Fashion and Compassion: Joan Kelley Walker and Jason Cameron on Summer Youth Fashion Initiative

Earlier this week, we met with Joan Kelley Walker (Philanthropist/TV Personality) and Jason Cameron (CEO, Toronto Fashion Academy) to discuss their collaboration around Summer Youth Fashion Initiative. Starting with some coffee at the Holts Café, both of them passionately shared their vision on helping community and giving opportunities to the youth at-risk. 

Margarita: Could you tell me more about Summer Youth Fashion Initiative?

Jason: Youth Initiative, managed by Toronto Fashion Academy, is basically the project where we are bringing 30 at-risk  young individuals, working in social services, who will be given free workshops every Sunday for the month of August with industry professionals and mentors like Joan Kelley Walker. These kids are at the point, where they either love the police or hate them, so they need a mentor to look after them. We approached Joan, because she knows what is happening in the city, she has kids, and she is an ambassador of the World Vision Canada. We knew she would connect with kids on so many levels. And we will also have Toronto Police in every class without their uniform. They will have to take workshops too to create a bond with these kids. And in the end, we are going to have a meting with all the sponsors and partners involved.

Joan: This is a great opportunity for kids who are interested in this business. Fashion industry is hard to get into. And it is hard to find your place there. You might want to be a model, but you might be better at photography. This is an opportunity for them to learn about different aspects within the fashion industry. I personally had a hard time breaking into the modelling world and television business. And these kids may not even get that opportunity. So I think it is super important that we support them, because, otherwise, they could end up on the streets.

Talking about different aspects, what exactly will they do?

Jason: So there are 4 departments. Fashion, style, and design are merged together. There is photography, there is makeup, and there is walk. We have weeks laid out in fun fashion. So the first week, one of our sponsors, Kerr’s Candy, will provide us with candies. The kids will make candy dresses, tops, hats, and they will also get trained on how to do that. The second week, we are doing the Infiniti downtown photoshoot that will be headed by Joan. She will teach them how to pose, model, and how to work with a camera. And then, the third week, we are doing the Anokhi event where these kids will actually get to work backstage and prop celebrities and performers for the show. And then, the final week, they are doing a fashion show for all the sponsors and partners, and Joan will teach them to walk the runway. There will be around 180 people, it is at 545 King St, Bright Lane.

And what is the goal of this project?

Jason: The goal is really to help these kids. We want them to get off the street, to be able to understand that fashion is a segment you can get into. Because right now, it’s more about sports, academic, and nothing about fashion industry. So this will give them that practical experience, give them an idea what fashion is all about, and will help them to move forward with it.

Joan: I think a lot of parents of these kids have an idea that you don’t really make money in fashion industry. So this is a way for parents to actually see it as a career option. I grew up in a very small town in Saskatchewan, and there were no options, and no fashion. So when I came here, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where do I fit in, do I really want to do it, can I really make money doing this, who can I trust. And those are valuable years. So this is a way for kids to get the information they need and work with with mentors, who will show them a really good strategy how to begin. It’s emotionally important to help people. If we help these 30 kids, then they will help someone in the future. And if we all do better, the place we live in will be better. So I’d much rather have a positive injection like this in the city that will just keep mushrooming. I have been a Child Ambassador for World Vision for 18 years, so I do a lot of other work in field where I go on trips to Kenya, Mozambique, Costa Rica, and other countries. This is a way for me to give back to the community – fashion and compassion.

Do you want your kids to be involved with fashion?

Joan:  Umm.. If that’s what they want to do.. My younger one is 15 and neither of them has shown any interest in fashion, although my older son was asking about modelling the other day. So I thought well, he is tall and handsome, so maybe he could do it, he is seventeen. I said to him that he doesn’t have to go to university right away, but I’d like him to do something. Just pick something in your heart and follow it. It’s harder to be successful, when you are doing something you don’t want to do. And my stepson is a DJ, Frank Walker, he plays music all over the US, Ibiza, Vegas, Mykonos, he is everywhere. He is on fire now.

Jason Cameron, CEO Toronto Fashion Academy, and Joan Kelley Walker, Philanthropist/TV Personality

Getting back to our discussion, why did you decide to involve police in this project? Was it necessary? 

Jason: One of the biggest things that we were focusing on was kids at-risk. We thought, ‘What was the best way to help these kids and Toronto police to create this bond?’ Even last year, we had police officers in the end of the project coming in their uniforms, and all the kids were surprised, as they forgot they were from the police. And they all realized that this is a good relationship, and it is something to move forward with. And that’s exactly why we approached the police. We are bringing the entire community altogether.

Joan: Also, it gives kids something to look forward to in the summer. There are a lot of camps, where you have to pay for it. And a lot of these families wouldn’t be able to do that. So if I were in that situation or if I were a single parent, I would be so thankful to have this opportunity for my kid to go to this camp and to structure the summer around it, and to keep their minds on something positive. So I think it’s not only helping the kids and getting the good image between the police and the kids, but also, it’s a support network for parents. And if the kids are at-risk, then chances are high that there is something going on at home, and parents really need as much support as possible. And that is my main motivation.

What will the kids get after that?

Jason: They will be given their portfolio work. So whether it is fashion show or anything else, they have to spend 16 hours on portfolio building to get certification. Some of them stay on and get opportunity to work, and some of them go to school. We have a lot of students who actually have stayed around to this day, who helped us at events, did photoshoots with us, and took part in SuperModel Canada. They just fall in love with the industry. And once you fall in love with it, then you want to be more career focused. In the beginning, everyone thinks it’s all glamorous and you will become a celebrity. But once you start working, you realize that it’s a lot of hard work, and these kids like it.

Joan: When I was a kid, I was almost embarrassed to say that I wanted to work in this industry. Because people would think you have got your head in the clouds and stars in your eyes. They tell you to get your feet on the ground and get to work. Meaning go work on a farm, or go to teachers’ college, or become a nurse. But none of those things seemed interesting to me. So I promised to myself to make it work. And it worked.