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Local News: Aroni Awards Gala as featured in the Toronto Star Black Habits Articles A night of inspiration Gala created in memory of Aron Haile helps black youth realize their dreams and celebrate their achievements Photos Tara Walton / Toronto Star

Aron Haile would have loved to stomp his feet to the infectious rhythms propelling the African-Caribbean dancers who officially opened the awards gala held in his name Sunday night.

His smile and words of encouragement to youth would have warmed the 400 guests at Ontario Place's Atlantis Pavilion.

And the jazz aficionado might even have walked up on stage to sing a few tunes with performers such as Latin hip-hop band Echo A Mano and African musician Danny Woldemicheal.

After all, it had been Haile's dream to create an inspiring awards program for black youth — a dream that wouldn't materialize until after his life was cut tragically short by a car accident in 2003, during a 30th-birthday visit to his parents in Eritrea.

For his three siblings, Mesfun, Lia and Helen Haile, the inaugural Aroni Awards Gala was a way to keep alive their baby brother's spirit, optimism and passion for life.

"The key thing about Aron is: people felt inspired by him whether they'd known him for five minutes or five years. He'd touched so many lives," said Mesfun, an entertainment event promoter. "We came to Canada as a unit. We looked out for each other and we huddled together. Creating this legacy in his name is the best therapy for us, to heal our loss of someone who was so dear to us."

Haile fled war in Eritrea with his family when he was just 4, stopping in Sudan and Nigeria before coming to Canada in 1987. All four children attended David and Mary Thompson Collegiate and graduated from the University of Toronto.

Haile, whose maturity earned him the nickname "the old soul," finished a degree in computer programming while working part-time at a call centre, then became a software developer with Bank of Montreal.

His memorial service in 2004 drew more than 2,000. People signed up — in a heartbeat — when his family decided to create the awards he envisioned.

"It's great that the family has chosen not to just mourn about the passing of this young man, but to celebrate his life with others," noted Canadian Idol judge Farley Flex, a U.K.-born Trinidadian who emceed the gala with Canadian singer Keshia Chante.

Five individuals and a community website operator were honoured for their contributions to sports, education, arts, health and entrepreneurship. Three high school students each received a $1,500 bursary.

Between TV interviews, award recipient Devon Thompson talked about life in the Jane-Finch area and his work helping kids learn life skills through three local community centres.

"There was no one, no program to help direct us," he said of his own youth. "Many of my friends have gone through some really hard times and they could've been great people if someone would do something about it," he added. "Kids are our future and I work with them 24/7. That's my life now."

Heaven Mehari, an Eritrea native raised in Rexdale, took up the responsibility of caring for her siblings six years ago, when her mother was disabled in a car crash. When her father was injured at work four years later, Mehari worked full-time to support them all, but never gave up her dream for more education.

"You just can't get bogged down, but keep your head up to move forward," said the bursary recipient, 24, who plans to study nursing at Humber next year.

Citytv reporter Tracy Moore, one of the presenters, saw the gala as a step toward pulling together a diverse and divided black community.

"A lot of communities are good at leaning on each other for support, but not our community," noted Moore, who is of Jamaican heritage. "It's important that we organize ourselves and look down the ladder to help give our youth a hand. That's what we need to fix things."

That's the same motivation that prompted Bentley Springer, Patrick Morris and Jacqueline Cohen to launch in 1998 to share resources and news.

"We feel so much positivity around the room here. It's like what we do at blackhabits, to create an opportunity for meaningful exchange within the community," explained Springer.

With help from the Harmony Movement, an anti-discrimination advocacy group, the Hailes have also launched the Aroni Ambassador Leadership Program to connect youth with mentors in professional fields.

Other award recipients were Arsema Berhane (health), Danielle Francis (community), Janvere Lyder (sports) and Weyni Mengesha (arts). Kandece Brown, of James Cardinal McGuigan High School, and Gael Kanza, of Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School, also received bursaries.
Posted on Tuesday, December 12 @ 17:12:35 UTC by jcohen

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