© Photo courtesy of Canadian Courage Project

By Allie Murray

No child’s health should be left up to chance. That’s the driving force behind The Canadian Courage Project, a nonprofit organization started by Torontonians Anya and Shania Bhopa.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sisters were inspired to help Toronto’s homeless, specifically youth and their animal companions who are facing homelessness. They started offering care kits to homeless shelters across the GTA.

We sat down with Anya and Shania to learn more about how The Canadian Courage Project began, where the project is headed, and how people can get involved.

What inspired you to start The Canadian Courage Project?

We believe that no child’s health should be left up to chance. The way that poverty and minimal access to basic necessities can affect one’s life trajectory and mental well-being doesn’t seem fair. We wanted to support the mental wellness of youth facing homelessness, specifically those who own animal companions. Homeless youth who own animals often have reduced access to shelter and support services, and we decided to fill this gap in the system. The inspiration came from Anya’s involvement with a local animal shelter, where she learned that an animal companion may be the only form of support someone may have. We want to promote ownership. Thus the Canadian Courage Project was born in May of 2020. We are both full-time students and spend all of our free time working with our team of volunteers to run our programs, with very minimal experience prior; it has been one of the best things we could have ever done.

How do your care kits work?

We contact local homeless shelters that offer resources to youth and animals, and we ask for what the youth currently need to receive to make their week a bit better. Our logistic coordinators then plan the number of items needed per tote, and then we begin our rollout! Currently, we are focused on supporting youth that are moving out of shelters into independent housing and the necessities that they may need to get them on their feet.

Looking to the future, where do you see CCP in five years?

In five years, we hope to have expanded our care kits program and have our sustainable development goals workshop and the mental health workshop in all high schools across Canada. We would love to expand nationally and support individuals and their pets transitioning out of shelters into independent housing so that they can enter their next phase of life confidently and courageously. Our goal is to increase awareness that the global issues we see on the news are actually all happening right here, in our very own country, and if we work together, we can make a difference and spark change. We hope to expand our efforts and support animal companions with funded vaccination programs, and partner with mental health organizations to promote mental health services to all youth.

You have already helped so many homeless youth. Can you share a story that inspires you to keep going?

Recently, at a virtual mindfulness and art workshop held at one of our partner organizations, the excitement in the eyes of the 30 young people attending made our hearts smile. One of the individuals came up to the camera to show us their final painting, and said that it was the best thing they have ever made and it was their first time painting. This experience made us realize that some of the simplest activities make a difference to a person’s mental well-being. It is really just allowing them to feel heard, seen, and appreciated, knowing that they have a whole network of people willing to support them. Moments like that are what keep us going.

Inspiring youth to be change-makers in their community is another part of what you do. Why is this important to you?

When we think of the world’s biggest issues, like water scarcity, hunger, and pollution, we don’t typically associate those issues with a country like Canada. We grew up without ever learning that these issues affected people in our community. As young people, we have the opportunity to tackle these issues in the most innovative and sustainable way. Youth deserve to be in places where decisions are being made, and we want to fill that gap through our high school workshops. We hope to inspire youth to spark change in their communities. We will be educating them on sustainable development goals and how to incorporate them into any career. We hope to bring together as many individuals as possible to collaborate and kickstart local projects.

Why pets and people?

It is one of the most significant limiting factors for why a homeless youth may not have access to shelter, healthy food, and resources. With a focus on mental health, we want to promote pet ownership. Research has shown the positive effects of owning an animal on one’s mental health, with reduced stress levels and improved depression and anxiety, among other factors. We realize that for many of these young people, their animal companion is the only form of support system that they may have. Personally, our pets are a part of the family. We see the immense support they offer us for our mental health, and we just want to ensure every youth out there can feel loved and heard.

To learn more, visit thecanadiancourageproject.org

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