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As we recently learned from the Toronto Raptors’ Media Day, Fred VanVleet is ready to be the team’s default new leader on the court. And it turns out he’s just as poised to be a leader off the court.

The Raptors point guard has linked up with Penny Appeal Canada to launch “Heart of the City,” a new initiative aimed at aiding at-risk communities in Toronto, with multiple projects planned for the year. The first, which took place last week, saw VanVleet hook up 1,000 students across the Greater Toronto Area with some flashy backpacks. 

“Toronto has become my second home,” VanVleet tells Complex. “I give back to my hometown of Rockford but I really wanted to do more here. The kids that cheer me on every day on the court needed to know that I’m cheering for them too.”

Fred VanVleet donates 1,000 backpakcs to at-risk students
Image via Penny Appeal Canada

VanVleet made a surprise drop-in at Lord Dufferin Public School, in the city’s Regent Park community, to hand out 300 of the backpacks to kids himself. The bags were customized by Toronto artist Casey Bannerman, featuring a comic book-ized version of Fred’s face and his motto “Bet On Yourself”—a reminder to kids to have faith in their own capabilities. Penny Appeal Canada had already distributed 3,000 backpacks across Canada, and increased their total by another 1,000 after connecting with the Raptors star.

“I partnered with Penny Appeal Canada because I believe in what they’re about,” VanVleet says. “The work they do aligns with the reasons I give back. I want to give back not just as a band-aid fix, but to lift them out of their tough situations which we don’t know about.”

Fred VanVleet donates backpacks to 1,000 students across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)/
Image via Penny Appeal

Heart of the City is also working on a program to help at-risk communities in Toronto combat the frigid winter months, which will be announced in the coming weeks.

Penny Appeal Canada is said to be the world’s fastest-growing Muslim international non-governmental organization, operating in over 45 countries, with a promise to its donors that 50 percent of their contributions will be invested in Canada. It aims to empower communities through programming that prioritizes local needs. The organization is also teaming with MLSE to launch “Change the Game,” an initiative that will see the Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs alumni travel to London, Ontario next week to show support in the wake of a hate crime that devastated the community last June.

Fred VanVleet at event donating 1,000 basketballs to at-risk students
Image via Penny Appeal Canada

“With the team playing in Tampa last year, Fred felt really disconnected with the fans here in Toronto. During the season the players are always engaged with the community and to be away for a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fred wanted to give back to Toronto upon their return back,” says Talha Ahmed, Penny Appeal Canada’s CEO. VanVleet and the organization connected over the summer to discuss ways they can collaborate. “The very first conversation we had with Fred was about what impact he wanted to make and he point blank said, ‘I want to support kids from at-risk communities and want to start by giving out backpacks.’”

When VanVleet said “giving out backpacks,” you better believe he meant in person. And he wasn’t about to let a lousy pandemic stop him—which, given how he’s overcome the odds in his life and in his career, checks out.

“Fred made it clear that even through these difficult COVID-restricted times, we must find a way for him to meet at least some of the 1000 students we gave out backpacks to, to say a few words on how much this campaign [means to him] and encourage them for their school years and beyond,” says Mark Strong, the Raptors’ in-house host and Penny Appeal Canada’s national community engagement ambassador. “The real heart of a champion giving back to the city.”