Having grown up knowing the pain and uncertainty of living in foster care and on the streets, actress and aspiring filmmaker Kalista Zackhariyas is determined to do something about it.
Zackhariyas, who splits her time between Cabbagetown and Mississauga, is launching the Youth Code, an organization that aims to provide support as well as arts and recreational programming for children recovering from abuse.
“I was inspired by my own personal life,” Zackhariyas said. “I grew up as a ward of Children’s Aid and spent the better part of my adolescent years being homeless and in shelters.”
She fell into the care of Children’s Aid due to domestic abuse, but had difficulty settling in when confronted with the foster care system.
“There were times when I ran away from foster homes because I felt alone,” she said. “Things can be pretty scary and it’s hard to feel like you really belong.”
Once she was old enough to get out of the foster care system, she did so, but lacked skills, education and the support of a family. She wound up spending time in the shelter system just to have a roof over her head.
Fortunately, she met two women in particular who helped her out, one by offering her food and support and the other by urging her to follow her dream of dancing.
“I really feel like the arts saved my life,” Zackhariyas said. “I was able to create something, and it wasn’t just negative. I got to be part of creating something beautiful.”
The more time Zackhariyas spent in the shelter system, the more she realized her story was not unusual. While there are shelters and services for youngsters fleeing abusive situations, she noted there is always more to be done.
“I’ve reached out to different shelters and agencies that provide core services for children that need to get out of abusive situations,” she said.
Zackhariyas has gone on to become an actor, earning the lead role in the 2010 film Snow and is currently creating her own short film with hopes of workshopping it into a feature.
While film gives her a creative outlet, the Youth Code (www.theyouthcode.com) is more than a side project.
“I know how important it is for kids to have arts and recreational activities,” she said. “It can make such an enormous difference in a life.”
The Youth Code has already forged partnerships with Women’s Habitat and the Peel Children’s Aid Foundation to bring programming to those locales. While the partnerships will begin as a pilot project, Zackhariyas hopes to keep them going while branching out into other communities across Ontario and eventually across Canada.
The Youth Code will hold a launch party and inaugural fundraiser with gourmet food, cocktails and live entertainment at One King West on Saturday, March 16. For tickets or information, visit www.theyouthcode.com