Mandelas to honour Canadian teen, Mitch Kurylowicz, at Black History Month gala

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Mitch Kurylowicz was just ten when he founded Project Jenga, a non-profit that raises funds to build a boys’ school in rural Kenya. Now, the University of Toronto commerce student is being honoured by the Mandela family at the 2016 Black History Month Gala, where he’ll be presented with a Mandela Legacy Award. This is his story.

In a barren field in the Narok south district of Kenya two years ago, Michelle Douglas dug a small but deep hole.

As the sun beat down on her head, a tall Maasai warrior named Meikuaya helped out, no doubt wondering what the hell this blond Canadian woman was doing.

Finally, once the hole was big enough, she dropped in a waterproofed note, refilled the spot, thanked Meikuaya and walked away.

And there the mysterious message stayed, long after Douglas returned to Canada. It stayed there through rain and heat, undisturbed by anyone until this past summer when another Canadian, this time Douglas’s nephew, Mitch Kurylowicz, asked Meikuaya for help to dig it up.

The message itself was not that significant — just a brief note of best wishes and good luck — but its placement certainly was. Located right in the middle of the field, it marked the spot where Kurylowicz would that day break ground on a bricks and mortar school for boys that his charity, Project Jenga, had helped to fund.

And that’s kind of ironic because a schoolboy is exactly what Kurylowicz is himself.

A competitive soccer player who played at the provincial level, the 19-year-old has so far raised $400,000 and last year, won a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for community leadership last year. He will be honored by the Mandela family at the Black History Month Gala in Ottawa on February 20, 2016, at the Canadian Museum of History. There, along with luminaries like Drake, Kanye West and Naomi Campbell, he will receive the Mandela Legacy’s Hope, Success & Empowerment Award.

In attendance will be Her Excellency Mrs. Zindzi Mandela, Ambassador of South Africa in the Kingdom of Denmark and daughter of the Honorable Nelson Mandela; Her Excellency Mrs. Zenani Mandela, Ambassador of South Africa in Argentina and daughter of the Honorable Nelson Mandela; Mrs. Lindo Zici Mandela, Director of the Mandela Legacy, and grandson and co-founder, Mr Zondwa Mandela.

“This is so incredible, what an amazing honour,” says Mitch, now a first year commerce student at the University of Toronto. “I don’t even know what to say.”

But get him on the topic of his charity, and the words come tumbling out.

“It’s very time-consuming,” he says, sounding closer to 39 than 19. “There’s a lot of work to be done, sending emails, trying to cold-call sponsors. [In high school], I was head boy,” he adds, almost as an aside, “so that’s another thing to take into account in terms of time management. I had to keep a solid agenda and keeping up with school work is really important to me.”

Yet Project Jenga, which is just him “unless you count my mom in there,” is his passion. And it’s one that started back in 2007, during a fateful week-long trip to rural Kenya with his mother, Lynda, and Douglas, chair of the board of directors for Free the Children, the charity started by activist humanitarians and Me to We founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger.

Back then, Douglas hoped to “share an important part of my life and help him become the best global citizen he can be.” That goal involved inviting him to join her on the African journey, where she introduced the “sensitive, empathetic” nine-year-old to a part of the world where a primary school education was a rare privilege, not a right.

Although he seemed to seamlessly fit right in with the other village kids — “they played soccer, had a good time and I’m sure someone kept score,” she laughs — the experience marked him deeply.

Upon returning to Canada, she says, “he just got busy. I don’t remember him ever saying he wanted to do something more, he didn’t articulate that. He just did it.”

What started with a sticker campaign soon expanded until Kurylowicz launched Project Jenga from a desk in his bedroom.

Since then, Kurylowicz has returned to Kenya twice more, the last time to kickstart what will become Free the Children’s first all-boys school program.

“When I was there, I realized that throughout history, the boys were educated so much better, so now charities all want to support girls’ schools. Now there’s two schools in the Narok south region and neither is for boys. The one that was there was made of cow dung, mud and sticks,” he says.

“Those 40 girls who had the chance to go to school, I saw how excited they and their families were. They had to come from kilometres away to get this education. And they really valued it. I became aware of the disparities in education there when I was nine because of Free the Children. I thought, ‘you’re never too young to act, you can do big things and raise lots of money, no matter how old you are.’ ”

Of course, it helps to have a hero like Craig Kielburger, who says he’s not only grateful for Kurylowicz’s fundraising, but for his “unwavering passion and dedication to helping other young people.”

For Kurylowicz, who has applied for business programs at university next year, it all boils down to democratizing education, wherever it is.

That goal became particularly acute back in Kenya one day, when he watched kids his own age line up on a field scorched by the sun, waiting to receive a single pencil.

“It seemed like an infinite number of kids, all waiting for a pencil. They waited for so long,” he says, still amazed.

“In the end, they wanted to give us something back, they’ll give you everything they can to be equal with you. But we just said, ‘Look, we’ll give you the education. You just do something great with it.’ ”

For more information about the Black History Month Gala at the Canadian Museum of History, please contact Gwen Madiba at For tickets, visit Eventbrite. Tickets are $100 or $250 including a VIP cocktail party.