Brian Warren, Social Entrepreneur, Founder & Executive Director of Start2Finish
Start2Finish was born out of the vision of founder and social entrepreneur Brian Warren; that the effects of the cycle of child poverty could be broken in Canada by providing ongoing educational support to Canada’s at risk children throughout their school years, nurturing mind, body and social health so they would be empowered to graduate and succeed.
Brian grew up in an upper-middle class family in Phoenix, Arizona; his dad worked for NASA and his mom stayed at home to raise him and his two siblings, and then later went to work as a Special Ed teacher. He saw poverty, but not up-close, and he really had no idea what growing up in poverty was like. After graduating from high school, he received a football scholarship to the University of Arizona and went on to play in the pros for 10 years. Encouraged by his mom to give back, he taught at her high school for a couple of off-seasons. It was in those classrooms that he really saw the devastating impact poverty has on how kids learn.
Brian joined the Edmonton Eskimos and moved to Canada in 1987. He continued to work with kids in the off-season and quickly learned that the effects of childhood poverty do not respect country, creed or race (Years later this truth was echoed when he travelled to the rural villages in India where he lead the way to open 87 learning centers). After two Grey Cup championships and thousands of autographs sessions, especially with his younger fans, Brian retired knowing that he had no choice but to do something about what he has called the “silent scream”. He vowed that the signature he had written on so many little bits of paper over the years would be now used to help the 1 million Canadian children living in poverty. He would become their advocate; their “scream” would be heard and answered.
Of course there is no shortage of theories explaining why children living in poverty behave differently than their middle-class counterparts but, as on the football field, Brian did not want to just talk about the challenges but fix them; he was determined to find viable solutions to close the achievement gaps both academically and socially. He was convinced that children growing up in poverty in one of the wealthiest countries in the world could overcome their barriers and build a cycle of success. The key, he believed, was to put a holistic pathway in place that started in grade 1 and followed a child directly and indirectly through to their post-secondary years. Bold, yes, but this is the innovative model that would make Start2Finish unique.
In 2000, Brian founded the Start2Finish program (then KidsFest) by distributing backpacks filled with quality schools supplies and books to children in at-risk schools, and hosting literacy festivals. In his broad survey of research and through many years of experience working with kids both in the USA and here in Canada, he knew that a weekly component to the program was critical to seeing meaningful change. Supporters like retired Olympic marathoner Silvia Ruegger, Alison Rochon, and others were very crucial in helping put together a comprehensive 32-week program of fitness and running. The reading portion followed as a critical complement to help kids address low literacy, an accurate indicator as early as grade 1 of those prone to dropout in high school (Children living in poverty are 50% more likely to drop out before their high school graduation). Putting these two unlikely components together, the Start2Finish “Fitness Literacy Model” was addressing what he coined as the “BIG 7” – seven factors that correlate with students’ success and are tied to socio-economic status. These factors are:
3. Effort & Energy
4. Cognitive-Capacity 5. Mind-Set
6. Relationship and 7. Stress Level
After some vetting of this “Fitness Literacy Model” from leading experts in the fields of education and behavioral science, the Start2Finish program implemented the Running & Reading Clubs.
Chester Le Junior Public School in Scarborough launched the pilot Running & Reading Club in January 2004. Since then, Start2Finish has expanded to 33 Clubs across the country, including several on Native reservations in Canada’s far North. By 2018-19, Start2Finish’s goal is to have a total of 50 Running & Reading Clubs in operation.
The Start2Finish program targets at-risk children in grades 1-6 with collaboration between Start2Finish, school boards, local and national businesses, services clubs, and a host of other funders that make up the S2F community matrix. Start2Finish has a Score Card that assesses a community’s readiness for the program, which provides the standard by which all expansion is measured. For 32 weeks, children in the Running & Reading Club are immersed in an intensive program that has been proven to tackle head-on the local and social effects of children growing up in poverty. The Start2Finish Scientific Advisory Group was formed in 2011 to help continue to measure the impact of the program, as well as help us stay true to the original mission and vision. Latest research numbers show an average of 1-2 letter grade improvement in literacy, a 62% increase in fitness, a decrease in absenteeism, improved impulse control, and strengthened peer socialization.
Within a few years of starting the Running & Reading Club Program, the Junior Coach Program became a natural extension for kids who were graduating from grade 6 and wanted to give back. Start2Finish saw this as the perfect opportunity to further build future leaders and prepare them for success. After consultation with “transition experts”, the Start2Finish Board of Directors approved the expansion. The Junior Coach Program is a mentoring program for kids in grades 7-12, helping them move through the Start2Finish Pathway. The program was launched in the fall of 2005 and grew from there.
In 2008, the final brick in the Start2Finish Pathway of Hope was laid when the Start2Finish Board officially launched the Pathway of Hope Scholarship Program. A Scholarship Committee directed by Board Members and other stakeholders is solely responsible for receiving and vetting ONLY applicants who have graduated from the Running & Reading Club Program and/or the Junior Coach Program.
The Pathway of Hope stands as a testament to the reality that no child goes off the rails when someone has cared about his or her wellbeing. The Pathway is providing building blocks to help kids graduate and succeed. Everyday at Start2Finish, stakeholders, staff, donors and volunteers work hard to help kids create their cycle of success.