master’s degree in engineering and a few years of work experience from back home, she struggled to land a job in construction — her chosen field.

She submitted applications and dropped off resumés, unsolicited, but didn’t get any interest. It was perplexing to her because back in Chennai, India, that simple process was all it took.

“I got a call, I had an interview, and then I was selected and I got the job,” she says of her last job-hunting experience. “The majority of the jobs (in India) are, if there’s a job, it’s posted online and then you apply and you get the job.”

But credentials didn’t seem to be enough in Canada.

She applied to the Halifax Connector Program in early 2018 and was matched with a local engineer. As promised, that first connection spun off into more.

“It took some time, but I think having met these people I’m much more confident in my job search … because I know what a Canadian employer is looking for,” she says.

Rajendran is still looking for a full-time job, but in the meantime she’s on a short-term work placement in her industry until early 2019, and she’s training herself on software that’s regularly used by engineering firms in Canada.

She says she’s hopeful about finding something permanent in the near future, crediting her optimism to her connectors.

“They’re very accommodating. They respond and they really want to help you. So that’s something that’s really encouraging for a new person, for an immigrant. I think that’s important, that you know that there is a support system here,” she says.

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Born and raised in Dartmouth, N.S., Webb speaks tenderly about the city of lakes where she also watched her kids grow up and paddle for sport.

But the depth of that fondness was cemented earlier, when she left for a short time in the early 1980s. She was newly graduated and moved to Lethbridge where her husband was going to school. Despite the business degree to her name, she struggled to find work.

It was a relief to return home to Nova Scotia after a year, where she started her career in earnest and put down roots.

She says that over the years she’s been offered jobs in other cities, but always turns them down.

It’s atypical for Maritimers to resist moving west. In the past few years, only an influx of international immigration has prevented Nova Scotia’s population from decreasing.

Webb says in a city like Halifax, in a province like Nova Scotia, where the population is aging and many industries are desperate for skilled workers, someone has to show people it’s viable to stay before they’re tempted to try their luck in another part of the country.

There’s a “small window” to attach people to the city, according to Webb, before necessity or ambition pull them away. She’s made it a personal mission to attach as many people as possible to her hometown by settling them into meaningful work.

With the initial success of the program for immigrants, Webb started thinking about how other groups could fit into her mandate.

New graduates are often in a similar position to newcomers: unattached, and eagerly looking for work. So within a year of launching the immigrant stream of the connector program, Webb invited international graduates to join.

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Within a couple more years, a third stream was added for local graduates.

Bo Qin says without Webb’s program, it isn’t likely she would still be in Halifax.

She came here from China to study internetworking. After completing a master’s degree in 2016, she had all the right qualifications on paper — just like Rajendran — but soon found herself working part-time as a restaurant server.

“I just dropped resumés online and even dropped paper resumés in a company at the front desk, but it didn’t work,” she says.

As months went by, she started getting anxious.

A year had already passed since she graduated and Qin worried if she couldn’t find a job before her three-year work permit expired, she’d have to return to China.

Qin grew up in Shanghai — a city of about 24 million people — and says its vast size, the size of companies there and the fast pace of work and life were unappealing to her. “I prefer Halifax,” she says.

It was ISANS — the immigrant settlement agency — that referred Qin to the connector program last year.

Her first connector worked for a cybersecurity consultancy firm and recommended Qin sign up for a program to learn more computer languages. While she was in the midst of those studies this spring, the company her connector worked for started hiring.

Qin was thrilled to receive a call — and a job offer.

Ignoring for a moment the year of waiting and worrying, Qin’s hiring seems about as easy as can be — no cover letter, no formal interview, just a plum offer. But it was only because of the connection she’d made, and she doesn’t forget that.

Webb says the sooner one can start networking, the better. Which is why she’s now working on accepting immigrants into the program before they even arrive in Canada.

“When they get off the plane, they probably have three people to follow up with,” she says.

As Webb continues to push the boundaries of the program (next on the horizon is a connector app), more and more communities are taking notice.

She now spends a good amount of her time sharing the process nationally and internationally because she knows the challenges she sees in Halifax are universal.

This is the last of the Star’s Changemakers series profiling 12 Canadians who are making our lives better.

Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on education. Follow her on Twitter: @tarynalgrant

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He’s been called a ‘lethal force’ who’s not afraid to take on medical authorities. And it all started with pain week

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Back in 2010, a handful of University of Toronto professors gave in to an “impertinent” first-year medical resident and consented to a meeting with him.

In a boardroom of the medical sciences building on King’s College Circle, Nav Persaud warned the group he had discovered some big problems with a course they ran on pain management.

The then-29-year-old doctor-in-training charged there were serious errors in the curriculum for “pain week,” which was taught annually, over the span of a week, to hundreds of students from health science programs, including medicine, dentistry, nursing and pharmacy.

What’s more, the course was rife with conflicts of interests related to inappropriate ties to the pharmaceutical industry, he argued, imploring them to fix it.

But the unsolicited advice — coming from a trainee no less — was most unwelcome, according to some in attendance.

“Who do you think you are? How dare you question these materials.”

That was the gist of the response, recalls Dr. Rick Glazier, a professor from the faculty of medicine and research director in the department of family medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital, where Persaud was doing his residency.

Even though Persaud was polite and respectful in asking tough questions, “he was treated as being out of his place, as being highly impertinent,” says Glazier.

The academics who organized the program shut Persaud down, denying his assertions, the senior doctor recounts.

But the harsh reception did not dissuade the young man from endeavouring to set right what he saw as a significant and potentially dangerous problem.

The pain-week battle would mark the first time in Persaud’s career he would take on authorities in the health world. He has since gone on to make a name for himself as a crusader for improved care, often with Big Pharma in his crosshairs.

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At only 38, he has also distinguished himself as an advocate for patient safety, social justice, transparency and pharmacare — not to mention a brilliant researcher and practitioner. With a reputation for being principled and persistent, he has not been afraid to rock the boat if that’s what it has taken to effect change.

In just under a decade, Persaud has helped expose and eventually get banned a Big Pharma marketing scheme that saw brand-name drug companies digitally insert vouchers into electronic patient records with the intent of boosting sales. He helped create the Health Justice Program, a partnership between St. Mike’s and legal clinics, which provides legal assistance to patients encountering difficulties that affect their well-being, for example, mould problems in rental housing. And spearheaded an effort at his family practice clinic to stop pharmaceutical reps from providing freebie drug samples, a marketing scheme aimed at boosting drug sales.

But it all started with the pain-week course and the problems that came to his attention in 2009 in the emergency department of St. Mike’s. A medical student had written an order for Percocet for a patient who had overdosed on Tylenol. It was an odd — and dangerous — choice, given that Percocet contains acetaminophen — the generic name for drugs such as Tylenol, which the patient had just OD’d on. It also contains oxycodone, an opioid.

Persaud caught the mistake in time. He then had a conversation with the student, who had already been through pain week, and learned she was unaware of what was actually in the drug.

“I started wondering how it was that medical students were being taught information that was misleading and potentially dangerous for patients, especially in the context of what by then had become the opioid crisis,” Persaud says.

So he started doing some digging.

He had taken the same course years earlier, but the problems didn’t jump out to him then. But to a more experienced and knowledgeable Persaud, they were glaring.

For starters, he discovered that a reference book provided to students free of charge was paid for by Purdue Pharma. That was the same drug manufacturer that three years earlier, in 2007, pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the highly addictive nature of its drug OxyContin. It paid $600 million (U.S.) in penalties.

Persaud also learned that a course lecturer had previously received money from Purdue, as a member of its speakers’ bureau.

Course material wrongly described oxycodone as a weak opioid, less powerful than morphine. In fact, it’s at least 1.5 times stronger than morphine.

Also included in the material was a quote attributed to a 2006 Canadian Medical Association Journal article, stating that placebo-controlled trials showed “strong” and “consistent” evidence that opioids relieve pain and improve function for patients with chronic, non-cancer pain.

Persaud looked up the original article, but the quote was nowhere to be found.

After getting nowhere in addressing his concerns with the course organizers, Persaud took them up the ladder, to associate deans, vice-deans, deans and anyone else who would listen.

In navigating the daunting world of academic politics, he sought advice from two superiors at St. Mike’s — Glazier and Dr. Philip Berger, then chief of family medicine.

Dr. Nav Persaud was just a doctor in training when he noticed some big problems with a course the University of Toronto ran on pain management. He pushed to get the curriculum fixed — and succeeded.

