Monthly Archives: June 2017

Story Untold: “I Want to Live Every Moment to the Fullest”

Mike Prosserman knows a thing or two about learning on his feet.

After falling in love with the freestyling nature of breakdancing at a young age, Prosserman began travelling the world as one of Canada’s top breakers by the time he reached high school.

Now the founder and executive director of UNITY Charity, Prosserman — also known as “Bboy Piecez” — has applied that same do-it-yourself ethos to turning what started as a high school project into a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth through hip-hop and self-expression. The charity is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2017.

Listen to the podcast: “I Want to Live Every Moment to the Fullest”

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to connect with people all over the world and get to know all sorts of different folks who probably never would have crossed my path if it wasn’t for breaking,” says Prosserman.

“For me, [breakdancing] was an outlet – it was a community for me that I felt accepted by, and the real thing to me was [that] people appreciated me for something that I thought was cool myself.”

Prosserman found hip-hop at a pivotal time in his adolescence. His mother was dealing with schizophrenia, and breakdancing provided an outlet to sort through his emotions.

“To me, breakdancing was that core rock that I had. My crew was that core family in addition to my dad and my mom. Hip-hop culture really uniquely became a part of my life.” – Mike Prosserman

“My head was all over the place, and I really didn’t have any clear direction,” says Prosserman.

“My dad was really thankfully supportive, and he helped me through a lot of that stuff. For anyone who knows him, he was the b-boy dad who showed up to battles wearing graffiti hats and [was] always taking me to events. If he didn’t support me to get into breaking, I don’t think I would’ve ever really fit into any particular scene, and I probably would’ve gotten lost with everything else I had going on in my life.”

Prosserman quickly developed a knack for his newfound passion and began travelling to competitions around his hometown of Toronto — never mind if he was too young to get into the clubs where the competitions were held.

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“It’s interesting to think back on it now, because in the moment, it was this feeling of pure adrenaline,” he says.

“It felt kind of like a superhero at times […] You’re almost in control of this emotion that everyone together is feeling. It’s like nothing I could ever describe. It’s just this really, really freaking cool feeling — and it’s not an ego thing, it’s just this feeling that people really appreciate you and are genuinely on the edge of their seats [waiting to see] what’s going to happen next.”

“You could get the crowd to literally just lose it, just by showing them something they’d never seen before. That was, as a young person going through all this stuff, the most important feeling that I could’ve had at the time, because it was reaffirming to me that something I was doing was good.” – Mike Prosserman

Prosserman wanted to share that feeling with others, and in time, the seeds of UNITY were planted. He started an event in high school called Hip-Hop Away from Violence, in support of a local charity, and it eventually progressed into a club at York University.

Around the same time, Prosserman was diagnosed with fused vertebrae — a condition that cut him off from the one thing he loved most: breakdancing. After forging an identity as a master of headspins, suddenly, he had to give up his most powerful tool.

“It’s really hard to describe the moment where someone tells you [that] you can’t do the thing you’re most excited about doing,” says Prosserman.

Faced with the diagnosis, he rededicated himself to building UNITY as a nonprofit, fostering connections with emcees, breakdancers, spoken word artists, and creatives all across the country. The goal was no longer to be the best in the field; it was to give other people the same outlet he drew strength from. He also reinvented his style as a breakdancer.

“It put things into perspective. It wasn’t about being that competitive b-boy. That wasn’t the point. It was this community that I became a part of […] For me, that was the true value of this dance for me,” says Prosserman.

“It is quite dangerous to dance with the condition that I have. But I decided at the end of the day, I need to live my life, and I want to live every moment to the fullest. And if dancing isn’t part of my life, it’s just not the same.” – Mike Prosserman

Some might have balked at the idea of getting a charity off the ground and running, but Prosserman was undeterred.

“I spend 90% of my time doing stuff, and 10% of [my time] thinking about that stuff,” he says.

“And that was really what made UNITY successful — not sitting at home, writing the best business plan or talking about weird buzzwords […] We’ve gotta get ourselves out into this world doing stuff.”

After 10 years, UNITY has developed into a national nonprofit, reaching 75,000 youth across Canada. Programs run in cities across the country, and each year, the charity hosts a free festival in Toronto, offering a platform for aspiring artists to showcase their talents.

“There’s nothing more worth it,” says Prosserman. “Even if we stop tomorrow, I will forever be thankful.”

Photo of Mike Prosserman from Instagram (@bboypiecez). Photo by imad.x.


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Story Untold: “Everything Happens for a Reason”

Kay Okafor’s path to the CFL is about as unlikely as they come. Born and raised in Nigeria, the 6’4″, 275 lb lineman only came to learn about football after moving halfway across the world to attend university in Prince Edward Island, Canada.

At the time, Okafor’s plans for his life lay far away from the gridiron. He arrived as an 18-year-old on the path to medical school, with little idea of what life in Canada would be like. His hometown of Enugu — and all he had ever known — lay 8,000 kilometres away.

“I got to Canada in August, and I had a winter jacket on when I got to the airport,” Okafor laughs. “My cousin picked me up, and he made me change in the airport — he made me take it off and put on some warmer [weather] clothes.”

“I’ve definitely learned that situations can make anyone mature just like that. I left home at 18, so I had to mature very quick[ly].” – Kay Okafor

Back in Nigeria, Okafor had grown up a fan of basketball — idolizing Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. An unsuccessful tryout for UPEI’s basketball team ended those hoop dreams, but one of the players on the team introduced him to football.

