McMaster alumnus continues to find ways to bring families together during the pandemic

By: Nisha Gill, Contributor

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many people tried to look on the bright side, seeing quarantine as an opportunity to tackle personal projects and spend more time with loved ones. However, as time marches on, many are becoming restless, trying to find activities to keep themselves occupied, especially those with young children.

Programs such as Friendly Fables, a book subscription service and YouTube channel, help parents and guardians in their struggle with trying to fill the time, filling it with positive and heartfelt programming throughout the pandemic.

Friendly Fables was created by McMaster alumnus Alexis Alexander. Though the program didn’t begin until many years later, Alexander has said that the creative foundation for Friendly Fables started in his dorm room at Brandon Hall.

“I had a friend in commerce who would produce beats and we would write poetry and songs to record over them in between studying at Mills Library. I loved 90’s hip-hop and music consumed me in first year like most students. Popular songs at the time became the chorus for my university life. Writing those rhymes and immersing myself in music while at McMaster greatly influenced me later creatively with Friendly Fables for sure,” Alexander explained.

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Photos C/O Sabrina Byrnes

After graduating from commerce in 2004, Alexander founded Iconic Group, a digital advertising agency specializing in designing websites for Canadian companies, with two fellow McMaster grads. While the company is still thriving today, in 2017, Alexander left his job to be with his newborn son as he recovered from surgery at SickKids hospital. 

During this time, he began to write rhyming stories for his children to help them through the difficult time. These stories, based on his children and their adventures, were the beginning of Friendly Fables. Since then, the project has grown.

“Friendly Fables has evolved into a rap-a-long concert performance, a series of animated cartoons and a live-action YouTube TV show for kids,” Alexander explained.

Despite the changes, the one constant throughout the years has been the aim of the program, which has always been to inspire children and make them smile.

C/O Sabrina Byrnes

Prior to the pandemic, Alexander had been planning to make a film using the characters from Friendly Fables; however, his plans had to be quickly altered as the pandemic spread. Instead, he combined existing concert footage with new scenes shot following social distancing guidelines. Alexander and his team succeeded in putting together A Magical Concert For Kids Stuck at Home, which was released on YouTube

“We’re already seeing positive results from our early digital initiatives. I was so caught up in my live performances at schools, I didn’t realize how many more families I could reach by putting my songs and concerts on YouTube,” said Alexander. “I think it’s even more important now to continue with our programming for kids. I think parents, like myself, had a lot of early zeal during the quarantine. We were doing a lot of crafts and activities but as time has gone on . . . [parents] are struggling to find quality activities to keep our children entertained.”

"I think it’s even more important now to continue with our programming for kids. I think parents, like myself, had a lot of early zeal during the quarantine. We were doing a lot of crafts and activities but as time has gone on . . . [parents] are struggling to find quality activities to keep our children entertained,” said Alexander.

In uncertain times, we often hear a lot about the importance of resilience and being able to adapt to new situations. In the particular instance of the pandemic, there is also a lot of pressure not only to adapt, but to also use the newfound time in productive ways. However, there is also something to be said for finding ways to be happy and to make others happy during such times; finding ways to spark joy in yourself and others can be far more meaningful than just being productive. Alexander’s work at Friendly Fables has not only done exactly that, bringing families together in these difficult times but also encouraging the spirit of community that drew him to McMaster in the first place.

“Keep dreaming. Your dreams will unknowingly define you. Don’t ever lose sight of them and know that one day, in order to achieve them you may need to pivot and walk an uncertain, scary path,” Alexander said. “Trust in yourself and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Sometimes the most rewarding paths are the hardest to walk.”

Photos from Silhouette Photo Archives

The month of March is an exciting time for Canadian university sports. Varsity teams across Canada spend most of March battling it out in arduous tournaments to bring national recognition to their university.

Especially during this time of year, it is easy to get swept up in the action, focusing solely on medals won or opportunities squandered, and the human side of the athletic community can be quickly forgotten. While all student-athletes at McMaster grind it out over the school year to bring home another banner, many members of the McMaster athletic community also dedicate their time to another important cause.

McMaster Athletes Care is a volunteer program whose vision is to “utilize sport as a tool to teach valuable life skills and empower youth to believe in their dreams”. In addition to community events such as January’s annual Think Pink Week, the program gives Mac athletes an opportunity to volunteer in the Hamilton community.

 

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From hospital visits and bringing kids to Marauders home games, MAC hosts weekly volunteer visits to the Living Rock Youth Resources program, the Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club of Hamilton, and the Routes Youth Centre. During these weekly visits, volunteers will utilize gym space to get kids active.

