“I Faced Homelessness in Middle School”- Cam, Public School Board Trustee of Hamilton

Meet Cam Galindo, an adventure-loving 26-year-old who’s also an elected public School Board Trustee in Hamilton. He’s been to 29 countries, was a flag bearer in the 2016 Olympics, and loves being with people!

Born in Colombia, he moved to Canada when he was just six years old. He recently joined Ample Labs as a community lead spearheading the launch of Chalmers in Hamilton. Within a few weeks, he shared a realization:

“I did some reflecting and realized I have actually been a hidden homeless individual. I never thought of myself that way before. That label never seemed like me. But when I was in grade 7, I spent a few months in a women’s shelter with my mom and my brother.”

When Cam started with Ample Labs, he had no idea the work he did would hit so close to home. Sharing his personal story wasn’t easy, but he knew how important it was for people to understand how common this reality is. This is especially true with a pandemic pushing more people over the edge.

How did he end up in a shelter? How did that affect his growth and the work he does today? What kind of impact does he hope to make now with Ample Labs and his political career?

Here’s a Q&A with Cam on all of the above and more:

(You can also see him speak Sept 22 at our Hamilton Launch and Learn)

What was your experience like facing homelessness?

“Let me start from the beginning. I was born in Colombia and I came to Canada as a refugee when I was 7 years old.”

“We came to Canada in search of a better life. My parents were seeking opportunities so myself and my younger brother could have a better future.

Left photo: Cam with his family beside a Christmas tree / Right photo: Cam holding a Canadian flag
Left photo: Cam with his family beside a Christmas tree / Right photo: Cam holding a Canadian flag

We escaped an increasingly violent and dangerous situation at home, between drug cartels, Guerilla violence, and increasing crime rates. Gun violence was a common occurrence, I lost my uncle to gun violence. I remember being at a birthday party and we could hear guns fire outside. Everyone was running, but we were used to it.

Prior to moving to Canada, we actually went to the United States first and lived in Bridgeford, Connecticut for ten months. When 9/11 happened, immigration became more difficult and my parents made the tough decision to leave everything behind again. We uprooted ourselves not just once but twice in search of a better life and settled in Hamilton, Ontario.

I remember the day I entered the country was the best day of my life. I was dancing in front of the security camera at the border crossing. I was only 7.

Even though between then and university I went to eight different schools and our future was uncertain, I am beyond grateful for the life I have here. I know it is a much better standard of living than what I would have had back home.

But several years later, my parents ended up getting separated. My mom left my dad and we moved into a women’s shelter called Halton Women’s place in Burlington. If you search it up, it doesn’t show up on google maps. Nor will you find the address on the website. It’s meant for women who need security.

Kitchen from Burlington’s Women’s Shelter that Cam stayed in
Kitchen from Burlington’s Women’s Shelter that Cam stayed in

We lived there for a few months. At that point, my brother and I were so used to the constant uprooting and changing schools.

Change was the norm for me. My mom did the best she could at the time, and both my brother and I understood the reasons behind her decision. We were supportive, but even then it was challenging. Our mom protected us from a lot of things. Somehow as a single mom, she was able to lift our family up until we got a home in Stony Creek.

My mom worked her butt off. Because there was a father figure missing from the household, I took on a lot of responsibilities.

There was a lot of growing up I had to do early since my mom didn’t have the time to supervise or raise us because she was working. The best thing my brother and I could do to make her proud was to be independent. I got my first job when I turned 14, at a fine dining restaurant. It wasn’t a very good job. Being a short little Colombian kid was such a struggle when it came to serving tables and holding plates. I only lasted three months there, but I worked a lot of odd jobs to support my family during my teenage years.”

Cam with his first paycheck of $21.84 from North Restaurant in Guelph
Cam with his first paycheck of $21.84 from North Restaurant in Guelph
Cam holding his first paycheck

How did your experience with hidden homelessness affect you growing up?

“I grew up very busy, between responsibilities at home and work, but my passion was still volunteering.”

Giving back to my community gave me a kind of purpose and satisfaction. I felt that it could help create opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be there. In elementary school, I would stay in at recess and volunteer at the secretary’s desk while they took a break.

When I entered grade 9, I ran for student council and won the election by a landslide. But shortly after, the teacher-advisor pulled me aside and said, “Camilo, can I talk to you for a second?” I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I was an odd fit. Most of the kids that make up student council were from wealthier families and were typically caucasian.

The teacher asked me why I was on a list for at-risk youth that the school kept. Typically, at-risk youth don’t run for student council.

Immediately, a sense of dread and shock came over me; why am I labeled as at-risk? The school kept a list of at-risk youth internally for teachers to monitor student success. At that point, I didn’t see myself as an at-risk youth. I didn’t think I was more likely to fail than my peers. But I was upset and I wanted to get to the bottom of how I got onto this list.

Turns out one of my elementary school teachers recommended me to be on the list. I called up all my teachers, trying to figure out who it was. But now that I bring it up, I can think of more and more experiences in elementary school that spoke to that. Situations that would only happen because I was an at-risk youth.

There was a student leadership program at my school, and despite how much more volunteer experience I had, I wasn’t selected. The fact that I was an at-risk youth wrote me off.

It made sense, as a visible minority and newcomer, English was not my first language. I was being raised by a single mother of two in a low-income household. I struggled with my sexual orientation and an undiagnosed case of ADHD. I was an at-risk youth through multiple parameters.

I can look back at my life now and see how it was all connected. The list is well-intentioned, but some teachers saw my label and couldn’t see me as anything else. I had a teacher in Gr. 6 that constantly reminded me I’m not going to university, telling me I won’t excel in high school. I was being groomed for failure.

At the end of the day, no matter how much harder it may have been for me to succeed, it is still more than I could have dreamt of in Colombia. I still remain in touch with many people in Colombia who wish they could have the opportunities of my life. That’s what keeps me grounded with whatever work I do now and my political career.

What are you working on today with Ample Labs and your political career?

“This August has been a lot busier than I expected. That’s a good thing. I’m balancing my work with Ample Labs, working with the Canadian Revenue Agency, and getting ready to start my Masters degree in public policy.

The impact Ample Labs has on a community is unlike any other that I’ve worked with. This is true in the context of innovation, co-working and impact.

I’ve done work in the non-profit sector before and Ample Labs is what the future of non-profit work should be like.

Through my work in government, I’m convinced one of the most effective ways of combating social issues is having the non-profit sector do it. The work that non-profits can do at one third of the cost a municipality can have 10x the impact, which blows my mind.

I don’t think I’ve felt so strongly about a project that wasn’t my own in a while. It’s refreshing to work with a group of people just as passionate about the project as you are if not more. What we’re able to achieve because of that motivation is astounding. It surprised me how much I learned, including with my own self-reflection and beyond the workplace.

My story is just one out of thousands of people experiencing poverty or homelessness. Not all of them have happy endings. Chalmers offers people opportunities they would otherwise have difficulty accessing.

My work leading the roll out of Chalmers in Hamilton brings me back to my own days of facing challenges navigating the system. I love the impact politics can make, and I believe it has a potential to do a lot more good.”

If you are interested learning how Chalmers is supporting vulnerable populations, RSVP to see Cam speak Sept 22 at our Hamilton Launch and Learn

ample Labs is a non-profit empowering those of us facing homelessness with technology. 👉 https://www.amplelabs.co

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