What makes a kid living in one of the most gun-plagued areas of Toronto want to make a difference? For Nicholas Maharaj the turning point came when a friend, Courtney Facey, was gunned down in 2010.
Nicholas went to middle school with Courtney. He never imagined that he would know someone who was killed because of gun violence. It's a feeling that he wants others to never have to experience. After that experience, Nicholas then 18, says he had to get involved in a positive way to stop the ongoing violence on the streets of Toronto.
I rather be productive than silent," Nicholas said during a phone interview.
Productive is an understatement. Nicholas became so involved with working to protect others against gun violence that he was named the 2011 Toronto Crime Stoppers Student of the Year. Along the way he has helped design the social media page for Toronto Police's TAVIS Unit and is known as a tweeting force for Toronto's Crime Stoppers. He is currently in the Police Foundations program at Centennial College, planning on a future in law enforcement either in community policing or with the military.
On Tuesday Toronto's Crime Stoppers threw out all the stops to celebrate January as Crime Stoppers Month in Canada. The organization has a strong message for criminals; you're not anonymous anymore........but those who report your actions are.
"Crime Stoppers is 100 percent anonymous and that is protected by the Canadian Supreme Court," Nicholas stressed saying that everyone can easily work for a safer place to live by calling or texting Crime Stoppers when they see criminal activity.
"You can text Crime Stoppers right in front of someone with a gun and they would never know. Your name is not in any database, your cell phone number is not recorded. You can make a huge difference in your community."
Nicholas has a goal, that no more families are broken because of gun violence.
It may seem to be a lofty goal, in parts of Toronto, including the area where Nicholas lives going out to get a cup of coffee can be dangerous.
"There were two shoots fired just this week. Whenever I do a promo piece for the police and my face is in the media I lay low for a while," Nicholas said, clearly tired of the gun violence in the hood. Ï just wished Tim Horton's delivered!"
Perhaps Nicholas can understand the streets better than most in Toronto. He himself had some minor scraps with police when he was younger. When asked why he didn't get into more trouble he laughed saying his mother would bust his ass." Thankfully Nicholas has a family that is there for him, and expected him to do the right thing. They laid a solid foundation that he carries forth today.
"I know that a lot of the youth in Toronto don't like the police. They blame the police when they get in trouble but here's the thing, when you screw up it's not the police's fault it's your own. Too many kids stereo-type the police as the bad guy. They don't see that cops can be cool and that at the end of the day when the badge, gun and uniform comes off they are just people like you and me," Nicholas said. One of those cops, Constable Scott Mills is a favorite of Nicholas.
"Scott is a true mentor to the youth in Toronto. He gets it. He talks to kids one on one, something that other cops in the city should be doing. You can't change the attitudes without getting out of the patrol cars and making a connection with kids,"Nicholas advised. "Toronto needs our police. The city would be so much more dangerous without them!"
Nicholas hopes that other youth will 'get it.'
"Kids don't understand that what they do when they are 16 and 17 can screw up their entire life. You get busted for a crime then and you can't get certain jobs for the rest of your life. I don't understand why anyone has to carry a gun? I just want to scream 'Grow up!'"
He's proud of the work that he is doing with Crime Stoppers. "Crime Stoppers can be there when the police aren't. Police officers just can't be everywhere. It's impossible but with Crime Stoppers witnesses can be everywhere and can be safe! Trust me little things, like a quick text message can make a huge difference."
That huge difference could mean for a safer Toronto. A Toronto where no matter what part of the city you live in can be safe to walk out your door and not fear that a bullet may end your life or the life of a loved one.
"Look at me. I grew up for 20 years in the 'hood. Look at what I am doing instead of crime and drugs I am making a difference. I believe that we were all put on earth to do good," Nicholas said as we ended our call.