Glazier’s research expertise is in the area of evidence-based medicine. He also has a personal interest in the opioid crisis. A year earlier, his 18-year-old son Daniel died from an accidental opioid overdose.

The highly respected researcher — a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences who was appointed in October as scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Health Services and Policy Research — was stunned by the dismissive response to Persaud: “It was such a flagrant denial of fact. (Persaud) was objecting to things that were clear and objective errors.”

But in time, Persaud’s tenacity paid off. The university launched an inquiry. The course was subsequently overhauled; the book dropped, the lecturer dropped, and the medical school’s conflict-of-interest guidelines strengthened.

Berger was mightily impressed by this trainee he had just come to know. He would later offer Persaud a full-time job as a family doctor at St. Mike’s.

The hospital — which has an international reputation for working with disadvantaged and marginalized communities — turned out to be a good fit for the forward-thinking doctor.

As a boss, Berger also turned out to be a good fit. The pair are much alike, with reputations for pushing the envelope on issues they care about and for being unafraid to speak truth to power.

Berger, who eventually became Persaud’s mentor, describes his protégé this way: “He is fearless, very smart and singularly stubborn, all of which makes him a lethal force when he takes on institutions, governments or anybody in power.”

Berger adds: “He’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

Persaud was born in 1980 in Toronto shortly after his parents emigrated from Guyana. He and his older brother were raised in the Keele and Wilson area, in a neighbourhood with many newcomer families.

His father, an engineer back in Guyana, found employment as a labourer in an insulation factory and eventually worked his way up to management in a medical testing company. His mother got a job as an X-ray technician.

In his last year at William Lyon Mackenzie high school Persaud decided he wanted to become a scientist. The inspiration came one evening when he took the TTC down to U of T to hear the renowned, late physicist Stephen Hawking speak.

Persaud obtained an undergraduate degree in physiology from U of T where he later studied medicine.

Before graduating, he took three years off to study at Oxford University — two years on a Rhodes Scholarship and another year on a scholarship from Oxford.

There, he met a fellow student who would become his wife. Today, he and Shateel are parents to two boys, ages 9 months and 2 years.

Early in his career, Persaud was recognized for his strong research abilities. Adalsteinn “Steini” Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T, took notice of him when he had just finished his residency and received his first academic appointment as a lecturer in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. Today Persaud is an assistant professor.

Back in 2011, Persaud also received a financial award from the department and a national fellowship to support his research.

“He stood out from the start,” Brown says. “He was identified early on by the (department) as an outstanding scientist with high potential.”

Today, Persaud spends more than 75 per cent of his time doing research as a scientist at the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Mike’s and the remainder working as a family physician at the hospital.

He has so far been published in academic journals about 75 times, most recently in November. A study he is leading was among 19 included in a Canadian Medical Association Journal supplement on patient engagement in health research. Getting patients more involved in all aspects of health care is part of a major cultural shift now underway around the world.

It was a highly competitive process just to get a research project accepted for this initiative, which requires that patients be part of the research teams.

Persaud’s project was one of two selected for presentation at the launch of the supplement in Ottawa in mid-November. Titled CLEAN Meds, it explores the feasibility of providing free medication to patients who otherwise would go without because they cannot afford them.

If it proves feasible, a good case could be made to create such a program. It would also give a big boost to the campaign for a national pharmacare program, which Persaud supports.

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While many academics are happy just to be published, Persaud aims higher, observes Brown, board chair of the Ontario SPOR (Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research) SUPPORT Unit, which co-funded the initiative with the federal government.

“He’s a perfect representation of a new generation of leaders in research who are really, really committed to rigorous work, but who also are just as passionate about seeing it get into practice,” remarks Brown.

One such example of Persaud’s research effecting change is a 2016 study he led, which found that 1 in 10 people who died of an overdose had been released from a provincial prison within the previous 12 months. It led to the creation of a program to distribute the opioid antidote Naloxone to inmates returning to the community.

The media-savvy Persaud has become a go-to expert on issues of patient safety and transparency. In late-November, he was prominently featured in a series of CBC stories about patients being harmed by faulty medical devices. He has long called on regulators and industry to be more transparent about problems with such devices and to do more to protect patients.

Persaud achieved success on another transparency battle earlier this year with the publication of a study, which revealed the morning sickness drug Diclectin fell short of its manufacturer’s own threshold for effectiveness. He reanalyzed data — more than 9,000 pages of it — from an earlier clinical trial, funded by the manufacturer, and poked many holes in the findings.