“When I watched the game at first, I didn’t get it,” he says. “Just a bunch of helmets going at each other — that’s what it looked like from the stands — and for someone who just came from Nigeria, it didn’t make any sense.”

Nevertheless, he ended up on a football field and discovered he had a knack for it. A year after suiting up at Holland College, he was off to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, a prized recruit of the X-Men. He found his footing in his first two seasons, averaging a tackle a game as his team finished 3-5 and 4-4, capped by a crushing 29-7 loss in the 2014 Loney Bowl to Mount Allison University.

In that moment, a determined Okafor vowed to his teammates that he’d finish the job next year — a promise he’d make good on twice in the ensuing years. As his X-Men returned to two more consecutive Atlantic University Sport championship games, winning them both over Mount Allison, Okafor doubled his defensive output. By the time his career at St. FX had ended, Okafor had completed or assisted on 41 tackles. He would also be named a Top 20 CFL Prospect and invited to the Minnesota Vikings’ NFL Regional Combine.

Nothing felt as good as that first Loney Bowl win, though.

“I never cried so much until I started playing football,” says Okafor. “There’s this thing about the emotions — which is why I fell in love with the game — this family, brotherhood that I felt.”

For Okafor, the brotherhood aspect was important — after leaving his home country for university, he spent the next six years away from family.

“I’ve definitely learned that situations can make anyone mature just like that. I left home at 18, so I had to mature very quick[ly],” he says.

He finally reunited with family when he walked across the stage at his graduation — his father flew in from Nigeria for the ceremony. That same weekend, he was drafted 21st overall by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“It’s been a blessing. I’ve just been blessed with the opportunities and the people I’ve met along the way. It’s been a journey, for sure,” says Okafor.

“My plan was to study sciences and get to med school, and now, six years later, I’ve been drafted by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats […] It’s been amazing.”

Photo from Kay Okafor via Facebook.

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Story Untold: “I Wanted to See If I Could Hack It [Living on Mars]”

Want to know what it’s like to live on Mars? Ask Martha Lenio.

The Waterloo, Ont. native spent eight months simulating life on the red planet as part of a NASA HI-SEAS experiment in 2014-15. Along with seven other would-be astronauts, Lenio lived in a dome on a volcano in Hawaii, only venturing outside in a mock spacesuit to perform EVAs (extravehicular activities).

The researchers ate freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, conducted experiments, and learned to get along in a 1,000 sq. ft. enclosure — all while being studied by six different research groups.

“What they’re trying to get at is how you pick a crew and support a crew for these long-duration isolated space missions without, you know, everyone going crazy and killing each other,” says Lenio.

“I wanted to see if I could hack it. I thought, mentally, I could do it — and in the end, I could, so that was good. I also thought it would be fun, though, to get to pick my own research project to be working on in the dome, to be involved with NASA research, and hopefully contribute towards a human space mission to Mars in the future. I’m also really into sustainable living, so off-grid, recycling everything, limited water, limited power — so that part was really fun, too.”

“Before going in, I was like, ‘I know why I want to do this, and I’m a normal person, but all these other people who want to live in a dome for eight months must be [weird] people.” – Martha Lenio

Lenio, who has a doctorate in Photovoltaic Engineering from the University of New South Wales, ended up serving as mission commander.

“I never thought I was a terribly strong leader, but as the [training] week progressed, you learned that there are different kinds of leaders, and different types of leadership styles, and I’m more of a lead-from-behind, make sure everyone’s okay kind of person,” she says.

“And I learned that’s a totally valid leadership style, and that maybe, for this kind of mission, you want someone who’s pretty hands-off and capable of bringing out the best in other people.”

“It was really good, actually, that they took us on [a] camping trip [beforehand],” Lenio adds, “because before going in, I was like, ‘I know why I want to do this, and I’m a normal person, but all these other people who want to live in a dome for eight months must be [weird] people.”

From October 2014 until June 2015, the eight researchers were continually monitored and tested for body language, interaction, and other indicators of stress and morale.

“What they’re trying to get at is how you pick a crew and support a crew for these long duration isolated space missions without, you know, everyone going crazy and killing each other.” – Martha Lenio

“Astronauts tend to be very stoic — you know, they want to go to space — and so sometimes, they’re not very honest,” says Lenio.

“So if you ask them, ‘how’s everything going?’ they’ll be like, ‘everything’s fine; I can do the work,’ and they’ll keep saying [that] until all of a sudden, it’s not fine, and then it’s really, really bad.”

“All our communications were on a 20-minute delay,” she adds, “so you could email mission support or your family, but it would take 20 minutes for that email to get there, and then if they decided to reply, it would be [another] 20 minutes for a response. So it’s like 40 minutes to an hour round-trip for a conversation.”

For Lenio, the dream of becoming an astronaut started as early as Grade 8. Earlier this year, she made it to a shortlist of 72 candidates in line to become Canada’s next astronaut, surviving a pool of 3,700 candidates.

As for whether she’s eager to sign up for a life on Mars?

“We’re not there yet,” says Lenio.

“People talk about colonizing Mars; we’re not going to colonize Mars. We don’t know how to sustainably live on Earth, and Earth recycles everything for us. We don’t have to do anything, and Earth will take care of itself. On Mars, you have to do everything, and we don’t have that figured out.”

Photo credit: Neil Scheibelhut

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