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Branson lends voice to end youth homelessness

TORONTO - Sharply dressed and well-spoken, Amber Parsons embodies all the qualities of a confident, assured young woman looking forward to her future.

TORONTO - Sharply dressed and well-spoken, Amber Parsons embodies all the qualities of a confident, assured young woman looking forward to her future.

She is also among the countless youth in Canada without a permanent home.

Her warm disposition and radiant smile belie a harrowing story of a difficult childhood.

Born in Toronto, she moved with her mother to the U.S. at age two. Parsons said her mother was an addict who spent all her money on drugs and alcohol, leaving the young girl to fend for herself, stealing food from stores as young as age three.

Growing up in foster care since age six, Parsons started smoking cigarettes and marijuana at age 10 before turning to drugs and alcohol in her early teens, even resorting to selling her body to feed her drug and alcohol habit.

"It's important for girls and guys so they know that people have been through what they've been through and that if I can do something to change it and I can work on it, they can too," she said.

"I used to be in the same position, and when I hear people like me talk, that's what got me wanting to talk because it made me inspired to be what I want to be and change my life, and if they can do it I can do it."Parsons candidly shared her story at an event held at a youth shelter in Toronto Wednesday, where Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett lent their voices in a call to action to address the issue of youth homelessness.

Joined by members of Vancouver indie rock group Mother Mother and Virgin Mobile Canada president Robert Blumenthal, Branson and Bennett donned aprons and served breakfast at Eva's Phoenix, a transitional housing and training facility for youth.The British entrepreneur and Toronto MP voiced support for the establishment of a National Youth Homelessness Awareness Day on Nov. 17. Virgin Mobile has launched website 504nyhad.com to host a petition to collect signatures in support of Motion 504 put forward by Bennett in Parliament.

Virgin Mobile and Virgin Unite, the charitable arm of all Virgin companies, conducted a survey of more than 1,000 Canadians to find out more about how those in the country view youth homelessness. The survey showed that 87 per cent of respondents didn't have an understanding of the scope of the issue or that there are an estimated 65,000 homeless youth in Canada.

In an interview, Branson recalled driving into Toronto from the airport at around 2 a.m. a few years back and seeing about seven teens huddled together over a grate as thick snow lay on the ground.

"I just thought in a country like Canada this shouldn't exist. Something's wrong here."

In 2008, Virgin Mobile Canada and Virgin Unite launched the REGeneration Movement in Canada, aimed at bringing together companies and organizations that care about at-risk youth and connecting them with other young people who need help.

They're now branching out with plans to set up a so-called "war room" on youth homelessness, to co-ordinate businesses, community, government and private sector leaders. The concept is to look at every single idea and all the areas needed to get on top of the problem, Branson said.

Beyond financial donations, Branson said there are other ways Canadians can help. One example is for people to persuade employers to mentor homeless youth, and better still, if the mentorship succeeds, offer them full-time work.

"If people can get jobs, they'll get off the streets, they'll be able to afford to get a roof over their heads and so that's important as well."

Bennett said as a family doctor, she looked after a lot of street-involved youth, and said it's vital to address the issue sooner rather than later.

"Giving kids a chance is, I think, what really has to be the piece of, as we said, investing in the human capital that is our future," she said in an interview. "We can't afford to let anybody slip through."

Maria Crawford is executive director of Eva's Initiatives, which works with homeless and at-risk youth and operates three Toronto facilities, including Eva's Phoenix.Crawford said many of the youth come from "a lot of really difficult, stressful, painful experiences in their lives."

"There's no shortage of heartbreaking stories, quite frankly, as to where the youth have come from," she said. "But I think what's more important to understand is that those youth are no different than you or I.

"They have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same aspirations. They want dignity, they want to be independent, they want to make their own way in the world. They've just had a lot of stuff happen in their life that has made that really difficult."

 
 
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