Azrieli Foundation donates $5 million for dropout prevention

A little-known non-profit organization that’s having a remarkable impact in lowering Quebec’s school dropout rate is $5 million richer today in part because many decades ago, a Jewish boy in Poland was not the most motivated of students.

In announcing the Azrieli Foundation’s game-changing donation to Youth Fusion on Dec. 7, chair and CEO Naomi Azrieli related how the life of her father, David Azrieli, who died last year at age 92, was set on the right path by one teacher who opened up the joy of learning to him.

Azrieli would become a billionaire real estate developer, architect and philanthropist, but his first job after immigrating to Canada was teaching. It was a job he loved, she said, especially working with adolescents he knew were at an age when their course in life would be determined.

READ: Azrieli Foundation donates $5 million to Birthright

The gift, to be allocated over five years, will allow Youth Fusion, founded in 2008, to expand outside Quebec, as well as continue to grow in the province. Its innovative approach brings together school boards, universities and corporations in a common effort to encourage at-risk teens to stay in school.

Elementary and high school students are guided in projects that develop their skills and self-confidence, have real-life applications and introduce them to possible careers.

From six projects in two Montreal schools, Youth Fusion has grown to have a presence in 92 schools throughout the province, including in the far north, and 180 projects, said president and founder Gabriel Bran Lopez.

Youth Fusion recently received high marks from the independent Charity Intelligence Canada (CIC), which listed it among the top 10 charities in Canada having the most impact per donation dollar. It’s the only Quebec organization so recognized.

As Greg Thomson, CIC’s director of research, indicated in a video message, the Azrieli Foundation grant is well chosen.

Azrieli Foundation chair and CEO Naomi Azrieli, left, is seen with Youth Fusion president Gabriel Bran Lopez and executive director Sarah Houde JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO
Azrieli Foundation chair and CEO Naomi Azrieli, left, is seen with Youth Fusion president Gabriel Bran Lopez and executive director Sarah Houde JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

According to the CIC’s calculation, the average “social return on investment” among the 600 Canadian charities it surveyed is $2 for every donor dollar. In Youth Fusion’s case, that equation is at least $8.50 and up to $16 per dollar.

In partnership with the Azrieli Foundation, Youth Fusion hopes to reach 197 Quebec schools by 2020, as well as extend into the rest of Canada where needed, including aboriginal communities. Lopez said talks are already underway with officials in Ontario to introduce the model in schools there.

Quebec has a higher dropout rate than the rest of the country at about 25 per cent, a figure that soars among francophone boys. The government is aiming for an 80 per cent graduation rate by 2020.

The Azrieli Foundation is contributing more than funds. It has also gained expertise through a dropout prevention program it created in Israel 11 years ago and continues to run.

This program is now helping 4,000 teens from disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

“Creating continuous ties between the school system and the community”

“Part of what we do in our Educational Empowerment Program, and what Youth Fusion also does, is give students some control over their learning, without giving up control in the classroom,” Azrieli said. “Engaging students and encouraging them to pursue their interests can be the difference between dropping out and staying in school.”

The foundation believes the key to preventing kids from leaving school is “to create continuous ties between the school system and the community,” said Azrieli, a former higher education teacher.

Youth Fusion hires university students to work 10 to 30 hours a week with at-risk students for the school year, in the classroom or in an extracurricular activity, on projects in 10 different fields, including entrepreneurship, science and technology, fashion design and even video gaming.

In addition, employees in industries related to the projects are brought in as mentors.

This year, Youth Fusion will provide support to over 12,500 students, and at least 80,000 work hours will be logged. Twelve universities and other post-secondary institutions and some 40 companies, including major enterprises, are on board.

Jacques Ménard, president of BMO Financial Group for Quebec, is Youth Fusion’s chair. The donation announcement was made at Concordia University, one of the early associates of the program.