'I think a lot of us take them for granted'

Burnaby youth connect at-risk population with cellphones

For eight months, Jennifer spent night after night on Vancouver’s streets with no means of communication. Should trouble ensue, the Montreal native and young adult had no cellphone to call 911. She was vulnerable.

But two Burnaby South Secondary grads have changed that. Neor Tiku and Brendan Wong are the faces behind Connect Vancouver, a youth-run organization that provides cellphones to Vancouver’s at-risk population and crowdfunds the bill that comes with it. This summer, the 18-year-olds have teamed up with Covenant House Vancouver for a new but similar campaign called Connect Youth.  

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The idea for Connect Vancouver came to Tiku two years ago after he volunteered at a soup kitchen.

“Through my experiences, I realized a lot of issues they were facing could be resolved with a cellphone,” he told the NOW. “I think a lot of us take them for granted. All these features are quite precious. For the at-risk population, they’re used for employment opportunities, contacting shelters and crisis support.”

To date, Connect Vancouver has handed out nine phones and has paid off four years’ worth of cellphone bills. There are still 37 phones in inventory, including BlackBerry Curve models and a host of LG flip phones that came from one donor.

“It’s fantastic,” said Tiku of he and his friend’s endeavour. “We saw something in the community that was unaddressed and tried to solve it the best we could.”

But the UBC-bound student admitted it took a lot of time to develop the program – about a year and a half. Tiku and Wong first had to make face-to-face contact with community organizations that served the at-risk and homeless population, to see if they’d be interested in partnering up. Once given permission to connect with their clientele, the then-Grade 11 students conducted interviews with the cellphone recipients. If all went well, they’d receive a phone and a phone number. A brief write-up about the individual would be posted on the Connect Vancouver website, outlining the average cost of their monthly bill, with a sponsorship link attached.

“It was a juggling (act). There were a lot of days where we were pushed to the edge, going into these organizations and going to school as well,” Tiku explained, adding the initiative originally started out with five participants.

So far, they have four young adults – including Jennifer – for their youth campaign, and if they reach 25 by the end of September, it’ll become a permanent feature on their website.

Asked where he sees Connect Vancouver in the years to come, Tiku hopes to partner with a large network provider like Rogers for subsidized rates. The ultimate goal is to provide cellphones and plans for 100 people every year.

“It’s a lot, but we’re definitely aiming for that,” he said, adding Wong is destined to New Brunswick for his post-secondary studies. “We want to make this a big thing. It’s a long-term commitment.”

To make a contribution, visit www.connectvancouver.org.

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