25 Years of Spirit: A Yearbook

Our History

Though most of our early records were burned in a fire at the CHOJ station (now known as CTV), the stories of youth live on in personal memories of resiliency and courage. In order to recover some of our history, our communications team went on a journey of investigation: connecting with past members in any way we could. What follows is everything that has been reclaimed through our investigation and more recent documentation of the RBC Spirit of the Capital Awards.  

A Tribute to our Founder: Max Keeping

Our first “principal,” Max Keeping, was also our first cheerleader. Among many other organizations, he was dedicated to redefining what “community” meant. He was an honourary-chair at what was formerly known as Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa (now Youth Ottawa), but took a hands-on role within our organization.

Before passing away in 2015, he once said “I’ve got a lot of living to do. We like to think he has kept his promise as his spirit lives on through our organization. It was his goal to give kids and youth a voice in decisions that mattered most to them: an ideal that carries on in every corner of our organization. 

In the early days, Max Keeping was instrumental in the promotion of CAYFO. He was an on-air reporter who would end each of his broadcasts with a small positive piece about kids for numerous years. 

“Every Friday, he’d finish the newscast with ‘make a difference in the life of a child.’ And everyone’s saying that now, but people weren’t saying that way back then,” explained David Millen, our founding Executive Director.

In the early years, there were a number of young people who had great ideas. One such person was Maya Shoucair: a young high school class president who had helped organize a few of our first Spirit Awards. She then came up with an idea and decided to approach us with it.

In 2004, Maya Shoucair and her friends pitched their new fair fundraiser idea to Max Keeping. They weren’t able to accomplish the idea, but she was grateful for the opportunity to pitch the idea to the team at the CTV station nonetheless. 

Without Max, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Without him, we wouldn’t have had the privilege of hearing youth voices for a quarter of a century. 

“It was through those efforts with Max that we were able to get off to a good start,” said David. “There was a lot of trial and error, and in those early years; we struggled primarily to secure funding. With Max, we gained profile, and thus we were able to find more funding opportunities.”

Now, one of our RBC Spirit of the Capital Award categories is called the Max Keeping award. It recognizes the young changemakers that have made a big impact in our community, or in their own lives. Year after year, these stories are powerful enough to bring tears to our eyes – whether it’s saving someone’s life or overcoming personal struggles, we are always thankful to hear the stories of strength and resilience of these youth.

One such youth was Jeff Ava Gonsalez, whose family had immigrated to Canada to escape violence. Two of his brothers had been killed, and he was unknowingly put in a class with someone who had killed his second brother. Despite his turmoil and anger, he knew nothing would come out of further violence. Fast forward a couple years, and he became a police officer and visited countless schools to tell his story to younger children.

Retired Programs

Tools 4 School & Skate 4 Kids

Tools 4 Schools was a program we ran for over a decade, allowing the community to raise money and realise the importance of community support in making a difference in youth and their families. Throughout 10 years, we provided youth with over 15,000 new and gently used skates who needed them to enjoy our favourite national past-time through our Skates 4 Kids program.


Bullying is a major problem youth face in school. With USAFE, a youth-to-youth education program, we had educators go into schools to discuss these issues and create school environments a safer, more respectful place. By listening to other youth, kids were more also likely to engage with learning. 

Ottawa Youth for Change

With our Ottawa Youth for Change program, youth were encouraged to implement international projects into their own communities. We held annual conferences discussing pertinent, global issues and how to solve them locally. Most importantly of all, CAYFO started out as an organization who asked businesses how child and youth-friendly their buildings were. 

“What a radical thing to ask!” said David.

Children were invited to hospitals, schools, and hotels to evaluate the safety measures for kids. Since then, we have continued to provide educational programming. We continue to teach digital literacy, community civic engagement, and professional skills to youth all over Ottawa. Our Youth Active Media (YAM) program, Active Citizen Initiative (ACI) program, and Artistic Mentorship Program (AMP) are all those that continue to make an impact in the lives of young Ottawans. Moreover, when we were known as CAYFO, we focused on the accomplishments of those under the age of 18. Since then, we have moved on to include those in university and college as well.  

Our First Spirit Awards

For 25 years, we have not only been providing resources for Ottawa youth, but we have also been recognizing their efforts and accomplishments. Whether it was for perseverance, courage, strength through diversity, or many others, the inspirational quality of youth has always been recognized.  

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Youth Ottawa’s biggest youth event of the year! The first Spirit awards needed some perseverance and actually took two attempts to accomplish due to a lack of funding and volunteers. Now, the spirit awards are held annually, whether online or in person, as one of our biggest events of the year.

In 1997, we hosted our first RBC Spirit of the Capital Award ceremony at the Westin hotel. For many youth, it was the first time they got the chance to attend a formal, sit-down gala, let alone one that recognized their accomplishments. 

Medin Admasu was one of our Master of Ceremonies that year. He described rocks with motivational messages placed at each table, powerful stories, and a wide range of youth who excelled in their own categories: from academics to athletics. 

From the beginning, we have also been allowing youth to gain skills behind-the-scenes. Youth like Medin and Maya were instrumental in understanding what was needed for these events.

“[Youth Ottawa was] not just providing for the youth, but also looking at what the youth could do” – Joe Veryard, a past Chair of the Board of Directors at Youth Ottawa.

On Feb. 2, 1998, the awards were held as a formal dinner at the National Museum of Aviation and tickets were priced at $15 for youth under the age of 18 and $25 for adults. For the first few years, the awards only had six categories for youth in between the ages of 11-19. Take a look at some of the original category descriptions!

The next year, we would host our Spirit Awards at the Congress Centre as a dinner event, with the private sector as a sponsor.

