Changemakers: Noah, Nero and Susan

written by Vaibhav Bhandari with photos by Richard Li

With winter fully underway, we scurry about from location to destination to escape the bitter cold and wind. On the edges of the campus and around town, often noticeable are the city’s homeless – taking cover around bus shelters or on top of subway grates that provide some warm relief against cold discomfort.

It was a similar observation that led Noah Manczyk and Nero Thevakumaran, graduate students at the Sicheri lab in the Department of Biochemistry, to start a clothing drive. “We both kind of separately noticed,” Manczyk recalls, “when winter arrives, it’s always quite tough for anyone who doesn’t have a home, just trying to stay warm or find a location to stay.”

Expanding on the impetus that led to the initiative, Manczyk explains, “[Throughout] our undergraduate degrees we were doing stuff outside of schoolwork, so we wanted to get involved with that again. Winter was approaching and we really just wanted to help out those in need. The clothing drive was a logical step.”

A grassroots, word-of-mouth based effort, it is centered at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. Operating seasonally each year from November to mid-December, the clothing drive just completed its fifth year of operation. While Thevakumaran has since graduated, Susan Kelso, also a student in the Sicheri lab, has stepped in to run the clothing drive along with Manczyk. Having herself been previously involved with student life at the University of Waterloo, Kelso described her recruitment by Manczyk who “was looking to include someone new to take it over once [Nero] graduated. It seemed like a good fit as we work closely in the lab already, and I welcomed the opportunity to participate in a program that would help people outside of academia/university life.”

Noah, Susan, and a mountain of donated clothes.

While cash is welcome, most of the donations are in the form of clothing collected at one of four deposit boxes. Three of the boxes, cloaked in wrapping paper for visibility, are located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Mount Sinai Hospital (600 University Avenue) with a fourth located on the 5th floor in the 60 Murray Street building of the hospital complex.

To help with the logistical aspect of distributing the donated wares, the clothing drive has paired up with the Fred Victor social service organization. At multiple locations across the city, Fred Victor – through its numerous programs aimed at alleviating poverty – provides a variety of housing, health and financial assistance.

Manczyk explains the collaboration with the charity: “They have a few homeless shelters. We donate to the one up at Lawrence and Caledonia. They accept almost any clothing donation, so we’ll talk to them and see if there’s anything in specific they need. Sometimes they really need boots, or sometimes they’re focused on pyjamas. So we highlight that in the poster as we touch base with them to see if there is anything in particular that they need.”

Having had an opportunity to visit the shelter, Manczyk described it as an illuminating experience. “The first year we went there – this was with Nero – they gave us a tour of the place. That was eye opening. It really gave us an understanding of who uses the shelter.” Describing his impression, he relays that “most people have a stereotype of who might be using the shelter but [the visit] really showed that everyone in the city, physicians even sometimes, they end up homeless – and they’re people you expect are well off or OK. Everyone goes through hard times and can end up there, so it definitely broadened our understanding of who really needs these services.”

Assistance through housing support and shelters helps many, with the population using Toronto’s shelters fluctuating between 5600 to just over 7000 during the past year. Yet, estimates suggest that hundreds are still forced to sleep rough. While we keep a watchful eye on the weather forecasts and temperature displays on our phones when deciding whether a trip to the grocery store is worthwhile, for some it’s only a question of covering up and holding on. For these individuals – especially the unsheltered homeless – donation drives and charities provide them with one of their few resources of comfort when there is little else to turn to.

Working in collaboration with Dr. Sachdev Sidhu, Noah Manczyk studies the binding of ubiquitin variants to their substrates through X-ray crystallography. Susan Kelso is investigating protein interactions made by the human F-box proteins, identifying new SCF ligase substrates and exploring the interactions that regulate their cellular function.



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