Story by Mark Sissons
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — On a drizzling winter evening at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Alpha B. Kirabira welcomes attendees to the Little Black Dress Gala; a fundraiser for the charitable organization he started called Help Change My City Alliance. After showing a video about its outreach work with the homeless, marginalized and at-risk youth in the Greater Vancouver Area, Kirabira asks a young woman profiled in the clip to come forward. To polite applause, she thanks this man from a faraway land for helping her escape from being sexually trafficked.
We tend to think of charities involving Africans in terms of us providing assistance to them, not the other way around. Yet here is a man who spent part of his childhood in an orphanage in war-torn Uganda, changing young lives on Canada’s streets with a message of hope that flows from one powerful realization: Someone values me. I am not alone.
“I wanted to give back to the country that has given so much to me,” Kirabira explains, sitting in the tiny Yaletown office he shares with his organization partner, Christine Michelle. The son of a single mother (since remarried), Kirabira, who has a sister and three step-brothers, was sponsored by a Canadian family to come to Canada when he was 12. He attended high school in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb, and then returned home to visit at 17. That’s when he says he found his calling. “My mom always told me, ‘If you’re not giving, you’re not living,'” he says. “No matter how rich you are, you’re not truly successful until you’re giving back, completing the circle.”
Kirabira will be spreading his story and his message again on Friday, when the next Little Black Dress Gala will take place. This time, the venue is the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and more than 1,000 tickets have been sold, making it one of the most well-attended fundraising events in the city.
African Man’s Charity Helping Canadians
Kirabira and his mother started two schools in Uganda, launched community outreach programs, and opened a home for infants. To fund their humanitarian goals, they started a printing and publishing company and a guesthouse for foreign-aid workers. “My mom taught me how to make things work,” Kirabira recalls. “To create opportunities with limited resources to help kids get an education, and a chance.”
These Ugandan enterprises continue to fund his work with British Columbia’s youth, until partners and fundraising grows.
Once he returned to the Vancouver area to attend university, Kirabira rented gyms in tough neighbourhoods, buying food for kids who showed up to train and offering them life skills coaching.
“I wanted to help youth emerge from a difficult place in their lives and eventually reach the point where they could give back to their community,” he says.
In 2012 he started Help Change My City Alliance to broaden this mentorship. Today, it operates on Vancouver’s streets and in the region’s schools, providing personal growth support, life coaching, leadership and skills training.
“You can tell from these kids’ faces that they have gone through a war zone day to day,” Kirabira says. “So we try to break down their negative self-image, first by letting them know that they are loved, valuable, cared for, and part of a community. Then we draw from that to help them find employment.”
For Kaleigh Mahoney, the woman Kirabira introduced at the previous Little Black Dress Gala, Help Change My City Alliance assisted in freeing her from the sex trade and getting her life on track.
“I didn’t trust men at all,” she says. “So to have someone who was a good person show me how I should expect to be treated by a man was pivotal for me. At times I’ve thought of Alpha as my guardian angel.”
Mahoney, who is now married with a son, gives back by sponsoring a scholarship in her former high school, awarded to students who persevere through family struggles, emotional issues, bullying, and abuse. Like her Ugandan-born mentor, she’s helping change her city: first, one young life. And then another.
MORE ABOUT THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS GALA
2016 Date: November 25
Win Tickets: The event is sold out; to win a pair of tickets, log into your Twitter account and send a tweet at @VacayCanada using the hashtag #VacayLBD.
Location: Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, 900 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, BC (see map below)
More Info: To learn more about Alpha B. Kirabira’s work with British Columbia’s at-risk youth, visit Help Change My City Alliance.