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Alumni receive $210,000 boost to empower Scarborough youth through woodworking

Shirin Karoubi (BA, 2013) is one of the founders of Toolbox, an organization for local youth that just received a $210,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation's Youth Opportunities Fund. (Photo by Ken Jones)

The first time Shirin Karoubi (BA, 2013) stepped through the doors of U of T Scarborough’s Fabrication and Digital Media lab, she was taken aback. When she enrolled in “sculpture” class, she assumed that she’d be working with clay. But there was no kiln or potter’s wheel to be found—instead, Karoubi found herself in a woodworking shop.

“It was super intimidating. I hadn’t done anything like that before,” says Karoubi.

With the encouragement of Studio program director and associate professor Marla Hlady, she quickly took to the trade. Mistakes became learning opportunities and with each one, Karoubi’s worries lessened and her confidence grew.

“I really liked using my hands and it spilled over into other parts of my life,” says Karoubi, who majored in City Studies and Studio. “Once you learn something new that you thought you couldn’t have done before, it opens the doors for other thing.”

Now, she’s passing those same skills and sense of confidence along to youth in need. Along with co-founder Jen Roberton, Karoubi has been awarded $210,000 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Youth Opportunities Fund to facilitate Toolbox, a woodworking, electronics and bike mechanics program for youth in Scarborough. When Toolbox launches in the fall, it will deliver hands-on skills to those who might not typically have access to them, including women and gender nonconforming people.

For these youth, Karoubi believes that the technical skills they’ll gain are fundamental to building confidence and maintaining healthy relationships. This, says Hlady, is the very ethos of the Studio program, which offers technical and conceptual courses in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, performance art, video, new media and animation.

“A lot of the students come in and have barely held a drill in their hand before, much less used a jigsaw. They’re thrown in really fast and deep. So there’s this incredible process of empowerment that happens—they realize they can do stuff,” says Hlady.

It wasn’t just a sense of self that Karoubi found during her time at U of T Scarborough — she also found community. Alumni have been instrumental in Toolbox’s inception. Fellow Studio grads Diana Hosseini and Natalie Duncan, who have expertise in metalworking and electronics, will help to deliver workshops. Bike Chain, a non-profit organization, has offered its bike shops on campus, while Y+, an art gallery run by U of T Scarborough grads, is lined up to host the program’s graduation.

According to Hlady, this is a common trait shared by Studio students and grads—leaning on one another for support and encouragement. “In the process of learning basic skills, students figure out that if they help each other, it’s easier. They begin to realize the incredible power of community,” she says.

The Trillium grant is just the beginning for Toolbox. Karoubi says that in the future, the organization may become a social entrepreneurship. Ultimately, she’d like to run a wood shop where youth can develop their skills, build portfolios and plan for their future—similar to the experience she got in Studio.   


© University of Toronto Scarborough