Photo: Youth mentor Latoya Rodney
She was a gang leader at age 14, got suspended from 16 different schools more than 20 times, attended about 40 burials for friends and relatives killed in gang violence, and lost a brother in the same manner.
It's an extraordinary story, but a real one.
Latoya Rodney, a Toronto Community Housing Youth Mentor, has now rededicated herself to helping youth in the city overcome the challenges they face.
Rodney's passion for helping youth stems from her experience as a teen growing up in Toronto's toughest neighbourhoods. About seven years ago, after completing a two-year jail term, Rodney decided to pursue a new path. She participated in a violence intervention program and started committing more time to nurturing her talents, including a love of music, helping others, and inspiring young people.
So, how does a person change from being a gang leader to a peacemaker and a loving family woman?
"Although I left the gangster lifestyle, I still have the demeanour inside me," said Rodney. "After many years of being a hard woman,' I am transitioning right now into a different kind of woman."
Rodney draws on the words of author and poet Maya Angelou: "We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."
For Rodney, the road to self-redemption and transformation has been difficult but necessary. She believes that youth can overcome some of the challenges they face if they are exposed to positive, life-changing opportunities. She sees herself as an agent of change, dedicated to helping troubled youth choose rewarding paths.
"Youth in the city need to be given opportunities to better their lives," said Latoya, recalling how her son was brought back by Jays Care to work for the Rookie League program, delivered in partnership with Toronto Community Housing, after he stood out for his exceptional work last year.
"Since his new job, I've seen some changes in him in terms of taking responsibility," said Rodney. "The reason for this (change) is because he was given the opportunity. This is what it will be like for many youth if they have opportunities to work, see what it's like in a professional world and to have your boss commend you. It means a lot."
Rodney is grateful to Toronto Community Housing's management and staff for going above and beyond to help youth in all parts of the city acquire knowledge and skills that are essential for their personal and professional development.
This fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rodney will be featured in a documentary about gangs and life in the city. The documentary explores how she evolved from being a gang leader into an acclaimed youth mentor and community leader-particularly her role as a female artist and a mother.
"It's time to take off that pin (gangster lifestyle) and wear a woman's jacket. The woman's jacket is comfortable and happy," said Rodney.
So, next time you see Rodney, say hi and ask her if she'll be willing to sit down for a coffee or tea-of course with a winning smile. After all, you never know what you might learn about life by starting a conversation.
Visit www.latoyarodney.com to learn more about Latoya's creative and inspirational work outside the office.
Click here to listen to Latoya speak with Matt Galloway on CBC Metro Morning.