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Episode 1: Introducing Beyond the Blankets

March 31st, 2022

In this first episode of our official Blankets for T.O. podcast, our host Zaynab talks with the co-founders and current co-presidents about what prompted them to tackle homelessness, what challenges they faced first setting up the organization, and what future plans they have for it.

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Resource Links and Show Notes


Transcript drafted by Zaynab Assem, edited and published by William Huang

[00:00:00] 𝄞𝄞 Instrumental music plays 𝄞𝄞

[00:00:12] Zaynab: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the first episode of Beyond the Blankets - an initiative started by Blankets for Toronto. I'm your host Zaynab Azeem, a first year at the University of Toronto studying Neurosciences. And I'm also one of the executive members at Blankets for Toronto. In our very first episode, we're joined by the founders of Blankets for Toronto. I'm going to hand it off to them for introductions. Take it away, guys! 

[00:00:36] Rushil: Thank you very much, Zaynab, for the wonderful introduction. So I guess I'll go first. My name is Rushil and I am one of the co-presidents at Blankets for T.O. I am a third year also studying at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC) and I'm double majoring in Neuroscience and Psychology.

[00:00:48] Naman: Hey guys, hey Zaynab. My name is Naman. I'm also one of the co-founders and I'm in the exact same program in the exact same year as Rushil. So I don't think I'll repeat it again. 

[00:01:00] Nimit: Lastly, I am the last co-founder and I am also in the same program, Neuroscience and Psychology, in my third year at UTSC. And I'm really happy to be here. 

[00:01:08] Zaynab: Love how all of us are doing neuroscience. Um, awesome. So that was amazing. Thank you so much, guys, for just taking out the time to do this with me. I'm just really excited to start this. I feel like it's going to be really exciting for people to know what Blankets for Toronto does.

[00:01:27] Zaynab: And for those who are new to us, I just want them to know what Blankets for Toronto is. So I guess the first question is how did Blankets for Toronto start? What is the story? 

[00:01:36] Rushil: Yeah, for sure. So this is quite a long story, but I'll do my best to give it to you in a few sentences. But essentially how it started was, all three of us were actually going to a conference in downtown Toronto, and this was back in high school. And it was one of the coldest days of the year. It was, I believe, around -26C on that day. 

[00:01:55] Zaynab: Oh gosh.

[00:01:56] Rushil: Yeah, it was really rough and on our way back from this conference, we actually saw a person standing in a bus stand and his clothes were ripped. It appeared that he didn't have much to keep himself warm with and we felt really guilty, really bad for this person, but ultimately, we actually had to catch the train.

[00:02:20] Rushil: So we were trying to walk towards this train and we ultimately didn't give anything to this person. And the next day we actually heard on the news that this person or someone else had passed away in a bus stand due to the freezing cold due to the harsh cold of Toronto, Canada. And we felt really, really terrible about that because we didn't do anything to help that person.

[00:02:35] Rushil: What if it was that person that unfortunately passed away? And so through that, we really became motivated to not let this happen again. And so that's why we took a step to addressing homelessness in our community and Toronto.

[00:02:50] Rushil: Toronto's a prosperous city. It's very wealthy. There are so many places, so many people in this city, but unfortunately these problems still exist in our society. And that's why we really wanna take an initiative to start Blankets for T.O. and we actually started it through research. We looked into the best ways to support people that are homeless and we found that one of the best ways that we could do this as students would be through advocacy and through donating blankets specifically. Blankets, of course, because they're warm, they're durable.

[00:03:18] Rushil: And we were also thinking of thermal blankets specifically because they're reflective and they're very heat efficient. And because they're reflective, it allows people and police officers to escort homeless individuals who may not have proper visibility in the darkness to shelters or to places where they can be safe.

[00:03:40] Rushil: And so that's why we started with thermal blankets and that's generally how Blankets for T.O. came about, and that's why currently what we're doing is advocating for the homeless, becoming that voice for the homeless and recognizing that having a home (housing) is a right for everyone. And we just want to advocate for that. We want to push that as much as we can and raise awareness about how prevalent homelessness is in Toronto.

[00:04:00] Zaynab: Yeah, that's amazing. And I really like how you guys really reflected on that experience because many times, we see people on the street but I feel like it kind of just reaches us on a superficial level, but you guys actually thought about it and thought about how you could fix things.

