Mother Teresa Catholic Academy in Scarborough alumni Randell Adjei, Ontario’s Poet Laureate, top, and principal Jose Alberto Flores, below, share a passion for helping students find their way through life’s challenges. Photo by Michael Swan

Passion, purpose, the poet and principal

  • November 18, 2021

Walking through the halls of Scarborough’s Mother Teresa Catholic Academy, Ontario’s first Poet Laureate, Randell Adjei, and principal Jose Alberto Flores feel a special connection to the diverse and dynamic school community.

Though Adjei graduated in 2009, that hasn’t stopped him from coming back often to talk to staff and pour himself into the next generation of students through his art. A once troubled youth, he says he wouldn’t be where he is today without the school.

Flores, who like Adjei was raised by a single mother, emigrated to Canada from El Salvador as a young teenager. The People’s Choice Urban Hero Award winner has been intentional about building relationships with people like Adjei and other partners in the community. Both overcame many challenges and are united in the belief that teachers and mentors who care for the students and see the best of who they can be have the power to transform outcomes.

“I think it’s important to highlight that there’s been so many greats that have come out of not just Scarborough, but come out of Mother Teresa — so many great people, great innovators, great thinkers and great artists,” said Adjei, who in addition to being a poet is a motivational speaker and author of the critically acclaimed I Am Not My Struggles.

“(Mother Teresa) has this sense of community that you don’t really get at many other schools. That community is really based on the essence of ‘We’re in this together.’ That’s what I really love about it. I think there are lots of alchemists that come out of Mother Teresa — folks that turn rocks into gold.”

“I am very involved and very invested in this school community,” said Flores. “I see myself in (the students) and sometimes in the struggles that they go through, and I want to make sure that the doors that were open for me, that those doors are open for them.”

This past spring, Adjei began a two-year term as a legislative officer serving as the province’s Poet Laureate. He is tasked with increasing the profile of Ontario poets, participating in poetry readings and administering educational workshops. Adjei also serves as executive and creative director of R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere) Edutainment, an organization that empowers BIPOC youth in the Greater Toronto Area to promote meaningful art in self-expression.

"I see myself in (the students) and sometimes in the struggles they go through. I want to make sure that the doors that were open for me, that those doors are open for them."

- Jose Alberto Flores

A far cry from where he is today, growing up in the tough Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, Adjei was a bright but troubled kid. At age 12 he was arrested on more than one occasion for robbery, failure to comply and assault. All this, he understands today, was a cry for help and attention.

Introduced to writing by a teacher when he was in the eighth grade, he discovered the art form as a powerful tool for self-expression and he was hooked. When he moved to Scarborough and started high school at Mother Teresa he was determined to turn over a new leaf. He was inspired by educators who he says saw in him what he couldn’t see in himself, and gave him opportunities to express himself as a leader and community advocate. He was called on to speak to aspiring teachers at a local university about mitigating challenges in the classroom and was invited by a teacher to participate in a downtown Toronto program to feed the homeless. 

By the time he graduated, he was serving in various roles as a student leader, became an Ontario Scholar and was the valedictorian of his graduating class. During those transformative years he also became more spiritual and began attending Mass of his own volition.

The work he does today has been motivated by his passion to help youth, through education and creative writing, to process their pain and turn it into purpose.

“I’m helping a younger Randell,” said Adjei. “Someone who could have used a leg up. Someone who could have used mentorship and support. Someone who could have really benefited from having someone who had gone through similar experiences, to share what it would be like, or just to be there (for support). I’m doing this for the younger me that was getting in trouble, but also younger me who had so much potential and just needed opportunities and resources to be pulled in the right direction and anyone and everyone in between.”

Flores sees plenty of young Randells walking through the halls today, but also sees himself. Emigrating to Canada in 1993 with his mother and his sister and not being able to speak a word of English, he goes above and beyond to make sure students and their families have the resources they need to navigate the education system in Canada. Whether it’s access to interpreters, assistance purchasing school uniforms or connecting students with community mentors and partners, the goal is making sure students are equipped with all the tools they need for success.

Flores knows that representation matters and that educators and mentors like him and Adjei who look like and share the experiences of students in the community can make all the difference in the lives of young people, especially those residing in priority neighbourhoods.

“(Randell) is always eager to help this school,” said Flores. “This year we connected to see how we can continue supporting our school community by reconnecting with our alumni but also taking advantage of his gift of connecting with people through literature. When you hear him talk it’s like therapy. He’s such a well-grounded young man that when you’re talking to him, he demands that attention in a good way.”

Flores is always looking for ways to reach students, including through the school’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) programs that garner the interests of Mother Teresa’s diverse group of students, including robotics, culinary, academic and sports programs. Working to connect with students on a human level, learning their interests and stories, helps them to feel seen and heard and to know whatever they are going through, they are not alone.

United in passion and purpose, Flores and Adjei plan to stay connected in serving the needs of young people in the school community for many years to come.

“I think we’ve had some pretty good principals at Mother Teresa over the years,” said Adjei. “What I love about Jose is I can see students coming up to him to chat and actually talk to him and it’s not on a punitive level. He has conversations with them. They’re comfortable coming up to him. I also like how involved he’s been in extracurricular activities.

“I think it’s important for a principal to be involved and invested. I could just tell he has a real serious commitment to being at Mother Teresa and seeing the success of the students.”

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