Credit: The Kickback

Kicking it back to the beginning:
how The Kickback was born

Sneakers, basketball and charity work – How The Kickback is developing real life relationships between the adults and youth of Toronto.

St. James Town Kickback Round 1

The Kickback is venturing into unknown territory when it comes to mentorship and charity work, having taken different actions in changing how to engage with youth. 

The Kickback is a Toronto based non-profit organization with a mission to interact with youth through a progressive yet educational program by using sneaker culture and basketball. Through mentorship, The Kickback’s vision is to instil a positive mindset, in which youth can recognize and define their own potential. 

Led by founders Jamal Burger and Christian Epistola, they utilize photo and video on Instagram as visual tools to show the power of love, mentorship and relationships built within the many communities they serve.

This idea first started when Burger, known as Jayscale on Instagram, decided he wanted to give back to his community. Burger’s work began to receive attention when he started posting rooftop photos on Instagram. 

These instantly became a hit, however what many do not know is that he didn’t have a camera to shoot with in the early days of his career. Instead, he would be the one with the keys to enter the rooftops and would invite friends with cameras so that he could use their gear.

This changed when Burger made a deal with the owner of the clothing and shoe boutique, Livestock. There was one condition, he had to continue the cycle and provide the same opportunity to others in the future. Burger kept this condition close to his heart, and after countless hours of dedicating his life to his craft, he reached a point in his life where he was ready to launch The Kickback.

Jamal Burger (Left) and Christian Epistola (Right)

His opportunity came from the generosity of a stranger and fuelled Burger’s hunger to give back to the less fortunate. Having been born and raised in Regent Park he understood the challenges of living in his underserved community. This upbringing motivates Burger in making sure the same barriers do not hinder other children from being kids.  

The Kickback then launched in 2016, when Burger donated 20 pairs of shoes to kids, who he knew struggled financially in his community.  After the donations he felt the shoes did not provide enough tangible takeaways to be used in real life. 

In 2017, Burger reached out to his friend Epistola, who has worked with the city and various youth programs for several years. Later that year, together they organized an event in the St. James Town community that provided 100 sneakers to 100 kids, offering a basketball training camp, haircuts, and dream chasing workshops. 

This is what The Kickback calls an activation: providing an elevated experience to children who can’t afford to otherwise.

That successful day planted the seeds of what would eventually lead to an activation in the city of Panama: visiting three communities over the course of five days. The Kickback provided the same opportunity to over 500 kids in Panama, this time with specialized backpacks filled with school and art supplies, and more.

Panama Activation
Confident Cuts Program

Give & Go is a global initiative motivated in expanding the borders outside of the basketball court. The Kickback is in Santo Domingo providing an activation for local communities and kids there.

But like Burger’s first experience, the team felt like there was something missing. In 2018 The Kickback dedicated more time and energy into developing consistent programming to establish stronger relationships. This resulted in programs such as the Run-Club, more Kickback Rounds, sock and jacket drives, art programming and more. 

Moustapha Youssouf or better known by his Instagram, CapturedMA, can be regarded as the first successful participant of The Kickback. Youssouf first joined when he was 15 years old, wanting the opportunity to learn about photography through Burger. After allowing Youssouf to shadow him in the summer of 2015, their relationship grew and a mentorship formed. 

He also participated in different programs such as the Run Club, eventually growing bonds with other mentors and participants. Youssouf credits his achievements to The Kickback program in teaching him how to step out of his comfort zone.  

At 18 years old, Youssouf photographed his first Raptors game on December 5, 2018. This led to more opportunities with the Toronto Raptors and working on the production of Raptors forward, Serge Ibaka’s show How Hungry Are you? and Avec Classe

A summer long run club where both youths and adults “run the streets.”
A donation drive of jackets for the youth at the St. Stephen’s House.
An activity focused on allowing youth and children to celebrate their individuality through a blank sneaker canvas.

“When I met [The Kickback], I was really shy. They’ve taught me how to be comfortable with who I am. I didn’t really like talking to people, [and now] I’m always smiling at people even though I don’t know them… The crazy thing is I don’t see it as a program, I see it as a real-life relationship,” Youssouf told Emerge

Youssouf is currently in his third year at Ryerson University and is actively engaged within his community, coaching his high school basketball team now for three years and helping The Kickback in their projects. He hopes to pass on the same mindset and become a role model that inspires new generations as Burger did for him. 

Currently, The Kickback are partners with the University of Toronto, running what is called the After-School Program (one hour of basketball, one hour of reflection). 

Emerge had the chance to witness the After-School program and see how The Kickback engages with the youth. When asked “if you believe in what The Kickback is doing” elementary school teacher Christopher Couto of St. Paul says, “110 per cent. I like that they bring the kids [to the reading room] after the basketball session and talk about their mentality, reflect on what went well in games and what can be improved on. We [understand] that a big part of sports is the mental game, and I don’t think these kids get enough of a chance to think things through and reflect. The guys have been so good with the kids; It’s like they know them, [and] the kids respond really well. Then being in this environment, just being in a university, a lot of these kids haven’t stepped foot into a university and even if they don’t know it, it makes it feel more accessible to them.” 

We [understand] that a big part of sports is the mental game, and I don’t think these kids get enough of a chance to think things through and reflect.
Christopher Couto
Give & Go is a global initiative motivated in expanding the borders outside of the basketball court. The Kickback is in Santo Domingo providing an activation for local communities and kids there.

Christopher Couto spoke about what he has witnessed over a duration of three sessions, seeing a change in mentality and approach to the young team’s development for their season. 

Kickback coach Anoke Dunston says “The After-School Program gives the kids the prep school experience, because kids in the inner-city are never going to have that. If you have money, you’re going to go somewhere in basketball. Some of these kids have the [same] work ethic – they have resilience and are fearless, but they don’t have the same [resources]. [The Kickback] provides them that same experience, [even if it’s a small sample size].”

Recently The Kickback announced their Round 10 Kickback drive, aiming to collect 1000 gently used shoes and brand-new socks. This is the largest collection to date for The Kickback, as they aim to serve a larger group of youths in the inner-city. 

As for the future, The Kickback plans on expanding and trying new creative programming. They still plan on continuing many of their current programs but are looking into trying activations in other countries they haven’t visited before. 

The Kickback hopes to further inspire future generations, helping mentor a new wave of leaders and young people. As the group continuously does good works, they hope others will see what they’re doing and give back and connect as well.

Credit: The Kickback
Credit: The Kickback


Author: Dominic Balasta

Mixed Media: The Kickback

Web Designer: Kedice Jones