He fought for years to get access to the data, filing numerous access-to-information requests to both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada, but with little success. The data was deemed confidential business information.

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It wasn’t until the 2014 passage of Vanessa’s Law (Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act) that Health Canada agreed to show him the manufacturer’s original trial data. But he first had to sign a confidentiality agreement promising to destroy the documents.

Health Canada has proposed updating regulations that would make publicly available reams of previously confidential clinical trial documents about prescription drugs and medical devices.

Brown says Persaud’s growing list of achievements shows that taking calculated risks can have high-impact results.

“He is very good at using traditional tactics, but also guerrilla tactics. The guy has got a conviction of his principles,” the dean remarks.

As for what to expect next in the young scientist’s career, Brown says: “I think it will be more and more of the same in larger and larger leadership roles.”

The Star is profiling 12 Canadians who are making our lives better. Next week we talk to immigrant network creator Robyn Webb.

Theresa Boyle is a Toronto-based reporter covering health. Follow her on Twitter: @theresaboyle


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He started as a tiny preemie at Sick Kids. He beat the odds and now he’s back at the hospital — as a doctor in training

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Adam Shehata has been inside the Hospital for Sick Children hundreds of times in his 36 years.

First, as an infant, struggling to survive in the hospital’s NICU after being born 16 weeks too early and on the threshold of life.

Adam Shehata, 36, is a third-year medical student who came late to the field but says it’s a long-held dream to be a pediatric surgeon.
Adam Shehata, 36, is a third-year medical student who came late to the field but says it’s a long-held dream to be a pediatric surgeon.  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

Then, as a child, during weekly visits for his many follow-up appointments.

And later, as an adult, Shehata found himself back at Sick Kids for an unexpected visit, during which he and his wife learned their longed-for first pregnancy would have a devastating end.

But this week, Shehata entered the hospital, not as a patient or a parent, but as a doctor-in-training, a step toward fulfilling his long-held dream of becoming a pediatric surgeon at the renowned hospital.

“I’m fortunate for so many reasons, and much of it has to do with the care I received at Sick Kids,” Shehata says. “And now it’s a really nice feeling to know I can start to give back.”

Shehata, a third-year medical student at the University of Toronto, started his six-week pediatrics rotation at Sick Kids on Monday, Nov. 26.

That morning, during his subway commute to the hospital, Shehata found himself reflecting on what it meant to go back to the place that once saved his life. This time, and against the odds, he would be the one helping children.

Shehata hadn’t planned on making his thoughts public. But once he saw the big, illuminated Sick Kids sign towering above the main entrance, Shehata snapped a photo of the building’s facade and posted it on Twitter, along with several tweets briefly outlining his health journey.

His Twitter thread, which includes the following statement — “We can never truly know the impact we will have on other people’s lives” — has since been ‘liked’ more than 2,000 times and has generated dozens of comments. This is a lot of online attention for Shehata, who has roughly 350 Twitter followers.

“I think it’s the kind of story that people are longing for,” he says. “People are always rooting for the underdog. And though I don’t see myself in that position now, I certainly was an underdog when I was a baby, born at 24 weeks, with such long odds for survival.”

At 36, Shehata is a bit late to medical school; many of his classmates are in their early 20s.

But Shehata, who applied five times to med school before being accepted by the University of Toronto in the spring of 2015, knows he brings a host of skills.

Shehata is a professional pilot with a university degree in aviation business management. He also has a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

While in his 20s, Shehata focused on his passion for aviation, earning his Class I Flight Instructor rating, which allowed him to teach commercial pilots how to fly, and then acquiring his airline transport pilot licence, which is needed to captain large commercial airliners.

Adam Shehata, 2 months old, in an incubator at Sick Kids. The Polaroid photo was taken Aug. 7, 1982.
Adam Shehata, 2 months old, in an incubator at Sick Kids. The Polaroid photo was taken Aug. 7, 1982.  (Supplied)

But in 2010, at age 28, Shehata decided to become a doctor after a lifechanging experience that took place with his wife, Christina.

The pair, who had married the previous year, had been referred to Sick Kids after learning their unborn baby — their first pregnancy — had a severe heart defect. Shattered by the news, the couple were comforted by a pediatric cardiologist, who spent two hours helping them understand what it meant for a baby to have such a condition.