[00:04:16] Zaynab: And that's something amazing. And that's also initially what drew me through the club. When I first joined the University of Toronto, just the initiative really resonated with me. And a second thing that drew me was the name. I found the name really catchy. I think it has a ring to it. So I think my next question is: where did the name come from

[00:04:36] Naman: Yeah, sure. That's actually a good question. Some people might think that it didn't take us that long just because we started with “Blankets”, but we actually spent a lot of time, like Rushil said, we did a lot of research, so that was one of the things we spent a lot of time on because we wanted people to really know our motive and raise awareness through our name as well.

[00:04:51] Naman: Since we were, you know, three high school students at the time even before university we wanted to get our name known right then and there instead of us explaining it to them. So, we started with Blankets for Toronto just because we were situated in Toronto and then we started with “Blankets”. So, we were like, you know what, let's start with “Blankets for Toronto”. If we want to change in the future, we'll change in the future. But then, as years went by, um, we got a lot of support from university students, from adults, from community members and, like you said, it has a ring to it and now it turned from Blankets from Toronto into BTO. Sometimes even “Blankets”. We all love the name and it still serves the purpose.

[00:05:33] Zaynab: Yeah, I would advise you guys to stick with the name! It's truly amazing. And like you mentioned, it was just three high school students and sometimes I actually think about it, because even when one person is thinking of an idea, it can be so complex.

[00:05:46] Zaynab: They'll come up with how to work about it, how to come up with all these rules, but you guys were three people working on the same thing. And I know the saying goes “the more the merrier”, but sometimes it's just like “the more the messier”. So I really want to ask you guys: how hard was it to find a common niche, homelessness in this case, and dedicate yourselves to it?

[00:06:09] Nimit: Yeah, that's a really good question, Zaynab, because for us I would say homelessness wasn't something we found or that niche wasn't something that what we found; it's what found us. And that experience that Rushil said is what just got us really really deeply. And it got to our hearts and we knew we needed to do something about it.

[00:06:22] Nimit: And I think for all three of us, we've just been raised in this way. Where you always have to give back to this community and you have to help those in need who are less fortunate. So, we wanted to make sure that we could impact in some way, and we thought this was the absolute best way to do it because we were helping people who actually needed it.

[00:06:39] Nimit: And in terms of dedicating ourselves, I think once we had that target in mind and were like, “this is what we're going to do”, we just set after it as fast as possible. And yes, it's been about two and a half years since we've started working on this, but it's, it's just been the best journey of our lives and it's the best project we've ever worked on. And there were challenges that I'm sure we'll talk about, but at the end of the day, it's really gratifying and just a very good, feeling when you help these individuals. 

[00:07:47] Zaynab: No. Yeah, for sure. I can really tell how passionate you guys are about it. And I guess when passion comes, things just become a bit easier. And I really like how you said that it came to you rather than you finding it. And I feel when you work towards something for a noble cause, challenges also come to you. So I think my next question is: what are some challenges that you guys faced as a team and how did these challenges help you?

[00:08:14] Rushil: I think we faced too many challenges to count, to be quite honest with you. Uh, there were just so many different barriers that presented themselves, but I'll talk about just a few that were quite important? The first one was definitely COVID in the pandemic and the lockdowns. We actually started back in September of 2019. That was our official start date for Blankets for T.O. at the University of Toronto. As you know, soon after, by the time March rolled around (March of 2020), that's when the pandemic hit. That's when university closed. And when we started off, we really just wanted to donate items blankets specifically to those that were in need on the streets.

[00:08:04] Rushil: And since so many places were closed and we didn't want to risk infecting these individuals with COVID-19, potentially. We didn't want to take that risk of going outside and talking to people and donating these items. So that really put a halt on our operations, our main goal.

[00:08:22] Rushil: And of course, it was also very de-motivating at times because we really just wanted to help these people. And there was no way we could do it because of COVID. However, despite that challenge, we persisted. We tried our best to find ways that we could address the homelessness crisis without focusing on our main goal at the moment.

[00:08:37] Rushil: And that's when we turned to advocacy, advocacy from social media. And that's when we started to grow our platform on Instagram to the current wonderful 2000 followers we have. We are very grateful to how much it's grown so far and the different projects we've been undertaking. But that's when another challenge manifested in the form of these individuals who endorsed these pervasive stereotypes surrounding homelessness.

[00:08:59] Rushil: We actually encountered people, seniors in our community, who believed that homeless individuals were simply drug addicts and they would only be using the money and the supplies they were given to purchase drugs and other illegal substances in our community. Of course, this is not the case for every single person.

[00:09:18] Rushil: And just because a select few people do endorse or do practice this behavior, that doesn't mean we should be treating everyone the same way. And of course, as students, even when discussing this matter with the senior individual, it was as if our opinions weren't really taken seriously because of our age, because of our experiences.