“It’s a really easy way to get volunteer hours to just sign up and go play sports, which is not really volunteering — it's a lot of fun,” said MAC’s Living Rock coordinator Mike Cox. “It’s a productive procrastination where, if you watch two hours of Netflix, I feel like I don't really get anything done and I feel kind of bad about that. But if you go and volunteer, you're giving your time and it's a nice break.”

Mike Cox has been involved with MAC for the last few years, initially volunteering as a member of the men’s lacrosse team to earn volunteer experience in pursuit of a teaching career. Cox eventually found himself making the weekly visits to Living Rock, a program for at-risk youth, and it became more than just a fun way to give back to the community.

“It's a reality check too, to go out and to do all that stuff,” Cox said. “It just kind of makes your bed a little warmer and your food taste a little better and all that stuff, so I know that it puts things into perspective. I started out doing it because I needed volunteer hours but like once you get out there, it kind of sucks you in and obviously I've been there ever since.”

Upon returning to Mac for a master’s degree in mathematics last year, Cox took over as MAC’s Living Rock coordinator. Enthusiastically organized by McMaster’s Coordinator for Community and Alumni Engagement, Nicole Grosel, the executive committee is full of members like Cox, each committed to coordinating the various events of the program.

Living Rock focuses on an older age group compared to the other weekly visits, so while it can be a challenge to get the older kids to participate in physical activity, which is the program’s main focus, the quality time spent with the members of these programs is still important to them.

“It feels good to see these people who stop coming for good reasons, like they don't have to be there because they found an apartment or because they've found a better job or they moved on,” Cox said. “It's a cool feeling to kind of see them through all that stuff and see where they started and see where they ended up.”

In addition to giving kids an outlet and an additional support system, getting varsity athletes to interact with kids in the community serves MAC’s goal of inspiring and motivating kids. In addition to showing them the importance of living a physically active life, student-athletes can share opportunities that can come from playing high-level sports, like scholarships and important relationships.

“Volunteering is always important and all of those kids they appreciate it, and I know they do. It's just good for McMaster and it's good for your soul,” Cox said. “To show that the athletes do have, amongst their busy schedules, that we can give back a little bit and show that McMaster Athletics isn't just about winning championships, it's about showing that we can give back and that we can recognize that we're very fortunate people.”

Not only does MAC help student-athletes appreciate their position, but it also allows some of the lesser-covered sports to gain some recognition as important parts of the Marauders community, such as the women’s lacrosse team who brought in a sizeable donation for a clothing drive and logged the most volunteer minutes for Think Pink Week.

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Giving student-athletes from any sport a fun and easily accessible way to give back to the community, MAC continues to be a great service that deserves to be recognized as an invaluable resource for the Hamilton community. While giving student-athletes an opportunity to appreciate their own lives, MAC is helping to inspire a new generation of athletes.

 

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Shloka Jetha is a woman who has always been on the move. After growing up in seven countries, the 23-year old has finally settled in Toronto and is pursuing her dream of working with at-risk youth. Part of what appealed to her about the new Professional Addiction Studies program at McMaster Continuing Education is that it’s online, which means she can set her own schedule and study on-the-go when she’s away from home.

But of course the biggest draw is the way Jetha feels the program will complement and expand upon what she learned in her McMaster degree in sociology, as well as what she is currently learning in a Child and Youth Care program at another school. With the goal of someday working in a clinical setting like the Sick Kids Centre for Brain and Mental Health, Jetha believes the more practical information she has about addiction and mental health, the better.

“I’m learning a lot in my current Child and Youth program,” Jetha enthuses, “but for me there is a bit of a knowledge gap that the McMaster Professional Addiction Studies program will help to close. It’s an incredibly complex field, every situation is new, and you need to be able read between the lines and understand the difference between what a troubled kid is saying and what’s actually going on in their life.”

Jetha believes that having the rich background knowledge the Professional Addiction Studies program will provide, and being able to link that information to her work in the field, will help her excel faster. Most importantly, she feels it will make her better and more effective at helping and healing kids in crisis.

“I’m specifically looking forward to gaining more knowledge about pharmacology, but also about other things as it’s difficult to learn on the job,” Jetha says. “I can learn a tremendous amount from the kids I work with, and that’s invaluable experience, but coming to them with a deeper knowledge base will allow me to talk with them about drugs and alcohol in a way I otherwise couldn’t.”

Jetha has been fortunate not to be personally touched by addiction, but has lost friends and people in her community from overdose. She is also familiar with the impact of this complex issue through the volunteer work she has done.

Even though this is an incredibly demanding career path, it’s one Jetha is proud and honoured to walk. She feels the good outweighs the bad and is determined to continue learning and helping as much as she can. The Professional Addiction Studies program at McMaster Continuing Education is uniquely designed to help her achieve that goal.

Applications for Spring term are open until April 29, 2019. Learn more at mcmastercce.ca/addiction-studies-program

 

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