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Michael Bazzocchi, centre, with Trek for Teens volunteers. Bazzocchi's organization has raised more than $60,000 in support of charities that aid homeless youth. (Courtesy of Michael Bazzocchi)

It’s estimated that on any given night in Toronto, up to 2,000 people aged 16 to 24 are homeless. Some are forced into prostitution to make ends meet, while many others struggle with addiction – often a consequence, not a cause, of life on the streets. Seventy per cent come from homes where physical abuse and neglect are commonplace, according to Covenant House.

In 2007, an enterprising Toronto high school student named Michael Bazzocchi (EngSci 0T3, UTIAS PhD candidate) decided to tackle this problem. The organization he founded, Trek for Teens Foundation, has since raised more than $60,000 in donations for local shelters, such as Covenant House. Now taking root in chapters across the province — including one at U of T — Trek for Teens has also attracted thousands of youths to work on the cause. “Homelessness really can happen to anyone,” says Bazzocchi. “And few people realize that it could happen to someone very close to them.”

Bazzocchi’s interest in humanitarianism started early: in high school, he helped build schools in Kenya with Free the Children, and later did humanitarian work with children living in poverty, people with developmental disabilities and those terminally ill with AIDS in Jamaica. The 25-year-old is also a specialist in the deflection and capture of asteroids, and plans to complete his PhD at UTIAS in 2018.

In addition to space research and social service, Bazzocchi is also an accomplished hockey player, set designer and actor, who has won awards from the U of T Drama Coalition – including one for his turn as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. With such a wide range of interests, he’s open to whatever ideas his student volunteers propose.

The event that initially sparked Trek for Teens still takes place each spring: an “Amazing Race” in which small teams of teenagers careen through the city, solving predetermined challenges at a variety of checkpoints. To assist in this year’s event, U of T’s Destination Imagination (a creativity and problem-solving club) put together a series of giant, playable board games in the middle of Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square.

Trek for Teens stages multiple events – some held at the University of Toronto – throughout the year in order to raise funds. These have included a fashion show, a film festival, concerts and conferences. Volunteers aren’t just high school and university students; many are homeless youth themselves – and they all pitch in to make Trek for Teens work. Says Bazzocchi: “The youth we work with come forward with amazing ideas for events, and we encourage this so that everyone can enjoy making a difference through their own talents and skills.”

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Fahad Pinto
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