[00:09:36] Rushil: And so that's when we realized that yes, these stereotypes do exist and we need to find ways to effectively address them despite our age, despite our experience. And the primary way we found of doing this was through our Motivation Mondays. I'm sure those of you who follow Blankets for T.O. have definitely seen these. They've transformed from posts to reels and we're very proud of the progression it has made. Essentially Motivation Mondays are all about highlighting those in our community, celebrities, those who are famous, who have helped the homeless, who have performed these acts of kindness. And ultimately this is done to inspire those to recognize that yes, so many people support the idea of eradicating homelessness. It's an important issue that needs to be dealt with, needs to be solved. So that's the primary method with which we advocate. And those are essentially the two challenges that are the most important that we face. And we've prevailed over those challenges.

[00:10:30] Zaynab: Yeah, definitely. And I really like how you guys kind of became stronger after those challenges. And it's really nice to see, even with the Motivation Mondays, as you mentioned, and I particularly wanted to highlight this one thing you mentioned where homeless individuals do have a story and people often think that it just ends up with them being drug addicts or for the lack of better term, criminals.

[00:10:50] Zaynab: This is also where BTO comes in, where on our Instagram we highlight some of these stories that the homeless individuals have gone through. So that is also a very great resource for our audience to check out if interested and I'll link all of those social handles in our description box. 

[00:11:06] Zaynab: I know you mentioned that you started in September of 2019 at the university, and I just wanted to ask you: how did affiliation with the university help spread the message of BTO?

[00:11:16] Naman: I'd like to say that, before answering the question, the other BTO chapters are doing really well, but our love for the University of Toronto will never go away just because these are our humble beginnings, this is how we started. Like I said, we were high school students when we first started. So it wasn't really successful when we started in high school. We tried to look for, uh, people who were interested. We tried to look for teachers or people outside of school, but “we were too young”, that's mainly the response that we would get.

[00:11:47] Naman: So like you said, in September of 2019, when we first started at university, we went to a bunch of different groups at the University of Toronto, to ask for advice and there's so many resources out there. Our goal was to pursue all of them and we knew that something would work out at the end. Essentially all of them worked out, to put it in one sentence, and U of T (University of Toronto) has given us a lot. I’d like to say that our team is also giving back to U of T so much. We've given back in so many different events. Zaynab, you're giving back to everyone through this podcast and all the work that you're doing at BTO as well. So we love U of T. Um, even though all the other chapters are also doing really well, but U of T has given us a lot. Definitely. 

[00:12:27] Zaynab: No, that's amazing. And I know oftentimes people are really overwhelmed by all the resources, but it's really great to see how BTO has done the most to make use of these resources and really strive towards a really great cause.

[00:12:43] Zaynab: Um, I know you mentioned that you guys started in high school and all of you have come a very long way. So I just wanted to ask you: how has BTO improved your leadership styles?

[00:12:51] Nimit: I think I can answer for all three of us because we've faced this challenge together as co-founders, and we've had to really adapt over time. So as Naman said, we started in high school and in high school, the problem we had was what you mentioned earlier, that the more the messier, and we had too many chefs or cooks in the kitchen. And we learned that lesson and we saw that having too many people in the start is not something that's ideal for an organization that's just starting off. 

[00:13:19] Nimit: For some background, in our first year at BTO, we started with six members or six executive members. And now our team is 20 people and next year will be even bigger. So throughout this evolution of BTO, we've been able to see our leadership styles change. When we were only six people we really had to get down and dirty, really, with all the things we had to do, because we had to be involved in every single thing, just sort of micromanaging because we didn't have any other choice. 

[00:13:47] Nimit: We learned how to take on those positions and do the work that was necessary, even though we were co-founders and we were co-presidents, it was the same thing. We were, essentially, every single position. And I think that was a really good learning experience because it taught us how to be every single position and then such a big organization, especially for people who are premedical students, and they want to go into medicine, but we were learning about a completely different field in philanthropy and the nonprofit side of things. 

[00:14:15] Nimit: But then that completely changed this year when we have 20 people now, and this is a completely different dynamic because now we have other people for specific tasks and our job is to lead and direct the actual direction of BTO and not just those little small things. We have to choose which way we want to go, and that has also been a good learning experience. It puts a lot more responsibility and accountability on our hands. We've just been trying to improve every single day, take the feedback from our team and just become better leaders every single day and also develop good leaders in the team because we're very open to also following when other people want to lead. And you wanted to lead this podcast and you've done an amazing job. And we're really happy about that. This is like the type of initiative we want to spread, what we want to encourage, and we hope that this keeps happening. 

