Italian Day 2019: Community heroes Tanya Zambrano and Jim Crescenzo will be feted for their work with at-risk kids

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      When the Straight recently visited a boys’-club meeting in a Templeton secondary school shop class, something unusual happened. About 40 youths in the room, ranging from Grade 8 to Grade 12, each walked up to the front of the room to introduce themselves.

      These East Side kids looked the reporter in the eye, offered a friendly greeting and a handshake, and announced their name. This went on for a few minutes as various adults, including mentors, milled about the room. It seemed entirely unrehearsed.

      The club has a motto: what’s said in the room stays in the room. So the Straight can’t reveal too many specifics about what transpired, except to say that a former drug addict, who had been clean for 17 years, shared his experiences with these adolescents.

      At times, the guest speaker’s story was harrowing. But it ended on a positive note when he recommended a book focusing on the importance of gratitude.

      To Jim Crescenzo, the founder of the boys’ club and a recently retired acting and theatre teacher at Templeton, it was another day at the office.

      If any of these kids wanted to buy the book, Crescenzo volunteered that the boys’ club would pay for it.

      In 2017, Crescenzo won a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, one of only 10 given out each year, for transforming students’ lives through mentorship, engagement, and education.

      “I started in ’81 with theatre,” Crescenzo told the Straight during an interview in an empty Templeton classroom. “The idea was to engage at-risk kids and kids who were not at-risk, to build and develop their confidence and their self-esteem. Then they could take that skill set and apply it to whatever they choose to do with their life.”

      In 1995, Tanya Zambrano was hired as a young teacher at Templeton and took over the drama program the following year when Crescenzo became ill.

      Both of them grew up in East Vancouver as the children of Italian immigrants: Crescenzo’s parents were from the southern city of Naples; Zambrano’s were from Veneto in the north. They understood what it was like to be without many of the privileges available to West Side kids from wealthy families.

      “We had been trying to get Tanya into the theatre program because of her background and the fact that she really relates with the kids on a personal level,” Crescenzo said. “And the boys are not only afraid of her, but they respect her.”

      At that point, Zambrano jumped into the conversation to declare that the boys are certainly not afraid of her.

      “Well, some are,” Crescenzo replied with a laugh.

      Their good-natured camaraderie reflects a deep friendship that has lasted 24 years, not to mention the monumental amount of time they’ve spent volunteering to help East Side youths succeed.

      They launched a much admired film and television program in the late 1990s with the help of their fundraisers, Jim Prier and Shelley Mason. They all felt that this would not only allow students to develop their skills but help them process their own feelings and, in some cases, change their behaviour.

      Zambrano explained that the goal was to ensure that East Side kids received priority over everyone else, so that’s why they didn’t create a satellite school or a separate fine-arts school.

      “We never wanted it to be where kids had to audition,” she said.

      The program attracted many extroverted students, according to Crescenzo.

      But he also expressed a concern that some boys were not signing up for fine arts, sports, clubs, or any other extracurricular activities. They were falling through the cracks, so he and other school staff proactively tried to identify who they were. Then the staff encouraged them to attend after-school meetings.

      “So we started a boys’-club program and this was for some at-risk young men,” he said.

      To ensure students felt a sense of connection 12 months a year, Crescenzo and Zambrano launched free summer camps at Templeton.

      These were funded by business leaders, including Frank Giustra, Tim Young, and three Bosa brothers—Jim, Jason, and Ryan. The more than 200 students who attend each year receive free breakfast and lunch.

      Seven years ago, Zambrano launched a girls’ club—so it’s now called the East End Boys and Girls Club—and this will be the first year that girls will attend the summer camps.

      “So not only are there acting camps being offered, there are dance camps and there’s a health and fitness camp,” she said.

      When asked what the club funds beyond the summer camps, Zambrano mentioned purchasing clothing for graduation ceremonies, as well as Compass cards and sometimes even food and rent.

      “We will drive and buy kids soccer boots,” she said. “We will drive and buy kids suits. Jim has been doing that for grad. The girls prefer shopping with me.”

      They’ve also helped students obtain bursaries for postsecondary education. And some of the funds are used to hire top directors for the students’ productions, including Happy Thoughts, a 75-minute stage production written and performed by youths and which had a three-week run.

      That’s not all. Crescenzo and Zambrano have inspired other educators to launch similar programs at John Oliver, Sir Charles Tupper, and King George secondary schools in Vancouver and Seaquam secondary in Delta. Crescenzo dreams of a day when these clubs will be in elementary schools across the region.

      For their efforts, Crescenzo and Zambrano will be honoured on Sunday (June 9) at Italian Day on the Drive.

      This year’s theme is the power of communità (community) and giving back. In recognition of Crescenzo and Zambrano’s community-building, the Italian Day Festival Society will present the East End Boys and Girls Club with a $10,000 cheque.

      The money was raised through contributions from the society’s community partners and businesses in Little Italy along Commercial Drive.

      Hey, they're theatre people. That's why Jim Crescenzo and Tanya Zambrano like hamming it up when they're being photographed.

      Changing lives, building futures

      Dzinh Nguyen is one of many youths who have benefited from the club. Now 26 years old, he’s one of several former members who mentor young people not only at Templeton, but also at other schools with boys’ clubs.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Nguyen described himself as a “knucklehead and a troubled child” when he arrived at Templeton more than a decade go. At the age of 11, he had lost his primary male role model, an uncle, who was murdered in an armed robbery.

