This story is part of the Comox Valley Record’s fall edition of Trio Magazine, published quarterly and available throughout the Comox Valley.
Grant Shilling has an interest in acknowledging things before they start happening.
Like the time in 2009 when he delivered a bunch of wetsuits to the Gaza Surf Club. His inspiration was the surf culture that was emerging in the Middle East. Though surfing wasn’t the answer to problems in that corner of the world, he recognized the sport could build bridges and create what Doc Paskowitz — the Father of Israeli Surfing — has called ‘moments of peacefulness.’
“As an artist, writer and bon vivant, I’m interested in creative solutions to society’s challenges,” said Shilling, who hails from Toronto.
He wrote a book about his journey: Surfing With The Devil, In Search of Waves and Peace in the Middle East. He also initiated a non-profit dubbed Get on Board (GOB), which uses board sports to develop social skills and confidence in youth. With support from Landyachtz and New Line Skateparks, Shilling raised money to construct a skateboard park in the remote First Nation community of Ahousaht, near Tofino.
“That was the aftermath of the Leviathan boat sinking,” he said in reference to the 2015 tragedy when six people died after a whale-watching boat capsized. “This was a thank you, a love letter to the people of Ahousaht who were the first on the scene.”
Shilling is an outreach worker at the Dawn to Dawn: Action on Homelessness Society, a Comox Valley organization that helps individuals via direct action to solve immediate problems. It also challenges perceptions about homelessness. The website says Shilling is “the heart of the society.” In 2012, he started a street soccer program that enables marginalized individuals to exercise, socialize and compete in a fun environment.
Shilling credits his father Sam — who idolized Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, among other athletes — for illustrating how sports can influence people in a way that transcends the arena or playing field. He would later come to understand how other groundbreakers like Martina Navritalova and Muhammad Ali “carved a path to make things acceptable.”
Another influence was professor Bruce Kidd, a former Olympic runner and dean of physical education at the University of Toronto, who taught a course called the political economy of Canadian sport: how sport, culture and politics intertwine. Shilling “leveraged” what he learned and formed a coalition called All Sorts of Sports, which dealt with AIDS and athletics based on an incident in Saskatoon.
“Being with Dawn to Dawn has given me an opportunity to continue that, taking that idea of being creative with regard to working with marginalized populations.”
In a new initiative, Shilling is spearheading a safe housing project for LGBTQ2S+ youth called Rainbow House. It will provide shelter and specialized supports to meet specific needs for people 16 to 28 years. He notes that LGBTQ2S+ youth experience higher levels of homelessness than their peers.
“I think it’s wonderful that Rainbow House is doing this,” said Sabel Grange, a Dawn to Dawn peer support worker who is creating a video about Rainbow House for the Comox Valley Art Gallery Youth Media Project.
“I do know that being queer myself, and being trans myself, when you carry any identity that is different from the expected baseline that society wants us to be, it can be a lot more difficult to be in stable housing, and that only exacerbates itself when you’re holding more than one of those identities…Since the beginning of the pandemic, and a little before, the housing crisis is getting worse. We need to help the people who are living rough, and living in unstable housing, because they’re part of our community, too.”
Dawn to Dawn is developing a capital campaign to make Rainbow House happen. They received a $15,000 grant from the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C. (SPARC) to engage LGBTQ2S+ youth in the design and implementation of the program. First Credit Union has provided an inaugural donation of $5,000, and Western Forest Products has contributed $1,500 to the project.
“We’re extremely optimistic,” Shilling said. “We are looking for significant partners. Somewhere over the rainbow is a pot of gold, I just know it.”