[00:15:05] Zaynab: Oh that's amazing. And as someone at the receiving end, I can tell you guys that you are doing an amazing job. Even myself being a first year and wanting to start something, the way you guys absolutely supported me was truly amazing to see. 

[00:15:18] Zaynab: It's really great that you mentioned how you guys’ focus was premedical (it still is) and then it shifted to nonprofit. And I really like how you guys are managing that. And I feel that'd also be another great episode to discuss these things like how to manage clubs and medical school at the same time. I think that's something our audience would be interested in as well. 

[00:15:42] Zaynab: I know you also mentioned that at the beginning, a lot of people were coming to you asking you how to get involved and things like that. So I really want to ask you guys: What do you really hope to see within the Scarborough, or Toronto community for that matter, regarding homelessness? 

[00:15:57] Rushil: For sure. There are so many different things that we could talk about when it comes to the community and homelessness. But really what we want people to understand is that while it may not be in everyone's capacity to help someone who is homeless, for example you may not be able to donate items, donate money, or even volunteer, whether it's for Blankets for T.O. or another charity or organization that supports homelessness, what's really important is that we do start having conversations. We do start raising awareness about the problem. And the key to the matter is that the more people that know about this issue, the more people that are aware that homelessness is a real crisis in Toronto and Scarborough, the more likely it is that people will help, the more likely it is that people will change their mindsets. 

[00:16:44] Rushil: So, we're really looking for people to have these conversations, really just have an open mindset to the different possibilities and different experiences that people can have in their lives and why they can end up in this way. For example, there are so many different reasons why people can be homeless, whether it be the rising housing costs currently because of COVID-19 or even with the gas prices, they’ve been skyrocketing because of multiple things that are going on in our world currently. So there are just so many different ways, so many different things we can think about, so many different perspectives we can take. So at least keeping that open mindset when it comes to homelessness, I believe will definitely go a long way in making sure these people have a home eventually, are supported by our community, and feel welcome as well. 

[00:17:26] Zaynab: Definitely. And with all because of the pandemic, and as you mentioned, the housing prices are on a rise. It's just been so hard for even people like us to just imagine people who have been victims of these systematic failures, and that is also something we will be discussing in our next episode, which I'll briefly touch on towards the end. But yeah, those are some amazing ideas that our audience can take.

[00:17:50] Zaynab: And I know you kinda touched on it a little bit but in your opinion, are there any specific ways that people within the community can best help?

[00:17:59] Naman: Advocacy, donation, education, engagement. It is all on our website. To put it into simpler terms, Rushil mentioned that we just want people to not have a negative stigma, not judge people, and focus on how to help people and stay on the surface level: People don't need to think about the internal factors related to someone who is sitting on the street or needs something. I think our first response should be to go and help the person instead of making judgments about the person. 

[00:18:30] Naman: And second, would be to get involved in organizations like ours now. We live for the community and the community helps us. So, if the community can offer us things, we can offer things to the community as well such as events like we're doing right now. Third thing would obviously be advocacy. If they ever want to take a leadership role at any kind of organization, feel free to do that. Or if they want to raise awareness themselves through a different organization, they're free to do that as well.

[00:18:58] Naman: But our main goal is not just to go out and give out blankets or just to go out and give out donations. Our main goal is to educate the population so that one day we can actually end homelessness in such a beautiful city. And hopefully this country. I guess the best way would be to stay educated and stay involved through different organizations.

[00:19:18] Zaynab: That was beautifully put. I feel like, besides the donations and everything, I think the most important thing is just awareness. And I think Rushil mentioned this earlier that it's kind of crazy if you think about it, that even people in our community, specifically the U of T community, have some negative stigmas regarding homelessness. So I think our first priority really should be eradicating the ignorance that is there because I feel like that would be bad towards eradicating homelessness one day.

[00:19:47] Zaynab: So yeah, this was a really amazing conversation that we have had so far. I know you guys have talked about all the initiatives you have planned for homeless people, but I really wanted to also know: how have these initiatives been rewarding for you guys? So how or what is the most rewarding experience so far at BTO for you guys? 

