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A life dedicated to helping youth

Burnaby man awarded for work mentoring young students

Jim Crescenzo was eight years old when his dad died of cancer, and his older siblings and widowed mom went to work.

When Crescenzo turned 14, he too got his first job to pitch in and help the family.

"I remember sitting around the table at night, at the end of each month, with my brother, and my sister and mom. Everyone would put their pay cheques on the table, and we'd look at it and say: How can we help? How can we get through this month?"

That family image inspired Crescenzo and would prove formative to his life's work: mentoring troubled teens through film, theatre and television, and the lessons he brings to that work were gleaned around the kitchen table.

Crescenzo's mother was an Italian immigrant. She worked hard, raised her children on her own and never remarried after the death of her husband.

"At a very young age, I was taught by my mom that the secret to success is to aim high, and you work your ass off to go get it, and the other thing is to never give up hope."

In 1981, Crescenzo got a job teaching drama at Templeton Secondary, the school he attended in his youth.

"It was my goal to go back and see if I could help kids who were marginalized and at risk," he says. "The most important thing was to teach them life skills - to build confidence and self esteem in them, as well as having the opportunity if they wanted to explore a possible career in television, film and theatre, they would be ready to by the time they graduated."

But the drama program was starved of resources - there were no real facilities, and students sat on the floor.

In 1997, Crescenzo and two parents - James Prier and Shelley Mason - whose son had been through his program, put together a budget and a plan to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from affluent donors.

The Vancouver school board pitched in with bricks and mortar, building better facilities, and Crescenzo fundraised for state-of-the-art equipment - cameras, editing suites, microphones - and the film and television program was born. Crescenzo estimates almost half of Templeton's student population is involved in the program, which also attracts students from other areas.

But Crescenzo didn't stop there. Determined to catch the kids falling through the cracks, he went on to form a summer film program, in partnership with Pacific Cinematheque and a club to help troubled male teens.

He now has a small army of supporters who help with the various programs, either through volunteering or generously donating, including Francesco Aquilini, owner of the Vancouver Canucks, and Frank Giustra, well-known philanthropist and founder of Lions Gate Entertainment.

At 54, Crescenzo spent more than three decades mentoring teens, through film, television and theatre.

"We needed to show young people that in order to be successful, you had to work extremely hard, long hours," he said. "If you had adversity in your life, we need to recognize it. And we have a choice: Is it going to be I'm going to play the victim? Or am I going to embrace it and use it as leverage, for me to be better and to go on and do great things? And the last thing is they learn about gratitude and how they have to give back to the program."

Templeton's principal Aaron Davis said Crescenzo's work at the school is fantastic.

"It engages lots of students, and student engagement is critical for student success," he says. "It's very, very positive, and to see the joy the students get from their success and the celebration of their success is fantastic."

Davis noted that Crescenzo's work impacts the students through a number of ways, including the Boys' Club, the mentoring initiative to help troubled male teens.

"There's a team approach to support them. In schools I've worked where that does not exist, those kids would probably not be in school," he says.

Davis also pointed out that many of the donors that support Crescenzo's efforts are former grads of Templeton or parents of students.

"Jim has developed an ability to really find people who want to give back to the community," he says. "The term I have for it is 'a culture of return.'"

Crescenzo was recently honoured for his work with a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal, one of countless accolades he's received over the years.

But life wasn't easy for Crescenzo either; he struggled in his youth over the death of his father. He was angry, he wanted to act out, and at times he did.

But it was always his mother, he says, and her strong mentoring role and unconditional love that kept him in line. And it's the lessons from her that inform his work with youth today.

"I learned from a young age that you have two choices - this is what my mother taught me - you can either be the victim, or you can be the guy that's going to use his adversity, to not only leverage (yourself) but to be your greatest teacher and to be hungrier and set higher goals," he says.