SHE IS READY FOR HER FIRST DAY OF HIGH SCHOOL. She drinks her coffee, freshly-brewed from their newly-acquired Keurig, which she hopes will make up for the lost hours of sleep from last night, as the nerves and excitement shook in the way they frequently do in the previous hours prior to our first time of anything – whether it is our first job, our long-awaited flight to a new country, our first sports match or our first encounter with that someone we could not wait to meet.
She diligently prepares her lunch – mortadella and mozzarella sandwich – made to resemble the very first time, more than four decades ago. She and two of her classmates, which she considers among her best friends, punctually, courteously take their seats in the train that will take them to the vowed land of hope and promise – after Canada – the Yorkdale Adult Learning Centre.
It is a full-force winter day in Toronto. 2008. Full-force because everything else – like most things in life – is plainly speaking a matter of perception. For some, majestic, sumptuous, with effortless and radiating brilliance in every snowflake that covers the foliage-ridden trees. For others, this horrifying, blood-boiling monster that nonchalantly disrupts their monotone existence.
On the front row, several pupils complain that it spoils their brand-new Timberlands or Rockports with its muddy-greyish residuals that stick – just like they wish a word of the professor’s latest blabbered-echoes would stick in their disperse heads. There is, however, something special about the new student besides her passion and eagerness for learning: she is fifty years old, is just perfecting her English, and her two classmates – and best friends – are her kids.
LUZ MARIA PARDO has been an entrepreneur since she has memory. She landed in Canada directly from Mexico City on the 17th of April of 2007, and immediately set out to look for ways in which to create an impact in her community. “I conceived it as a place full of opportunities, where I could find my life purpose, my path”, she recalls as we speak, noting that “as soon as I arrived I took an intensive English course to improve my language abilities. I didn’t want to follow the pack.
I have seen so many talented people that automatically discount themselves because they don’t learn proper English. It’s a shame, because their knowledge is not even enough to fill up an application”, she adds, hoping to urge Newcomers to place the mastering of their language skills as one of their uttermost priorities.
And just as she went from the most basic English to developing a special fondness for it, “English and the winter became my two love affairs, in a very Shakespearean way”, she reminiscences, no roadblocks have ever deterred Luz María from pursuing her dreams. “I always felt that I was here to create a change. And that definitely, I had to be very daring. To dare greatly.”
It was in early childhood that Luz María understood she needed to be in control of her own destiny. She reminds herself growing up in a home that experienced domestic violence.
It was in early childhood that Luz María understood she needed to be in control of her own destiny. She reminds herself growing up in a home that experienced domestic violence, having a very strong relationship with her father, a man that was “a great designer, despite his alcoholism problem, but unfortunately, a man of many qualities but not of many virtues.” This relationship shaped her, enabling her to think out of the box – to imagine and daydream that a better future could be attainable.
“I believe I was a daughter delivered to the wrong home – if you could call that home, even. So to escape I declaimed poetry, and sang, very very loud, because I wanted to be heard.” She narrates how her troubled and chaotic upbringing encouraged her to attempt to catalyse a positive transformation in her environment. It was at the tender age of thirteen that she managed to secure a spot for her sister at the same school that she attended, hoping to provide for her a refuge from the turbulence that they had to endure. “I was surprised when the professor said yes”. It were moments like this that instilled her caring for kids and the importance to provide them with an opportunity for a brighter future.
I ARRIVE AT THE GEORGE HARVEY COLLEGIATE INSTITUTE to become myself acquainted with the bearings of Luz Maria’s Canadian-born not-for-profit organisation, Light Your Life, which she co-founded and actively runs with her husband, Fernando Piñeiro, who was also her business partner in her previous endeavours in Mexico.
“We had two very successful enterprises in Mexico”, points out Luz Maria, as she greets me from the corridor that drives to the graphically-illustrated, decorated classrooms that serve as the primary venue for the Light Your Life Summer Camps, empowering the mission of “providing a space of harmony and healthy interactions among multicultural low-income families with children and youth in order to promote ties of brotherhood and a sense of solidarity”.
Located in one of Toronto’s vulnerable and under-developed quarters – in the industrial corridor of Keele and Weston Road, Light Your Life serves a large population of kids, mostly new immigrants, who hail from places as diverse as Nigeria and the Philippines, children to numerous blue-collar families that have settled in the area, and that for the most part, find if difficult to afford the ever-hiking daycare prices in Toronto.
“We serve the underprivileged communities”, acknowledges Luz María, enhancing the importance of the safe space that an organisation like LYL provides for minors from toddlers to teenagers to simply be themselves. “We sing loud. And we also listen attentively. Because sometimes, these kids come from very troubled homes and just want to be heard. That is all they need to overcome their traumas.”
“We listen attentively. Because sometimes, these kids come from very troubled homes and just want to be heard.”
Just as a breezy walk over run-down, warehouse-huddled Keele Street and the surrounding Rogers Road clarifies the idea of the diversity and multiculturalism that Luz María talks about, where ethnic cuisines abound – from the Blue Stone Caribbean Restaurant to the Golden Wheat Portuguese Bakery – it takes setting oneself a step onto the now children-populated room to fully grasp the magnitude of LYL’s daunting task.
Kids embrace me – as they infallibly do with any visitor, likely – and incessantly run and bawl and bluster “Hello” or “Hola” or “Alo” in umpteenth styles – and smiles. The paddled-greenboard is overflown with multi-coloured drawings of all types and everyone is wearing purple shirts with yellow logos that read in caps: LIGHT YOUR LIFE, including Luz María and her husband.