[00:20:12] Nimit: Yeah. That's a hard question to answer because there've been so many. Right. But I'd say the most rewarding for any of us, anyone at BTO who's been to donation can say why it's so rewarding, but it's because just when you look at the smile on the faces, of the homeless individuals, when you give them a care package with 10 items and it shows them that you're caring for them: that's just the best feeling. I can give you an example. People can also see this on our Instagram. Recently, we went out in November about, and we gave out donations of the care packages to people in downtown Toronto. And there was an individual who was a South Korean war veteran. And he was homeless because after he came to Canada, the SARS pandemic in 2003 happened and he lost his restaurant and he's been homeless since 2003. That's just crazy in such a big city where there are so many resources. And because we were able to talk to him and because we were able to give him something, he was able to smile a little and God knows when that happened the last time. So we're just trying to put smiles on faces.

[00:21:15] Nimit: In the meantime, it's also really rewarding to see what we're doing, our work, is being recognized because that's what really matters. We need to address the root causes. And I'd say that two really big things that have happened with us are especially being recognized by MPs (Members of Parliament) because we've been recognized by five or six and they know what we're doing is impactful. And if we can influence them to make changes in the House of Commons, that's the best thing we could do because we need to make systematic changes, not just handle blankets. So, yes, just going out is the most rewarding, but also getting recognized for what we've done. 

[00:21:51] Zaynab: No, yeah, that's amazing. And the thing with MPs recognizing BTO is the fact that their audience gets exposure to what BTO does as well, which is just something so important. Maybe someone out there just gets inspired by what BTO is doing and starts their own thing. So again, it raises awareness, which is what you guys are striving to do. So, yeah, that's amazing. And I know so far we've been talking about what BTO has done and is doing, but I think our audience would also be interested to know any BTO future plans. I think Naman mentioned other BTO chapters. So Rushil, do you want to get into a bit of the BTO future and what it looks like? 

[00:22:30] Rushil: Absolutely. And, what I'm going to do – we have a lot of plans, we're very ambitious – but I'm going to leave a few of them for a little bit of a secret so our audience and everyone can maybe expect those announcements to come very soon in the near future. But I'll talk about a few of the ones that we're very excited to share. So Naman did talk about the BTO chapters. We're very excited to say that. We're gonna be expanding Blankets for T.O. across, hopefully Ontario for now, but we're gonna try to expand across Canada hopefully. So currently – of course this isn’t an exhaustive list – we have a York University chapter. We've got a University of Toronto downtown campus chapter. We've also got an OTU chapter in Oshawa at Ontario Tech University. We've got a Hamilton chapter for McMaster, a Western chapter in London. So we've just had a multitude of different chapters we've currently opened. And our aim is to really expand the reach of Blankets for T.O. and hopefully address homelessness in these communities as well, because of course, homelessness is a global issue and we want to reach as many people as we can. 

[00:23:36] Rushil: And in terms of another future plan that we're going to be sharing very soon: it's actually that we're planning on revamping our reward system that we currently have for our members. So currently, if you are a BTO member, you can enjoy a plethora of different rewards for engaging with our activities. For example, eventually you can actually win an AirPods Pro if you are able to participate in our activities enough and really engage with us. We're planning on revamping that reward system very soon, so if you guys are planning on becoming members hopefully next year or over the summer, you can expect to enjoy those benefits. 

[00:24:13] Rushil: And finally, in terms of a final future plan that I'd like to share, it is really just upcoming donations in the sense that we want to hopefully strive for increasing that number that we're currently at. We're currently sitting at around 5,000 items or so, or 5,000 or beyond. While I'm not too much of a numbers person and I don't like to look at the numbers a lot, it's just something that's very, very, very amazing to see because we've come so far. And hopefully by the end of the year or in the near future, we're going to be surpassing 10,000 items donated to various different homeless shelters, as well as those on the streets. I'm very much looking forward to when we reach that very big milestone for our organization. So those are just a few of the plans I want to share. We have a bunch of other things in the works, but hopefully you'll be amazed by them when we announce them.

[00:25:00] Zaynab: Oh, yeah, those are super amazing. And as Rushil mentioned, we have a very amazing rewards system for our members, which basically aims to recognize members for all the hard work and commitment they have dedicated to our mission of eradicating homelessness. We also have a lot of donation drives coming up that you can keep up with on our Instagram handles that I will link in the description box, I will also link all the other chapters that Rushil has mentioned in the description box.

[00:25:27] Zaynab: But I feel like the best resource to know us and contact us is our website where everything is mentioned in detail. Shoutout to our VP Tech, William, for doing that amazing job. 

[00:25:38] Zaynab: But, yeah, thank you so much, guys. This was truly amazing and I hope our audience really enjoyed this as well. Our next episode is going to focus on discussing some of the myths regarding homelessness with a very interesting guest from our UTSC community. So I hope you guys tune for that. But, yeah, this was episode one. Thank you so much, founders! Till then, everyone have a good day!

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