“We ended up losing that pregnancy,” Shehata says. “But that conversation with that physician inspired me to consider a career in medicine. He didn’t make the situation medically better for us, but the time he took and the way he explained things to us and his kindness … I knew I could be that person someday.”

Within months of their loss, Shehata was acquiring the high school and university credits needed to get into medical school. But despite top grades and his extensive aviation experience, Shehata didn’t make the cut at various schools.

Adam Shehata as a happy, healthy 4-year-old on his first soccer team.
Adam Shehata as a happy, healthy 4-year-old on his first soccer team.

Shehata then turned his attention to the law, another profession he believed had the power to change people’s lives.

He excelled in his studies at Osgoode Hall and was called to the bar in 2016. But still, he could not let go of his dream of being a doctor.

Shehata applied one last time to medical school. The same month that he was offered a job in aviation law at a downtown Toronto firm, he was admitted to the U of T’s faculty of medicine.

Three years later, and starting his pediatrics rotation at Sick Kids, Shehata knows he’s on the right path.

Shehata’s mother, Mona ElSayeh, is proud of her son and remains in awe of his success given the grim outlook at birth.

ElSayeh, who is executive director of a small Toronto charity called Access Community Capital Fund, recalls her and her husband’s fear in the moments after Shehata’s birth on June 7, 1982. Her son, born at 24 weeks and weighing just 660 grams (one pound, seven ounces) was unbelievably tiny and frail, his skin nearly translucent.

Doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital rushed the baby to Sick Kids, where doctors in the neonatal intensive care unit did everything they could to save his life.

Shehata, who initially relied on a ventilator to help him breathe, spent more than 120 days in hospital, and faced multiple health crises, including one remedied by a lifesaving blood transfusion.

Each day of his stay, ElSayeh or her husband made the hour-long trek from their home in Pickering to visit their son.

ElSayeh, who was heartbroken every time she had to say goodbye to Shehata, sleeping in his incubator, believes the constant care from the NICU staff has helped her son thrive — not just as a baby but throughout his life.

“Even though I was there every day, I couldn’t be with him 24/7. But I knew the nurses would take him out and cuddle him and treat him like any baby wants to be treated. I think that went a really long way in his development.”

After four months, Shehata went home on Thanksgiving weekend with his parents and older brother, Kareem.

Through much of Shehata’s childhood, ElSayeh continued to take her son to Sick Kids for weekly appointments with specialists to monitor his hearing, eyesight and growth and development. Doctors warned ElSayeh that Shehata would likely have physical disabilities and serious developmental delays due to his prematurity.

Adam Shehata, 1, in his Pickering backyard.
Adam Shehata, 1, in his Pickering backyard.

But though he needed extra help for some tasks, especially with his fine motor development, and did have to repeat third grade, Shehata surpassed everyone’s expectations.

ElSayeh says she knows he will make a good doctor, just as he is already a good son, husband and father. Shehata and Christina have a 7-year-old daughter, Amelia, who ElSayeh calls “the apple of my eye.”

After his first week of training at Sick Kids, Shehata is even more sure of his dream of being a pediatric surgeon at the hospital that once saved his life.

He knows it is a longshot. Once he completes medical school, Shehata faces at least seven more years of training and stiff competition for the handful of pediatric surgery spots in Canada.

But he also knows that he has beaten the odds once before at Sick Kids. And that he’ll be helped by his personal experience — as a patient and then as a parent at the hospital — coupled with his technical skills honed while a pilot and a lawyer.

It’s time, he says, for him to start paying forward all the kindness and care he has received in his life. And he wants to start at Sick Kids.

Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based data reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie


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A quiet lull, and then the shooting started again

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A scraping bow, as yet another body was added to the homicide heap.

It was only a matter of when, of course, with six weeks left in 2018. But the kill count had stalled for a while — four mercifully murder-free days passed between No. 89 and No. 90.

And some three full weeks without a homicide recorded before No. 89.

“I don’t know if that’s a sign we’re going to slow down,” acting Insp. Hank Idsinga, head of the homicide squad, told the Star Sunday night, confirming the murder, sounding more weary than hopeful. “But we’re on a 100-pace over the past 12 months.”

It had been a death watch over recent days, waiting for that shoe to drop.

