TORONTO — After a fight with his family last year, Ruben Delgado left home and lived on Toronto’s streets, selling drugs to get by.
Ve’ahavta president Avrum Rosensweig, left, awards top prize to Ruben Delgado, winner of the 2010 creative writing contest.
“Me and my family weren’t too happy with each other,” said the 18-year-old.
To cope with his situation, Delgado started writing about how he felt lost and confused. One day, he came across a notice for submissions for a creative writing contest for homeless and marginalized people, posted by Ve’ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee
“About a week later I saw it again, and I said to myself, ‘maybe I should do this,’ so I decided to submit one of my pieces,” he said.
His submission ended up winning first prize. “I was surprised that I won. It gave me a lot of confidence, a lot of hope,” Delgado said.
The winners of this year’s Ve’ahavta Creative Writing Contest, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, will receive their prizes at an awards presentation on June 12.
First prize is $2,000, second prize is a technology bundle, including a laptop, digital camera and a year’s Internet service, and third prize is $1,000.
Since winning the contest last summer, Delgado has been working to get his life on track. He began his first job, coaching children’s basketball, and passed all of his classes for the first time.
“I went back to my family and we spoke, and we realized that both of us did things wrong, but we can still work things out,” he said.
Theresa Schrader, who organized this year’s competition, said that writing can be an important tool for self-expression, especially for those experiencing hardship.
“A lot of people are silenced and a lot of people are forced into the margins of society, and they lose their voice,” she said.
Like Delgado, Schrader has worked her way out of extreme circumstances through writing. Before winning the 2005 creative writing contest, Schrader was living on the streets, working as a prostitute to support a crack addiction.
“I wrote about a sexual assault that happened to me… I guess writing it out was the first part of that therapeutic journey of getting through the trauma,” she said. “After winning the contest I saw that there was some inherent value inside myself, and I started working on getting clean.”
Since winning the competition, Schrader has completed the social service worker program at George Brown College, and spends much of her time volunteering for Ve’ahavta. She was recently named its community poverty relief associate.
After being exclusive to Toronto, the contest was opened to submissions from Vancouver last year, and it has expanded once again, to include entries from Halifax, near Schrader’s hometown.
When Schrader made the suggestion, Ve’ahavta’s president Avrum Rosensweig agreed to it as he liked the idea of reaching out to the homeless communities on each coast.
“I wanted to go into Vancouver last year because I know of the homeless situation there, and it’s pretty abysmal,” he said. “Halifax being at the other end of the country, there’s some poetry to that. Almost like bookends.”
Rosensweig, who writes a column for The CJN, said he’s “always believed that one of the ways of strengthening our world, making our planet better for the people who live in it, is by tapping into their creativity. I’ve always thought that in itself is a solution to homelessness.”
Last summer, Rosensweig and Schrader founded the Ve’ahavta Street Academy, which aimed to teach 10 homeless people, including Delgado, the skills they needed to get off the streets. Among the academy’s guest lecturers was CBC sportscaster Ron MacLean, who is one of the judges of this year’s writing contest.
“Ron came in and spoke to the class, and he was just so inspiring,” said Rosensweig. “He was talking about how it was important to have mentors and support, and while he was talking about that, he wrote his phone number down on the blackboard.”
MacLean said he got the idea of giving out his phone number from the book When All You Have Is Hope, by Frank O’Dea.
“Frank’s the co-founder of Second Cup,” said MacLean. “In 1971, Frank was on the street and a social worker gave him his phone number and a handful of dimes.” The social worker told Frank to call the number anytime he needed support, added MacLean.
“In my case, no one has called, but I think they felt a similar benefit without having to dial.”
Delgado agrees. “At first I didn’t know who he was, but when he started speaking I really liked the way he made his words sound poetic,” he said. “Him being there was a big thing for me.”
For more information about Ve’ahavta, visit www.veahavta.org.