Good choices along a tough road, North End role model credits Inner City Youth Alive

Written by Josiah Neufeld, courtesy of ChristianWeek

Mathew Starr became an adult the Christmas he was 10 years old. His mother disappeared on New Year’s Eve for what turned out to be a three-day drinking binge, leaving Starr with his three younger siblings.

“I had no warning,” says Starr. “At 10 years old I had to plan and cook all the meals. Thank goodness it was during the holidays.” Starr spent the next three days wondering where his mother was and if she’d ever be back.

Starr told his story to several hundred guests who gathered in October at Inner City Youth Alive’s annual banquet. Starr’s story is about a boy struggling to find his way in one of Winnipeg’s poorest neighbourhoods, of growing up with a single parent, watching her battle drug addictions and seeing friends get sucked into a vortex of crime and survival.

But Starr’s story is also peopled with some positive role models-without whom Starr says he wouldn’t be where he is today: a 21-year-old who owns a house which he rents to those in need and recently started his own business.

“When God gives you good mentors in your life, when God gives you good people, it starts to rub off – you start to learn,” said Starr.

Starr was 13 when he wandered into a drop-in centre at the corner of Salter Street and Aberdeen Avenue. The drop-in is run by Inner City Youth Alive (ICYA) a Christian organization that’s been offering positive choices to children and young adults in Winnipeg’s North End for 24 years.

Starr started hanging out with the volunteers and joined a program for young leaders. When he was 14 one of his mentors offered him a summer job working at ICYA’s wilderness camp.

“You’re always faced with choices,” said Starr. “I would come back after a summer at camp and I’d have the pressure to do drugs right after having served as a leader and as a camp counsellor.”

Starr graduated from high school three years ago with hundreds of volunteer hours to his credit from his work at the ICYA drop-in centre. After high school Starr found work as a welder, bought a house from his dad and started renting it out to people he knew in the neighbourhood.

“I don’t set rent on how to line my pockets,” said Starr. “It’s based on how much they can afford.” Housing in Winnipeg’s North End is in crisis, plagued by absentee landlords who rent out decrepit buildings.

“I want to change that,” said Starr, who recently started his own home renovation business, Starr Property Services. “There’s no reason I can’t buy another house here, fix it up, hire local guys to help. At end of the day they’re proud to live there,” he said.

“I am now 21 years old. I’m known as Mat who doesn’t do drugs anymore but still lives in the hood.” That doesn’t always make life simple. Only months ago an old friend knocked on Starr’s door. “Mat, the game in the North End is weak; there’s no competition,” the friend said, “Help me sell [crack cocaine] tonight.”

“He was dead serious,” said Starr. “I have to remember there are still good choices and bad choices.”