A beating near Moss Park on Friday evening, the male victim apparently stabbed as well, but he’s hanging on in hospital, listed as critical.

Then, around 8:30 Sunday morning, discovery of a deceased male on Shuter St., in front of Haven Toronto, a drop-in centre for homeless men. An orange tarp had been laid over the corpse but there was little police activity in the area and it was soon made clear this wasn’t a homicide. Just another dead guy in the street and there have been plenty of those in this city.

Four hours later, emergency services responded to reports of gunshots at an apartment building near Lawrence Ave. E. and Kingston Rd. Paramedics found a male suffering from apparent gunshot wounds, pronounced dead at the scene. Officers found a clutch of shell casings inside.

Members of the Emergency Task Force drove up to the 13-storey building, lights flashing, at around 3 p.m., and entered with guns drawn. As of Sunday night, no charges had been laid and the victim had yet to be identified.

It never really signified much, except symbolically, that four-score-and-ten figure, overtaking the record set in 1991 when Toronto was in the grip of a gangland feud. The inevitability of rising to a new threshold of murder — inflated by 10 killed in April’s van rampage along north Yonge St. — has been part of the grim conversation for months, triggering memories of the Year of the Gun: 2005, when gun-related homicides soared to a record 53 out of 80 murders.

Half of this year’s murders have been shooting fatalities, clustered largely around defined urban neighbourhoods, the more worrying aspect — whether resulting in death or not — of multiple shots fired from multiple guns, sometimes in running gun battles; out in the open, daytime, nighttime. Brazen and utterly heedless of innocent bystanders.

Last Wednesday, as Det. Sgt. Mike Carbone told reporters, four guns had been fired, an unknown number of shooters blasting away at each other — between 10 and 20 rounds — on a quiet street near Weston Rd. and Hwy. 401, a pocket of the city not known for violence. A fifth gun was found beside the slain victim, 22-year-old Yohannes Brhanu, in the driver’s seat of his car.

“That was an example of the proliferation of firearms,” said Idsinga. “More guns, more shootings. That’s what we saw in 2005. It’s not just one person in a group who might pull out a gun; it’s several people and they’re shooting at each other. That’s how innocent people get killed.

“It’s scary.”

What that says about Toronto, in 2018, would be speculation and probably not fair, based on emotion more than statistics, as dismaying as those may be.

Police are leery of conjecturing about patterns or trends or motivation, although gang activity and drug turf seem common denominators.

“I don’t want to mark it down as gang-related because that would be giving these guys too much credit,” said Idsinga. “What I’d say is a group of individuals potentially from a common area, neighbourhoods where they’ve grown up and become engaged in criminal activity, and then rival groups going after each other leading to more shootings getting back at each other. It spirals.”

The resulting mayhem is predictable, blood splashed across the city. Idsinga points out, however, that the solve rate, for this year at least, has been relatively high at about 70 per cent, if fluctuating. “I wouldn’t say these gun murders are getting easier to solve but we’re getting a lot more feedback from the public. Homicides are very labour-intensive but the technology is better now. There’s a lesser reliance on eyewitness evidence, more little pieces of the puzzle we can fit together.”

There’s not a great deal of solace to be taken from the fact, often raised by the mayor and policing officials, that Toronto remains a tremendously safe metropolis, compared to American cities of the same size. “It’s a large city and really, on a per capita basis, (90) is not really an outrageous number,” said Idsinga. “Still, we shouldn’t have 90 people killed on the streets of Toronto. Even 10 homicides is unacceptable as far as I’m concerned.”

The homicide surge can be placed on a graph tracked from September 2017. “The pace picked up last September and it’s never gone down,” said Idsinga.

Equally alarming is the number of shootings: 362, as the sun rose Sunday.

It feels closer to home, even when it isn’t. It feels overwhelming, a danger that lurks down every street, in playgrounds, at dense housing complexes, in malls, around schools, in lively entertainment districts, in the quiet of the night or in broad daylight.

“People are fed up,” agrees Idsinga. “Frustrated and a little bit scared.”

Except you can’t live your life that way, seized by dread, too fearful to walk around at night, barricaded behind triple-locked doors, eyes down.

That’s not who we are.

That isn’t Toronto, even on its darkest of days.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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She couldn’t find a girls baseball team for her daughter, so she started a league of her own

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Where most people see obstacles, Dana Bookman sees opportunities.

