Orlando Bowen has always been an active athlete. He started out as a football starter for Northern Illinois University, where he was voted team co-captain and attained a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Marketing and a Master of Science degree in Management of Information Technology. His football career continued, as he landed a spot on the Toronto Argonauts from 2000-2003. In 2004, he played for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Today, still passionate about sports and the positive effect they can have on one’s life, Orlando has founded an organization called One Voice One Team Youth Leadership Organization. Its goal is to help young people develop leadership skills and embrace responsibility through inspiration, fitness, mentorship, and character building from high performance athletes, community leaders and accomplished motivational speakers.
You played in the CFL for a few years. What are some of your best memories from playing in the CFL?
Some of the best memories during my playing years actually come from some off-field experiences. The opportunity to unite with athletes from all across North America and to toil towards a common goal was very powerful. In those groups, I had numerous opportunities to connect with folks who share incredibly unique life experiences that led to them achieving what they did on the football field. Perhaps to state that we were united may somewhat understate the degree to which we were connected. We sweat together, broke bones together, laughed together and became a family. Having the opportunities to share the tough on-field experiences, and having those experiences complemented by the team dinners and gatherings really allowed us to connect. Many of these connections remain strong to this day.
You were very active in sports all throughout your teenage years. What kind of impact do you think being so involved in sports had on your school life and social life?
I was indeed very active as an adolescent. My involvement in sports gave me opportunities to express myself creatively (creative outlet), opportunities to expend a portion of the energy I had inside as well as a social connection to other athletes that I played with or against. Relationships with fellow students, teachers and administrators that began to develop during these years continue to flourish today. Sport gave me the opportunity to connect with folks of various ethnic and religious backgrounds as it created a common ground and common language and reasons for us to look beyond the perceived surface-level differences.
Do you think that the pressures associated with sports can sometimes have a negative effect on a young person? Can the pressure sometimes be too much to deal with?
Pressure can have both negative and positive effects on young people. First of all, we all have different experiences in terms of how we deal with stress as well as with various sources of stress. What may be stressful for one individual may seem trivial to another. A certain degree of stress may not be bad, but as the stress elicits physiological responses, we need to do what we can to ensure that the stress levels do not exceed the threshold that allows young people to rationally deal with it. If the stimuli’s causing the stress allows the stress to get beyond a certain level, the stress may compromise our abilities to think clearly and react appropriately and that can be very dangerous. Understanding what our coping mechanisms are (or identifying potential coping mechanisms) is very important. The pressure can absolutely be too much to deal with.
What kinds of supports does the charity "One Voice, One team" give to young people who are going through a tough time?
One Voice One Team runs some powerful programming with finite start and end dates. One of the keys, however, is the fact that the relationships that are created through the program, never end. It is through these relationships and because of these relationships that connections are made so that as youth identify the challenges they face, we seek the supports necessary that allow the youth to address them so that they may move along a continuum on their journeys of success. So, the supports may come in the form of bringing food to a young person who is hungry, community youth (through referrals) to social service agencies that might help support them and their families to creating job opportunities for youth to serve in their areas of interest.
What inspired you to create the "One Voice, One team" charity? What do you hope to achieve?
I’ve had the tremendous opportunity to have mentors and role models in my life, but there was still a significant amount of navigation on my part. There was a great deal of learning through trial and error. Learning through trial and error is great but not always the most efficient means of gaining the experience necessary to move forward. One Voice One Team creates an opportunity for people who are passionate about what they do and have achieved high levels of proficiency, to connect with youth that may share their interests. These accomplished individuals share their journeys with young people so that young people understand three things. First, they understand that much is possible. Secondly, they understand that much is expected, because we see greatness in them and are willing to support them in their efforts. Finally, youth begin to understand the effort, focus, discipline and perseverance it takes to be excellent.
Growing up did you have a lot of support from family or friends? Did you ever feel like things were getting to be too much to handle?
Growing up, I had support from certain family members and friends in different areas. For example, my dad was not interested in ANYTHING that I did athletically as he was all about me focusing on my academics. I didn’t realize why he was so passionate until later on in life when he shared how he feels when people look down on him because he dropped out of school in the 5th grade after the death of his mom and the departure of his father.
There were times where I felt as though things were too much to handle. It still feels that way some days. The key is in the supports I surround myself with and the activities that I participate in that allow me to deal with stress effectively.
Does "One Voice, One team" focus on any aspects of mental health and wellness? Do you have a large support system for athletes who may be struggling with a mental health disorder?
At One Voice One Team, when we talk about self respect, we talk about;
Being selective of the friends one keeps
Being selective about the activities that one undertakes
Being aware of the things that cause stress and the healthy activities that reduce stress
Mental health is a large part of that. Having youth become increasingly more confident in who they are, what they stand for and what they are willing to pursue is important to us.
We haven’t been overly explicit in naming and communicating specific items related to mental health but we are interested in having a better understanding in order to be able to do so.
With respect to support systems for athletes, we have informal means of supporting athletes who are struggling with mental health issues and could certainly do much more in terms of formalizing supports (through partnerships with organizations like Mind Your Mind that have that expertise). One of the things that we have been quite deliberate about is the understanding that we will never be all things to all people but we will forever seek to make the necessary connections in order to best support those we serve and those whom we serve alongside.
What kinds of positive effects do you think giving youth a chance to be leaders amongst their peers has on young people?
In our experience, many young people have very little understanding of how powerful they can be and the positive impacts that they can have on others and in their communities. When youth understand and truly believe that they have the ability to lead, it changes everything for them. The way they carry themselves change: their posture, the confidence in their eyes, the way they walk etc. Most importantly, however, the decisions they make often begin to align with their knowledge of their ability to effect positive change through their leadership.
What is one thing you've learned about young people during your work with "One Voice, One Team"?
I don’t know if I can give you ONE thing…every group we work with is a life-altering experience for me and for all of our staff. Given that you are putting me on the spot, there are TWO things that are consistent.
Number one-Youth have no limitations in terms of what is possible for them...they often just need someone to believe in them and help them by “believing in them until they believe in themselves”.
Number two-Youth consistently teach us lessons in resilience. Despite their challenges, many youth often keep going…they have so much to teach, so much to offer…if given the opportunities to do so.
What sort of advice would you like to give to a young athlete or any young person who is going through a tough time?
If you are a young person going through some tough times, there are some very important things to understand;
a) You are not alone-sometimes life is SO DIFFICULT and it may seem as though no one in the world could possibly understand what you are going through. The truth is, there are others out there who have experienced the exact same feelings and possibly in very similar situations and have made it…so please know that you can make it too. As a matter of fact, someone out there, whom you haven’t met yet, NEEDS you to make it through so that you can share that strength with them so they can make it through. They may be your age, they may be younger or they may be older than you are. You may never know how many folks can be OR have been positively impacted by you.
b) Find someone you can trust that will help you find help in your situation. As difficult as it may be, you may be disappointed by someone you think might help and they are not interested in doing so…do not be discouraged by that. Keep asking, you may have to ask 23 people before you get the one that really has your back…surround yourself with such people.