This is a good time to avoid shopping malls and big box stores if you can. Next to Christmas, it’s the craziest shopping season of the year as parents jostle for the latest trendy clothes, cellphones and computers — anything to help their kids fit in socially and succeed academically as classes start.

Then there are the young people who will quietly go to school without the basics, like a notepad, a pen or even a lunch. These are kids who come from neighbourhoods with high rates of poverty and, in some cases, crime.

There are more of them than you think. In Canada, about one in eight people live in poverty. That’s a staggering 125 students in a school of 1,000. For these kids, high school graduation can be an elusive dream; university is a golden unicorn.

These are the young people our non-profit organization, Pathways to Education, works with — people like Assan Omar, who moved to Canada from a refugee camp with his mother when he was just six years old, and settled in Ottawa. The family didn’t have much money and Assan had to face all the challenges of being in a new country, a new culture and a new language — factors that could create a level of loneliness and isolation no child should experience.

For Assan, these barriers made high school graduation feel out of reach until he discovered Pathways to Education. He became a part of our extended family and found academic, financial, social and one-on-one supports while we worked closely with his family, and school to ensure we minimized the barriers he faced.

These days, demand is outpacing our ability to help. On average, the dropout rate in low-income communities across the country ranges from 30 to 50 per cent as a result of barriers to education. This year alone, our organization is supporting more than 5,400 high school students in eight different provinces, with plans for expansion in the works. This is not the growth industry Canada needs.

With this in mind, we were pleased last week to see the federal government’s commitment to supporting youth living in low-income communities with the release of Canada’s first Poverty Reduction Strategy, and are honoured that the work Pathways to Education has done was highlighted as a positive to build upon as Ottawa renews its support for Pathways to Education Canada by providing continued financial support over four years.

The provinces are seeing the challenge and the opportunities as well, as we’ve seen huge ongoing support from provincial governments in Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec. Add in the donations we have been blessed to receive from large corporations and organizations like the United Way, and it is clear others are seeing the demand for this kind of support if Canada is going to truly be a land of opportunity for all.

The investment in these young people is proven to work. An analysis of our programming showed that for every dollar invested in Pathways to Education, there is a return on investment of $24 — a cumulative lifetime benefit to society of $600,000 for every graduate, when you consider factors like higher taxes paid, better life expectancy and health outcomes, and reduced government transfer payments.

You need not look any further than to Assan Omar for proof.

Once struggling to adapt to a new community and culture, and facing many barriers to education, Assan is now a college graduate — the first in his family to go to post-secondary education. He now aims to attend law school and effect social change in Canada. He’s passionate, hungry for knowledge and ambitious for success. He hasn’t forgotten where he came from as he serves as a mentor leader with new Pathways to Education students.

The appreciation he has and the barriers he has overcome are things you can’t teach. But they are something we can all learn from.

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