So she didn’t mope or complain in early 2016 when her daughter, Noa Rae O’Neill, found herself the only girl among more than 400 kids registered for their local youth baseball league. Nor did she indulge her daughter’s initial urge to quit baseball and switch to another sport.

Instead, Bookman, who had no baseball experience until her two kids started playing, spread the word on Facebook that she needed four or five other girls and a coach to practise baseball along with her daughter. Then she upgraded her ambition, figuring 10 girls would make actual mini-games possible.

Word spread faster and interest ran deeper than Bookman anticipated. By that June, more than 40 girls had participated in Toronto Girls Baseball. In August, the program, with founder Bookman functioning as CEO, finished its third summer in Toronto. It also expanded to Halifax and Winnipeg this past summer.

Bookman never imagined becoming a leader in the local baseball community, but she just couldn’t stop herself from fashioning opportunity from a problem. Either way, the program she founded is transforming the way Canadian girls think about baseball, and helping change the gender balance in a traditionally male sport.

“(Noa Rae) was about to quit, but she stuck with it and learned you can do it,” said Bookman, who is currently on leave from her full-time job as a producer at CBC. “(Baseball) gave her so much confidence. Whether she chooses to be a baseball player or something else, that’s something she’ll carry with her forever. To me, that’s what this is about.”

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Participation numbers have swelled since Toronto Girls Baseball’s inaugural summer — up to 350 in year two and more than 500 this past summer. This year’s edition needed 10 diamonds at five different city parks to accommodate rapid growth, Bookman says. And beyond just teaching girls the sport, it let them play. Toronto Girls Baseball fielded five competitive teams this summer, and hosted a 15-team tournament that featured a squad visiting from Arizona.

Bookman had no previous background in baseball. She earned a bachelor’s degree in African Studies from Queen’s and another in Journalism from Ryerson, but the 43-year-old’s current public profile is linked to her girls’ baseball advocacy.

Last year, she made the Canadian Baseball Network’s list of most influential Canadians in the sport, outranking several agents, coaches and active big-league players.

And earlier this year, she was named an RBC Woman of Influence, thanks to her leadership of a program whose enrolment ballooned more than 800 per cent in its first two years.

Baseball stakeholders say the program’s rapid growth highlights a latent demand for girls’ baseball that had gone unmet until Bookman intervened.

“I was surprised at the numbers on the field but not surprised it grew so fast. I know there were girls out there,” says Murray Carr, father of national team member and Toronto Girls Baseball coach Emma Carr. “Yes, it’s baseball but the drive behind it is the empowerment of girls. Anything that’s not ballet or something, you’re looked down on. (Toronto Girls Baseball) has turned that around.”

While producing world-class athletes isn’t Bookman’s priority, Baseball Canada executive André Lachance says the program serves as a critical intake point for a national women’s baseball team with ambitious plans.

In August, Team Canada finished third at the Women’s Baseball World Cup, trailing champion Japan and runner-up Chinese Taipei, and defeating the U.S. in the bronze medal game.

The result might not represent an improvement in absolute performance — Canada took silver in the 2016 World Cup. But in relative terms, given the growing popularity of women’s baseball worldwide, Lachance says Canada’s program has made noticeable progress. In 2004, only five teams contested the World Cup. This year, 12 teams participated, and Lachance says up-and-coming programs in countries like Mexico and Argentina could provide an even deeper field for the 2020 tournament.

Lachance, who managed Canada’s World Cup team, says international success starts with making baseball accessible and appealing to as many girls as possible, and that grassroots programs like Bookman’s foster opportunities at higher levels of the sport.

“The first experience in baseball, if it’s not positive, they’ll switch over to another sport,” said Lachance, now Baseball Canada’s business and sport development director. “The greater the pool of athletes we have, the greater chance we have to have better athletes at the national team level.”

Registration numbers show men’s and women’s participation tend to rise and fall together. In 2014, according to Baseball Canada, there were 11,943 registered female players nationwide, compared with 102,615 males. The following year, participation among both groups dipped sharply — 8,179 females and 92,672 males registered in Baseball Canada-affiliated leagues in 2015.

