Toyo Ajibolade: Uplifting girls through athletics

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BY: DELLIA RISMAY

At just 21 years old, Toyo Ajibolade is a university student, a change-maker and a leader in her community. Noticing a need for more physical programs designed to uplift girls from marginalized communities, Toyo created Lady Ballers Camp, a group that brings basketball to those who may otherwise not have access to organized sports because of its associated costs. Often one to uplift the people around her, Toyo’s desire to give back to the community was instilled in her at a very early age.

Born in Nigeria, Toyo’s family raised her to be a helper, and to be compassionate to the people around her. “My parents are both in social service, and from a young age, they’ve always instilled that even part of leadership is to be someone who is serving their community in some aspect,” Toyo says. Though leadership is seldom easy, Toyo is no stranger to it, as a Marketing Management student at Ryerson University, challenges are something she is drawn to. “I like coming up with ways to solve things,” she says. “In itself, it is a problem-solving field.” Toyo identified the lack of athletic programming available to girls from low-income communities and communities of color and created a solution: a space where girls aged 6-16 could gather to connect with each other and do physical activities.

Lady Ballers Camp began five years ago after Toyo herself experienced barriers towards becoming involved in athletics as a young female of color. She came to realize that the financial burden of becoming involved in sports combined with the barriers that come with being a female athlete prevented herself and countless others from continuing to participate. Because of the challenges Toyo experienced, Lady Ballers evolved into a youth-led, youth-driven program, which it still remains today. It is available at low or no cost to those who are interested and promotes a healthy, active, nutritional lifestyle. The program also helps young people foster positive relationships with their peers, as well as assists with mental wellness. “It’s a safe space for girls to come in and engage in physical activity, recreational activity, and also have the kinds of workshops that allow them to talk about the issues that they are particularly thinking about, issues that are facing them in their current community and daily lives. They come up with ways and strategies to improve their futures, all in a supportive environment,” Toyo explains.

Toyo’s commitment to uplifting others in her community has been recognized on several occasions. When Toyo was 16, she was the youngest recipient of Girls Action Foundation’s Leadership Capacity Grant program, a grant she used to create the “DUNK Like a Girl” initiative. The program invited girls to tackle issues like relationships, self-harm and gender stereotypes while they participated in basketball training and other fitness activities. In 2013, Toyo received the Leading Women, Leading Girls, Building Community Award from the office of the Ontario Women’s Directorate for her work in creating opportunities in her community. Toyo has been recognized twice by the Toronto Raptors: first in 2015 when Lady Ballers received the Toronto Raptors Community Action grant, and again in 2017 when she received the Citizen’s MVP award for community service. “They’ve been amazing supporters in the work that we do,” says Toyo, also citing an occasion where the team facilitated a trip for some of the girls participating in Lady Ballers Camp to attend a game. “It was amazing. Having that kind of support is so needed.” Most recently, Toyo received the 2018 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction award for all of her hard work.

Toyo wants Lady Ballers Camp to be more than a place for girls to learn how to shoot hoops and learn leadership skills. She’s also devoted to making it a place where participants can invest in their futures. Because Toyo grew up seeing black women in highly regarded professions, like doctors and other medical professionals, she was able to see that it is possible for someone like her to aspire to the same level. “It made me not question what I could be, and what I could do,” she says. It is important to her that the girls enrolled in Lady Ballers Camp have the same eye-opening experience she did, so she facilitated a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workshop featuring women of color in those fields. “I want to allow them to envision a wide range of careers, opportunities and create that support to help them if they choose to go along that route,” Toyo says.

Not content enough with working towards her own success, Toyo is devoted to helping girls realize their full potential and not letting anything stand in the way of that.  “You’re not limited by your circumstance. You’re not limited by your race. You’re not limited by your gender. […] You are capable of accomplishing so many things. You really just have to envision it for yourself and personally believe that you can do it.” 

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