For Joe Roberts, pushing his shopping cart across Canada is the ultimate in paying it forward.
On Day 199 of his cross-country trek to raise awareness of youth homelessness, 49-year-old Roberts stood on the steps of city hall over the noon hour and talked about legacy.
“I’ve reached a point in my life where I wanted to pay it forward,” advised Roberts who, in his earlier years, was anything but a role model: homeless, addicted to drugs and living under a bridge in Vancouver.
“Seems like when we get to our late 40s we start asking questions about legacy and I wanted to do something with the story to point to what we needed to help prevent other young people from experiencing some of this. It’s not everyone who is fortunate to have a mom like mine.”
That something, in addition to crossing Canada from St. John’s to Vancouver to raise awareness, includes running a school-based program to reach troubled kids before they end up on the streets.
Roberts has called for “early detection” of teenagers with mental health and addictions problems to be followed up with prevention programs. The money he brings in from his walk, called “the push for change,” will go toward a national program being developed by a number of organizations including police, educators, children’s aid societies and mental health and addictions groups.
Roberts, who grew up in Midland, Ont., said he fell into trouble when he left home at age 15 to escape a bad family situation. By then, he was already drinking and using drugs. He ended up living on the streets in Vancouver, pushing a shopping cart and living under a bridge. His mother rescued him and brought him back to Ontario where he continued to struggle.
The turning point came when Roberts got hold of a weapon and tried to take his own life.
He might have succeeded if not for the intervention of a Barrie, Ont., OPP officer who talked him down and took him to a hospital — the beginning of his recovery.
Roberts went to Loyalist College in Belleville, quickly excelled in the business world, and started his own company. He’s been featured in Maclean’s magazine as a successful entrepreneur and made the cover of Canadian Business.
And so, for Roberts, that legacy is a commitment to 16 months on the road pushing a shopping cart.
“We thought of ways of engaging Canadians and Canadians have a history of trekking and I’m too old and, at the time, too big to run so my business partner said why don’t you push your shopping cart across Canada as a symbol of chronic homelessness, the thing you are trying to avoid for young people.
“What I’m most proud of is not the fact our team made it this far, but that we’ve had extraordinary community champions along the way with St. Thomas Police, Aylmer Police and the Ontario Provincial Police. Organizations that are deeply invested in protecting young people and making sure they transition safely into adulthood and it’s through these community champions, collaboration and partnerships we’re able to have a deeper impact.”
With 3,800 kilometres behind him and 10 pairs of tapped-out sneakers, the worst of a Canadian winter now lies ahead for Roberts and his team.
“Yes, I am Canadian and that van behind us is full of gear so we’re prepared for it. And as I walk through these communities I’m very conscious of the fact there are no leaves left on that tree, which means very soon we’ll have the snow and we’ll deal with that.
“And that’s the point, doing something difficult and trying to change the system.”
With files from Daniel R. Pearce, Postmedia Network