Take a look at the script of one of the speeches from lieutenant Governor of Ontario Hilary Weston that night, pictures courtesy of Chantilly Iafrati!

Chantilly had also been an involved youth organizer for the first few Spirit awards in 1998 and 1999. Back then, she was an incredibly driven high school student who was heavily engaged with the community and was awarded with a small trophy outside of the awards by CAYFO staff.


“Overall it was great to go and at the time, we really felt that this was supposed to be organized for us by us,” she said. “That’s what impacted me the most and I think that I took on for years to come.”

Now, she works for the federal government and is a mother of two. She said she hopes her kids will be involved with Youth Ottawa in similar ways as she was. 

“Now that I’m older and I also recognize as a mom, with this other layer of responsibility that I didn’t have that I had back then, I’d love for them to understand that at that age we’re just capable of so much,” Chantilly said.

Heroes of the Round Table

CAYFO/Youth Ottawa started off by providing youth with the resources they needed to accomplish their goals. Soon enough, we would shift our priorities to also include listening to the youth our decisions affected most. We have since evolved, but this principle remains the same. In the beginning, our founders noticed that only adults were the ones making decisions for kids.

“All of these well-intentioned adults would sit around and make decisions about governance in the child welfare system and the kids were nowhere to be seen.” – David Millen

While no one wanted to listen to these voices, CAYFO worked hard to create a foundation for change. At the Royal Ottawa Hospital, a round table was formed to promote the need for action in schools and school safety. The tables represented equality, regardless of age or status, where everyone had a say in decision-making – the first time for youth.

The very first board of directors were incredibly influential, including the chief of police, local city counsellors, as well as up to four youth. Before us, this was unheard of. Those four youth went on to do extremely well in the world of politics and business.

“It was refreshing to spend a lot of time with kids who were in those days quite surprised that anybody would want to listen to them, pay attention to them, other than their school teachers and their own parents,” expressed David. Since that moment, round tables were the birthplace of our beliefs: where everyone’s voice is heard, regardless of who they were.

The Spirit Awards through the Decades

The Spirit of the Capital Awards were once a formal sit-down gala, but eventually evolved into a stand-up friendly event after listening to some of the suggestions from youth themselves. 

We take pride in having put the needs and voices of young people first throughout all these years. As Medin once said: “nothing about us without us.” To this day, we believe that youth should be able to tell us what they need from us. “Whenever you’re talking about something, those that are most impacted should be involved in whatever capacity – they need a say in it, if not, should be leading it” – Medin Admasu

As such, we have been able to adapt to suit the needs of youth throughout the decades. Starting out as an organisation that focused on making sure that public spaces were safe for children, working on children’s rights, to now focusing on amplifying youth voices and youth talent. 

The criteria for the RBC Spirit of the Capital Awards have changed numerous times throughout the years, with a recognition that some of the first categories overlapped quite a bit.

The Spirit of the Capital Awards also used to only name one recipient – but how do you choose just one? There were so many heartwarming and inspiring stories: we had to change it to two recipients. This was especially true for the courage award, now called the Max Keeping award, where the runners-up would have amazing stories, despite not being the recipients.

We also incorporated tables for families so they could celebrate their children’s accomplishments.  In a world where youth were seen as delinquents and troublesome, we proved everyone wrong with our Spirit Awards. 

“It gives people the opportunity to look at youth in a positive light and all these good news stories that don’t always make it to the headlines” – Joe Veryard 

Thank you to all those who allowed us to learn about some of our own history. 

More about our Impact: Profiles

Maya Shoucair

Maya Shoucair’s younger sisters were astounded that people actually worked at TikTok, let alone their older sister. Maya was hired to lead public policy partnerships for Canada. Now, she’s leading social impact strategy across the Americas. But before all of this exciting development, she was a youth in Ottawa. In 2004, she attended her first sit-down gala: the RBC Spirit of the Capital Awards. As a student council president, she found out about Youth Ottawa through school, and helped volunteer at the awards. She credits all of the youth programs that give young people access to resources and leadership opportunities to her success, including Youth Ottawa. 

“I grew up in Sandalwood, a highly underserved neighbourhood in Ottawa’s south east. I credit a lot of my success to having access to youth leadership programs like Hillcrest’s student council or Youth Ottawa which provided skills based training, mentorship, and networking opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to,” said Maya.

Medin Admasu

Medin Admasu was one of the MC’s at our very first RBC Spirit of the Capital Awards, and chaired the organising committee for our fourth awards. It was his first time organizing a large local award ceremony, but set him up to where he is today: having organized multiple large events for the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, where he is now the Chief Programs Officer. He continues to work with youth and give them new opportunities, and credits the opportunity to test out his skills at organizations like Youth Ottawa as a teenager to his success. 

“[Organizations like Youth Ottawa] gave me a chance to test out my skills, develop new skills, meet different people that I would never meet just doing regular teenage things at the time.” – Medin Admasu

A plethora of other youth who came into contact with us over the years have gone on to become extremely successful: from fashion entrepreneurs to lawyers.

The Future of Youth Ottawa "high"

Youth Ottawa has some exciting things planned for our 25th anniversary and beyond. This year, we are hoping to return to the National Arts Centre in person; with a red-carpet arrival, a photobooth, finger-friendly foods, VIP seating, and so much more. We look forward to seeing all of the young changemakers who will continue to have amazing opportunities. 

Nominations are now open for the 2022 RBC Spirit of the Capital Youth Awards and we’re looking for exceptional young people to honour! We’ll be recognizing 14 youth in 7 different categories. Youth will be awarded a $1,000 bursary, recognition through CBC Ottawa platforms and an opportunity to celebrate with us at the gala in October. If you know a young person who is helping to make your community a better place, we want to hear from you!

More information on the award categories and requirements can be found here.