      By the time he was 15, he was running with a rough crowd.

      One day at the start of Grade 10, he was called to the office after getting into a fight with another teenager.

      “I was given the ultimatum to come to the boys’ club or potentially face suspension or being expelled,” Nguyen recalled.

      That didn’t faze him in the slightest.

      “I was a very cheeky young man,” Nguyen continued. “I remember writing on a piece of paper something along the lines of, ‘I don’t know why you guys are doing this and I don’t know why you think this will work. But I know all you guys just want to get to know us to manipulate us—to find out what we do outside the school. But I’m bored so I’m going to bite. So I hope this blows up in your face.’ ”

      However, once he began attending the boys’ club, he became confused. That’s because Crescenzo and others were constantly talking about “unconditional love”. Nguyen said he was used to living in a world of exchanges: “You do something for us and we’ll do something for you.”

      But gradually, Crescenzo got through to him and opened his eyes to new possibilities.

      “Jim was like a godsend, even to this day,” Nguyen said. “To many of the young boys there, Jim is that parental figure that they never really had. So I say it quite often: to me, Jim is like my dad. Truly, he is.”

      That was demonstrated when Nguyen or others in the boys’ club were caught misbehaving.

      “A lot of them only have single moms that are working day and night,” Nguyen said. “So a lot of times, whenever we got into trouble and we went down to the office, Jim would come down and he would advocate for us. He would act like our parents. That would go a long way.”

      Asked where he would be today had it not been for Crescenzo’s presence in his life, Nguyen bluntly replied: “Dead before 21. Yes, I could put money on that.”

      A turning point for Nguyen came when a high-profile businessman and philanthropist, Frank Giustra, visited the boys’ club as a guest speaker.

      According to Nguyen, Giustra told him it’s better to bring your battles to the boardroom rather than fighting them out in the street. That left a lasting impression on the young man, who’s planning to launch a retail-oriented social enterprise.

      “He’s a big reason why I’m able to do the things I’m able to do today,” Nguyen said.

      Giustra was born in Sudbury and grew up in humble circumstances before striking it rich as a mining-industry financier and film-studio founder.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Giustra said that Nguyen was a “really tough kid” who tried to give him a hard time at a boys’ club meeting where Giustra was a guest speaker.

      “I must of said something that stuck with him,” the businessman noted. “I’ve been mentoring him for many years.”

      He also said that it’s extremely rare to meet someone as selfless as Crescenzo.

      “If anybody deserves to be canonized, it’s him,” Giustra said. “Seriously, in my mind he’s a saint. He’s given it all for these kids: after-school time, his weekends, his summers. And he just does it out of love to help these kids. He’s an amazing human being.”

      Crescenzo explained that he and Zambrano try to focus as much attention as they can on changing the inner dialogue for every young person who enters the boys’ and girls’ clubs.

      “The language is, ‘Yes, I can. Yes, I will. I’m worth it. I’m worthy. People love me,’ ” Crescenzo said.

      Zambrano said it’s important to remember that young people will make mistakes. The only difference from when she was young is that nowadays these errors are often documented on social media.

      “We will never give up on them,” she pledged.

      Fiore Group CEO Frank Giustra has mentored young people who went through the boys' club program at Templeton secondary school.

      Crescenzo dedicates his life to the kids 

      So where did Crescenzo develop such empathy for at-risk kids? He said it came directly from his childhood. He was only eight years old when his dad died, leaving his immigrant mother responsible for him, an 11-year-old brother, and a 13-year-old sister. He added that his mother kept him “on the straight and narrow”, despite the family’s poverty.

      “But I did have this big void in my heart,” Crescenzo revealed. “And so I said that ‘Someday I want to be a male role model and I want to be there if a kid doesn’t have a mom or dad there’—because the gender doesn’t matter.”

      He knew what it was like not being able to afford soccer boots or a soccer uniform. He also regrets not being able to look in the soccer stands to see a father cheering him on.

      What turned Crescenzo’s life around was a coach who invited him onto a team that played at Clinton Park when he had just been cut after another team’s tryouts.

      His team lost to the other squad in the seventh division but then went on to win during the next six years.

      “We went to the provincial finals three times,” Crescenzo said. “We won twice. Then everyone wanted to be on our team.”

      The lesson for him—and what he passes along to the youths in the boys’ club—is the importance of finding one’s passion. It’s a view strongly shared by Zambrano.

      “The passion drives you, right?” she said. “And it allows you to get past all the other stuff that you may disagree with along the road.”

      Then Zambrano volunteered that this year she actually made a student audition for a role because she felt that this might ignite his passion for acting.

      “His dad came up to both of us and was so grateful,” she recalled. “He said, ‘We’re so grateful. Now he found his passion. He knows what he wants to do.’ ”

      Crescenzo added that sometimes they encourage students by asking if they’ll trust them.

      “And they go, ‘Yeah. Why?’ We say, ‘Well, we think you would be amazing on-stage in this role. Would you give it a shot?’ And that’s when they say, ‘Well, I kind of wanted to but I always did feel a little hesitant,’ ” Crescenzo said. “We say, ‘Trust us on the journey. It’s going to happen.’ ”