By VANDA DOBRITOIU
“Change the world by changing you.” Sounds simple, does it not? Yet, is it? That was the question Em Johnson asked herself, until one day she decided that the answer was a simple one: UrbanEx – a local organization that helps people find themselves in the midst of life’s hardships.
At 14 years old Em left the town of LaPorte, Iowa, for a week’s trip with a youth group to Toronto. The group did volunteer work in the community and helped others in need. As a child, Johnson’s family was the “project family” as she called it, which meant people always brought them hand-me-down clothing and groceries from the market. “People meant well, but they didn’t give much thought to how it showed. It was embarrassing rather than empowering,” said Johnson, while sipping on her coffee. After the trip was over, she felt very connected to the people she met in Toronto, and while later she did other mission work around the world, including to Malaysia, Germany, Jamaica, Texas and Chicago, she never lost her special connection to the people she met during her first mission trip.
At the age of 16, Johnson started what she called “the genesis of UrbanEx.” She believed that if she listened to the people, instead of assuming what they needed or who they were, she would have a greater chance of getting through to them. “I knew the outcome of what the experience I wanted to give them will feel like, but I didn’t know how to go about accomplishing that … until I met Alan Waugh,” said Johnson with a smile on her face.
Johnson moved to Kitchener in 2006 and met Alan, 52, through social justice initiatives that they were both relational advocates for. Relational advocates are people who support or speak in favour of a cause. They both helped people who struggled with addictions and depression, and because of it, they developed a strong trust in each other. Johnson convinced Waugh to come to an excursion for just a day and see if he liked it, yet Waugh ended up staying the whole trip because he was so touched by what was happening. Waugh is a visionary, and shortly after, he jumped on board and became Johnson’s official partner in the organization.
UrbanEx, unlike most organizations, is a reverse model. They take people, ranging from 11 to 65 years of age, from all around the world and plan a week’s excursion to Toronto where they become the students. The teachers are the homeless people and the refugees. “It goes along the lines of ‘walk a mile in their shoes.’ They have to walk with their teachers,” said Waugh. The students stay at a backpacking hostel and their days are filled with intense experiences that cause participants to reflect and look at their fears. “We give people space and permission to discover who they are through an experience. You can forget a book you read, or a movie you saw, but you won’t forget an experience,” said Waugh.
“I will never forget the faces, stories, smells and sights of Toronto’s streets. The interaction with those on the streets in Toronto changed my life. It changed my perspective on those who often are avoided or ignored,” said Tim Kramer, a student from Minnesota.
The excursions, themselves, are very emotional, and they teach people how to process their feelings through music, writing or creating something with their hands. They encourage people to look at the different ways to process emotions, as well as digging deeper into people to find out who they really are, instead of assuming their personalities.
“It’s kinda like ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself,’ but how can you love someone when you’re afraid of them, or you don’t understand them, or you don’t know they exist?” said Waugh.
When they are not planning the excursions, Johnson and Waugh are busy teaching seminar classes at the local university and high schools, as well as doing relational advocacy throughout the community. “We learn by helping others,” said Waugh.
The trips costs between $500-$600, and the money is used for the all-inclusive treatment the students receive, as well as to pay the teachers. The money raised comes from sponsors and fundraisers, and it all goes toward the participants. UrbanEx is known around the world simply by word of mouth.
For more information, visit www.urbanex.org.