They take a stand and instruct the ecstatic group to round-up. “Time to sing our anthem”, pronounces Fernando, as everyone starts to vocalize, guided by Luz María, leading to a unison performance of the LYL anthem that ends up with the stimulating and metaphoric words – “And the sun will come.” They chant in English and in Spanish – in an ode to the founders’ Mexican heritage, and as they conclude they scatteredly jumble through the room to get to the site of their next activity, outdoors, even if the clouded skies manifest a hypothetical rainfall.
As the cohort departs Luz María enthusiastically tours me around the classroom, showing me the kid-made drawings that cover the walls, and explaining in detail the meaning that each of the colourful, handmade art pieces have. She relates each of the planned camp exercises to a pivotal moment in her personal history – and consequently in the story of Light Your Life.
One of them has to do with the environment, and the deeply-rooted conviction she has about conscientising the younger generations and instilling them with a sense of responsibility to care for it. It is long-standing in the camp’s motto: Protecting the Earth and Water, and throughout the workshop activities, the participants engage in cleaning up public spaces on the Greater Toronto Area – and reusing recyclable materials to construct art pieces. Luz María credits her family, primarily her mother, for deeply implanting these values in her.
“It would be an honour for her, Leonor Alcala, to see this. I remember when forty-four years ago, when I begin to date Fernando, now my husband for forty-three years, that she would take a small and pick up all the garbage that surfaced in Bosques de Chapultepec”, one of Mexico City’s green-lungs. “He would then ask, ‘For what?’, but she would respond, ‘At least we will do our part. This garbage will go to the right place. Can you imagine, how would she feel about this forty-four years later?”
IT WAS ON HER TIME AT Y.A.L.C. that Luz María and Fernando first laid the business-plan groundwork for Light Your Life, with the vital support of Professor David Oppenheimer. “I took his class four times”, she says, “And I will forever thank him.” In a serendipity moment, it was Oppenheimer who handed her a promotional flyer from the TDSB – Toronto District School Board – in which she noticed that TDSB would provide facilities free of charge for a certain type of programs that dealt with kids – particularly newcomers and vulnerable communities.
This MiniOlympiad experience planted the seeds for the physical activity component that is now profoundly-embedded onto every programme at Light Your Life.
It is under that TDSB umbrella that Light Your Life still operates today. “I knew I had to do it”, says Luz María, who recalls one of her earliest projects, a sports competition called the MiniOlympiad – in allusion to the Olympic Games – which she co-created with the school of her youth, ETI #56. “I was thirteen. I walked all around Tlanepantla – a municipality in the State of Mexico in the Mexico City metropolitan area – hoping to recruit people to participate.
Finally, but shyly, some people followed suit, until it became unstoppable. “No professors thought anyone would show up, and when people arrived there was nowhere to host them, we had to speak with the local residents and they kindly agreed to open their door, I can tell you that it was unforgettable for those who competed.
And after this happened I went to see the government to execute it again, properly planned, and they were so surprised that the then Governor of the State of Mexico gave us a piece of land to do it again. It showed me the lesson that sometimes you just need to jump, and things will fall into place.” This MiniOlympiad experience planted the seeds for the physical activity component that is now profoundly-embedded onto every programme at Light Your Life, and also, reaffirmed the intrinsic conviction that the most difficult of feats can be vanquished.
BACK AT GEORGE HARVEY COLLEGIATE one of the volunteers, Gabriel, originary from Mexico, directs the kids to the soccer court where they round up a geometrical circle. They jump and cheerfully hustle for the fluorescent-red ball that Gabriel throws up. The competition consists in them not letting the ball fall.
For many of them it means more than a spheric object with which they play a game. It is an allegory for their lives. “Some have come with severe problems. We have to keep them from falling. And, you know, it is an honour. It is a privilege to be able to serve through the power of education, because it transformed my life, and now, I want to help spread it so that it can transform other lives as well.”
Her semblant illuminates as she relates about particular cases of people she has seen heal and evolve through the Light Your Life programmes. “This kid from Brampton, he had a tremendous trauma with the water. We helped him overcome it. It is incredible to witness little ones and the independence levels they achieve here. Their confidence. How they conquer their fears. We must learn to be in the water.
Many people get lost in the water – just like they do in life”, echoes Luz María, as she watches the kids buoyantly rush towards the ball from the sidelines. The clouds begin to wane. The sun comes out.
Luz María jovially animates as we speak about her upcoming plans for Light Your Life. “I consider myself successful because I have achieved an impact in the Canadian community”, she states, as she speaks about the upcoming March Break camps, in which she hopes to impact a record-high number of children. “I always heard the quote ‘you are very inspirational’, but I finally know and understand why”, confesses emotionally as the kids move inside and merrily trick-or-treat with inflatable balloons.
Luz María Pardo, who finished High School on her fifth decade of life, who ran around Tlanepantla, partly to find refuge from her deranged childhood, but also, since then, to empower others, who struggled with “any job I could get” upon arrival, and who perfected her English at the same time she built her life as a Newcomer in Canada, now upbeatingly smiles and remains thrilled with the hopes that Light Your Life will expand to different parts of the world.
They have already collaborated with world-class events such as the Panamerican Games in 2015, where they performed a play with Mexican students, but that, she says, is just the beginning. “There are no limits, because this idea emerged from a little kid that once dreamed to make a change, that once had the idea that things could be different, and in this sense I hope that Light Your Life will inspire the participant’s little kid, but big dreamer to create something different and positive, too.”