By 2016, enrolment figures rebounded, with 105,799 males and 11,546 females registered nationwide. Last year, male participation continued to climb, with 113,206 registered players, while female players’ numbers levelled off at 11,523, with approximately 75 per cent of them participating in men’s or mixed-gender leagues.

When men’s registration jumped in 2016, Baseball Canada issued a news release crediting the Blue Jays 2015 playoff run — capped by José Bautista’s monster home run and signature bat flip against the Texas Rangers — with attracting young players.

Bookman points out that the Blue Jays’ influence on prospective new baseball players crosses gender lines.

“Girls want to be like the Blue Jays just as much as boys want to be like the Blue Jays,” Bookman said. “It’s a different sport. It’s fun and it’s social.”


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Emma Carr stars on Ryerson’s softball team, but considers the sport — with its bigger ball, smaller diamond and underhand pitching — her hobby. Baseball is her craft and her first sporting choice, but Ryerson, like many North American universities, doesn’t have a women’s program. As a second-year undergrad, she has learned to balance both sports, playing softball for her university and baseball for the national team.

She says Bookman’s program, where she started out as a coach in the summer of 2016, will give successive generations of female players the tools to navigate both baseball and softball instead of making a premature choice between them.

“It’s really important, especially for baseball, because a lot of girls get discouraged from playing,” said Carr, who played in the World Cup in August. “A lot of girls get forced into softball, and it’s a different sport.”

Baseball Canada, too, has recognized the importance of actively recruiting female baseball talent instead of hoping standout players cross over from softball. Lachance points out that while some top Canadian women’s players also play softball, the program relies on players who prioritize baseball.

And by the summer of 2017, Bookman’s initiative had attracted the attention of Baseball Canada executives, who invited her to give a presentation at the organization’s annual convention. By the end of the event, Bookman had received queries from baseball officials in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, hoping she could duplicate her program there. Bookman says 150 girls enrolled in a summer program in Halifax, while 60 more played this spring in Winnipeg.

In every city where her girls’ baseball programs have taken root, Bookman says she sees benefits that reach beyond the diamond. The statistical reality is that very few players will duplicate Carr’s success. Last year, nearly 12,000 girls and women registered to play baseball in Canada, but the World Cup roster contained just 20 players.

But Bookman says the confidence that comes with learning new skills and implementing them in a team setting will benefit program participants no matter how far they pursue baseball.

“The best players fail seven out of 10 times and your team has to be there for you,” Bookman said. “We’re teaching girls how to win, how to lose. We’re teaching girls resilience. We’re teaching them empathy.”


Historically, advances in women’s baseball happen in response to manpower shortages in the sport’s mainstream.

During the Second World War, more than 500 major leaguers, including stars like Ted Williams, joined the U.S. armed forces, boosting the war effort but creating a significant talent drain. Into that void stepped the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which operated teams in the Midwestern U.S., and later inspired the 1992 movie A League of Their Own.

And in the 1950s, as the racial integration of Major League Baseball gutted Negro League rosters, three different women succeeded in suiting up for Negro League teams. Nearly a decade after the all-white AAGPBL denied her a tryout, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson signed with the previously all-male Indianapolis Clowns.

“I’m glad (the AAGPBL) turned me down,” Johnson told The New York Times in 2010. “To know that I was good enough to (play) with these gentlemen made me the proudest woman in the world.”

More than 60 years later, it’s still newsworthy when a woman earns a spot on a men’s pro team. Five different women played minor league baseball alongside men in 2017.

But Bookman’s long-term goal is to normalize a sport still often treated as a novelty.

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As her network of girls’ programs grows, Bookman hopes to impress upon participants that girls’ baseball isn’t a dead-end sport. Even with a dearth of college and university women’s baseball programs, Bookman says Carr’s career path — national team baseball and university softball — points the way for the handful of girls who develop into elite women’s players.

But more immediately, Bookman wants her initiative to expand from three cities into a national grid of girls’ baseball programs. That women and girls account for just 9.2 per cent of registered players in Canada isn’t a problem for Bookman. It’s an opportunity to narrow the gender gap and make a tradition-bound sport more inclusive.

“Baseball is a tool for me for something I’ve become really passionate about,” Bookman said. “I’m passionate about empowering these girls through the sport of baseball.”

The Star is profiling 12 Canadians who are making our lives better. Next week we talk to Indigenous law trailblazer John Borrows.

Morgan Campbell is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MorganPCampbell

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