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City Kidz: Loving Away the Poverty, One Child at a Time
Children have dreams, hopes and desires. The City Kidz program helps kids break free of the inner city poverty cycle to find purpose and meaning.

One in nine Ontario children lives in poverty—the fourth highest provincial rate in Canada. In Hamilton alone, over 24,000 children live below the poverty line.

Each week, 200 volunteers help these children envision of a better life by inviting them to “City Kidz”—a high-energy program which teaches kids that they are loved.

A fleet of 15 red school buses arrives in Hamilton’s inner city every Saturday morning to pick up more than 900 children. For these children, ages three to 12, the buses represent a gateway to another world; a world in which they’re reminded that life is more than hunger or hardship. A world in which they’re taught that dreams matter, and that they have potential. A world in which City Kidz realize they’re God’s Kids.

Founded in 1993 by Rev. Todd Bender, the organization has grown from impacting 20 weekly participants to over 1,700 due to its Saturday morning program, home visits, and the Kinder Kidz alternative. By the year 2013, Bender hopes to be reaching 5,000.

“As we get to know the kids … we recognize that each has dreams, has hopes, has desires,” says Bender, who moved to Hamilton in 1991. “All they needed was one person in their life who truly cared about them. One person to come alongside them and let them know that they matter; that their dreams matter.”

Breaking the cycle of poverty, says the father of four, doesn’t depend on dollars and cents. “You give a child hope, give them unconditional love, let them know that someone in their life cares about them—that’s the power that can break the cycle of the inner city. That’s the power that can break the cycle of poverty. And that’s what City Kidz is all about.”

The program was inspired 17 years ago by a seven-year-old boy named Shawn, whom Bender met while attending college in Peterborough. Shawn hung out at the local teen drop-in centre, and he was always alone. They began spending time together—playing cards, doing crafts, watching movies. At the end of the day, Bender would walk Shawn home. He couldn’t figure out why Shawn spent so much time at the centre, until one day when he met Shawn’s parents. “It seemed it didn’t matter whether he came or went. No one seemed to ever notice him, unless they were yelling at him for leaving his shoes in the way, or not picking up his coat.”

One night in December, while out for a walk, Shawn reached up to take Bender’s hand. It was then, Bender says, that his life-purpose became clear. “I don’t need much, but what I want, what I seek after and what I desire most is this: I want every child to know that they matter to someone. I want every child to know that they can achieve greatness. I want every child to know that they never have to face their fears alone (and) I want every child to experience the amazing unconditional love of Jesus Christ.”

Today, because of Bender’s vision, nearly 2,000 children are being encouraged on a weekly basis through home visits and the Saturday morning program.

But for Bender, that’s not enough. He wants to reach every child possible, for he knows what it’s like to feel alone and insignificant. “As a kid growing up, I had terrible self-esteem issues,” he admits. “I was bullied and spent most of my high-school days hating who I was and wishing God would give me a do-over.”

It wasn’t until becoming determined to live an extraordinary life that Bender found purpose and meaning. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life cowering in the shadows feeling sorry for myself. I wanted to help and to make a difference in the world.”

He hopes to eventually impact one million children for Christ by expanding the City Kidz program coast to coast.

“Our commitment is to search unceasingly for the child who needs to know that someone cares,” says the City Kidz website, “the child who needs to know they have a place in this world so that they would know that they are loved, that they matter, and that someone believes in them.”

In order for Bender to achieve his current goal of reaching 5,000 kids in five years, he needs close to 550 weekly volunteers as well as $2.5 million, annually. “It’s certainly going to take a lot of work, sacrifice and commitment to make it all happen,” he admits, but “to solve big problems (like poverty), you need big, aggressive solutions.”

If City Kidz can positively impact enough children each week, Bender adds, “then we may be able to create a critical mass, or a tipping point.” In other words, if 5,000 children are filled with hope each week, they can subsequently carry that hope back into their homes, their neighbourhoods and their schools.

“I’m not saying you can engineer a revival, but unless someone is willing to take the message to the darkest regions of the inner city, how else will they know?”

On ‘Miracle Sunday’—February 14, 2010—City Kidz is initiating a partnership with 60 different churches to facilitate fundraising, volunteers and a prayer network. The event is sponsored by CTS, Wishart, and Beacon magazine.

“Miracle Sunday is a campaign that was launched last year to connect our churches to the vision and dream,” Bender explains. In 2008, over 40 churches took part, raising $50,000 and an increase of 30 new volunteers. This year they hope to see 60 churches commit, generating a combined $60,000 and another 50 volunteers.

In addition to receiving support from local churches, City Kidz is sponsored by a number of Hamilton businesses. These include TD Financial, Life Line Delivery Services, Economical Insurance Group, Smart!Centres, Venetor, Losani Homes, Michael Lamont’s Personal Injury Law, Branthaven Homes, and Canadian Tire which, every year since 2004, has donated bicycles so that children from the inner city might have a mode of transportation. To date, over 600 children have received new bikes.

“There are five reasons why I love City Kidz,” says Armando David Vacca of A.D. Vacca and Associates Financial Planning. “I love their compassion, their competence, their creativity, their commitment to excellence, and they are a conduit for God’s amazing love.”

Mayor Fred Eisenberger appreciates the way City Kidz looks after the children in the community—“kids challenged by income and other reasons. They make sure there are programs available that let them know they’re appreciated and that they can aspire to greater things.”

Hundreds of kids admit to having their lives changed by Bender’s program.

“Without City Kidz, I might have given up,” a participant admits. “Because I live in the inner city of Hamilton, you can get into the mode where things just seem too far out of grasp.”

One particular young man, who began attending in 1993, says Todd is the father he never had. “He would come to my house for home visits and for pick-ups, and he drove me straight to my house when I wasn’t feeling well. He’s been there most of my life. He’s like my dad that I really didn’t get to know.”

Forty-five per cent of City Kidz volunteers are comprised of Junior Leaders—former Saturday morning participants who want to give back to the program. These young people, ages 12-15, are trained by team captains, and attend training sessions and weekly meetings. 

One junior leader admits she’d probably be a drug addict or in jail if it weren’t for City Kidz. She recalls being visited in her home by a woman named Helen. “When Helen hugged me, I knew I belonged to her,” she recalls. Now, she hopes to show the same kind of love to the children on her route.

“I used to be like a bad person,” says volunteer Jakayla. “Coming to City Kidz actually changed my life. Since then, I never fight or swear a lot.”

It’s because of stories like these that City Kidz is expanding, and that Bender continues searching.

“My days continue to be spent searching for children just like Shawn,” he says. “Some need to be rescued, others just need a friend. As long as one child remains who needs to know that someone cares, that God loves them and has a plan for their life, I will be here, continually searching.”

Emily Wierenga is an author based in Alberta. Her book, Save My Children, is available through Castle Quay Books.


Related article

Jesus Loves the City's Children

Originally published in Beacon, January/February 2010.

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