Inspiring is a word that can, at times, be used too freely. But for 22-year-old Toyo Ajibolade, these three syllables embody her entirely. As the founder and program director of Lady Ballers Camp (LBC), a non-profit organization, Ajibolade is making a notable difference by providing free access to recreational programs for marginalized and economically-disadvantaged female youth within Toronto’s Peel region. Her mission: To create social equity in her community, a passion she developed early on in life.
At the age of 16, Ajibolade had a light-bulb-moment when her competitive basketball days came to an end. “A couple of weeks before March break, I was sitting with my parents thinking about what I could do over the break now that I didn’t have a basketball tournament or game to attend,” she says. “I thought there must be other girls who weren’t able to access free programs, particularly younger ones who often aren’t able to even go outside by themselves.” It was recognizing this lack of free program accessibility within her community that ended up being the very moment LBC was born. Ajibolade started a March Break Camp, which has become an annual program within LBC.
Six years later, LBC has had over 600 girls participate.
When asked what it’s been like to watch her organization flourish over the years, a flood of emotions rose to the surface. “It’s a challenge sometimes because you have to find a balance between creating quality programs and managing costs when you have such a limited operating budget. But it’s so rewarding to see the kids happy and develop into amazing, intelligent young women,” she says. “Because our programs span over long periods of time, you really get to see them grow and become leaders.” Ajibolade has also experienced a lot of personal growth by taking on more responsibility and stepping outside of her comfort zone in order to achieve certain goals for LBC.
But being able to watch the kids thrive through these programs is what truly fills her heart. “These girls are able to thrive because they are given the opportunity to do the same things that they know other kids get to do. They’re able to be on a team and look forward to something after school or during the summer or March Break. They’re able to go to Raptors games and weekend programs with their friends, regardless of their family’s financial situation,” explains Ajibolade, noting that this allows them to see themselves on an equal playing field. “They’re also more confident in themselves and dream bigger knowing that they’re able to accomplish anything they set their mind to.” And if they need any help, they know who to turn to, she says.
Creating a body-positive space for young girls.
A major component of Ajibolade’s organization is to create a body-positive environment. In fact, their March Break and summer camp hold workshops on healthy body image as part of the weekly programming. “The girls are able to learn about what it means to live a healthy, active lifestyle while also tackling topics like body dysmorphia and eating disorders from trained facilitators,” she says. “This allows them the opportunity to ask questions in a safe environment and engage in brainstorming sessions to generate concrete ways to tackle these issues in their daily lives.” (Check out 12 proven ways to boost your body image in 10 minutes or less.)
Looking back on her youth, Ajibolade credits sports, healthy meals, and the support of her mom for the positive and realistic outlook she had of her own body image. That’s why physical activity and healthy eating are also strong elements within the organization’s programs. “We include classes where the kids can actually work on making their own healthy meals with a facilitator,” she says. “We want to get them personally invested in staying active and eating healthy so they can start to make it a priority.”
Working towards a better future.
Now, an official member of the L’Oréal community, Ajibolade is honoured to be one of this year’s Women of Worth honourees. “I have met the most inspiring women through this journey, who are not only the epitome of resiliency but also strength, intelligence and compassion,” she says. “I’m now part of a network of women who help other women, and know that I can go to any of my fellow honourees for advice or support with my organization.”
And although Ajibolade’s journey has been met with its fair share of challenges, she wants young women who are looking to make a social change in their community to remember this: Find something that you’re actually passionate about and then go for it. “You may face financial constraints, resistance from other people and forces, as well as barriers to accessing certain supports,” she says. “It’s not always easy, so you have to have passion, commitment and resilience.” It’s also a constant learning process. “You will never have all the answers you need so you have to go to people more experienced than you,” she says. “Ask them a ton of questions and actually listen and learn from them.”
It’s advice, like hers, that helps to create a better future for generations to come.