Very few people get bit by the passion bug early on. One of those rare few is Loizza Aquino. And her passion is not remotely associated with anything trendy.
The 19-year-old Aquino is the president and founder of Peace of Mind Canada and Leaders of Today Canada.
At an even younger age, she already demonstrated her passion for social activism. In a talk she gave in October 2018, Aquino recalled watching the news about Typhoon Ondoy with her mother when she was only nine years old.
“She began to do what every Filipino mom does: she gave me a guilt trip,” Aquino shared.
“Anak, you’re so blessed, so lucky,” her mom Lorna stressed, comparing Aquino’s life in Canada with those of their relatives and friends in the Philippines. Aquino’s parents started fund-raising for the victims of Typhoon Ondoy and Loizza told them she’d do the same.
Her parents did not take this remark seriously but Aquino went to her school, told the principal what she wanted to do and started her own fund-raising efforts. At the end of two weeks, her efforts produced $600 in cash and dozens of boxes of donated clothes, non-perishable food and other items.
Quick to pick up life lessons, Aquino said she learned two important lessons: no change is too small (referring to the small $600 collection) and you’re never too young to make a difference (she was only nine).
At age 12, Aquino participated in WE Day and listened to a young Kenyan who was a former child soldier forced to shoot his best friend. This experience affected Aquino deeply that she volunteered to become part of the Vow of Silence campaign that encourages young people to stand in solidarity with their peers around the world who have been silenced by not having their rights upheld.
Her participation of 24 hours of silence raised $2,000 which in turn was matched by the non-profit group Free the Children. The money raised helped build homes for girls in a remote Kenyan village.
As if her earlier experiences weren’t enough to shape this young woman’s life, she experienced even worse at age 15. Her best friend Miguel committed suicide when they were in grade 10. His suicide was one of four within the city of Winnipeg that happened in a span of three weeks. “I felt defeated – how could we let four suicides happen and not have a single conversation about mental health?” she asked herself.
Aquino herself was an impressionable teenager at that time, confused, staring at the wall and kept asking “why” until she realized that asking “why” was not going to solve the problem because “you can’t undo what’s already been done.” “I wanted to turn the pain that I felt into passion,” she declared. Thus was born Peace of Mind Canada.
Peace of Mind Canada provides safe environments for young people to share their stories and experiences in the hopes of removing the stigma surrounding mental health which prevents individuals from getting help and having conversations to spread awareness and knowledge about the topic.
One of Peace of Mind Canada’s events is the annual Youth Against Mental Health & Illness Stigma (YAMHIS) which provides open mic sessions to a variety of speakers sharing their perspectives around mental health, mental illness, depression, suicide and self-harm – topics that are not normally and openly discussed in school or at home.
YAMHIS started with 100 participants in 2015, growing to 700 in 2018. Since its inception, YAMHIS has reached over 2,000 people including 120 speakers who shared personal stories and experiences surrounding mental health issues.
Aquino’s latest endeavour is the Leaders of Today which she co-founded this year with fellow TD Scholarship for Community Leadership awardee Daniyal Kashif. Leaders of Today aims to provide opportunities for young people to experience the power of networking and empowerment.
Born in Manila, raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto, Aquino oversees Peace of Mind Canada, which has divisions in Manitoba called Peace of Mind 204 and in Ontario called Peace of Mind 416.
She has received countless awards and scholarships: Manitoba Teachers’ Society Young Humanitarian Award, Gawad Genny Lopez Bayaning Pilipino Award, the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership, the City of Winnipeg Youth Role Model Award and the YMCA Peace Medal. She is also the youngest person to receive both the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award of Canada and the RBC Youth Award.
Aquino currently studies at the University of Toronto working towards a bachelor of science degree in psychology and health sciences, with a double major in mental health studies and international development studies, and a minor in urban public policy and governance.
Like her nine-year-old self, Aquino is adamant about making small changes. “Even if it’s small to you, it doesn’t mean it’s small to the person you’re helping,” she said.
But summarizing her 19-year-old self, this is what Aquino has to say: “As a young person, as a Filipino, as a person of colour, as a woman – I always found it hard to succeed, to find role models who looks like me, who are like me. But I realized that if I can’t find that role model, then I want to be that one person that people can look up to.”