“Family is everything for me,” says Francesco Aquilini, in his office at Rogers Arena. “It’s the foundation of our society. That’s what a country is, families coming together. The minute the family breaks down, society breaks down.”
Family is front and centre for Aquilini, managing director of Aquilini Investment Group and, perhaps more famously, owner of the Vancouver Canucks. And his family has always led by example.
That’s why it made sense to partner with Streetohome to support the Budzey – a supportive housing building for single women and women with children that opened in 2016 – with a generous donation from the Canucks for Kids Fund. The Budzey is dedicated to improving outcomes for single women, and women with children. It offers a variety of programs, including: childcare and support services, medical and mental health services; community kitchen and family nights; and a Parent Resource Centre.
“Providing opportunities and supports for these individuals and families to build a better future is not just an obligation I feel,” says Francesco. “It’s an honour.”
Paying It Forward
Francesco’s parents were immigrants and hard workers. They came to Canada from Italy in the 1950s with nothing. They always felt fortunate, he says, to be here and to be able to run a successful business.
“My father always gave money to the Catholic Church, hospitals, charities and his family in Italy. He was always giving back.”
Luigi Aquilini got his start in the construction business, building homes for others. Francesco followed in his father’s footsteps, learning the trades at a young age. “I was pulling nails for 25 cents an hour when I was 13 years old,” he laughs.
His father’s example – not only his strong work ethic and accompanying financial success, but his personal and charitable contributions – helped Francesco define who he wanted to be.
“I don’t think you can be successful in business, without being successful in your charitable giving. To say you’re successful because you have a fast boat, and a big plane, and this and that – does not say successful to me. Successful is how much you give back to your community, what difference you can make.
“The government can only do so much – there are only so many resources, and sometimes a part of society gets neglected, so the private sector needs to step in. Society is measured by how you treat the least fortunate.”
Francesco Aquilini grew up in East Vancouver. As a youth, he took a bus back and forth between St. Patrick High School and his home, catching his connection at the corner of Hastings and Main. Even then, at the age of 16, when most kids are mainly concerned with themselves, he knew he wanted to help.
“I could see the homeless. I could see people out there with obvious mental health and addiction issues. You see these people struggling, and you wish you could do something. Now I’m in a position where I can.”
It wasn’t just the disenfranchised people on that corner that inspired his philanthropy – he lived in a rough area, and saw some of his friends going off the rails as he grew up.
“I was loved as a child. I had a really strong, supportive family to go to. A lot of kids aren’t as fortunate, and they can easily get lost. You need the strong center and foundation of a mature adult, and some of those kids never had it. Having somebody there is so important.”
He regularly visits his old neighbourhood, where he provides mentorship to the youth there. He lets these kids know that someone out there cares, and that the drug and gang scene isn’t the glamorous lifestyle they may be hoping for.
“They’re getting drawn to the dealers and gangsters, drawn to an unsafe lifestyle. Often, that’s the only voice they hear,” he explains. “They need something else to go to, and I want to be that other voice, to give them hope.”
The Canucks for Kids Fund provides multiple programs for vulnerable youth. And Francesco himself brings them into Rogers Arena for ‘Lessons from the Locker Room’, followed by a Canucks game or a concert viewed from a private suite.
Francesco is offering more than a second voice, he’s offering another option to these youth. He knows they can also identify with their childhood heroes – the players — just as he did growing up. Kids and adults alike look up to these hockey heroes.
Mental Health & Addiction
The Aquilini family (Francesco has two younger brothers) and the Canucks for Kids Fund have contributed to a substantial legacy in British Columbia. Francesco wants to do more. Hockey players, as role models, are the perfect people to be the face of a provincial campaign on mental health and addiction, as well as substance use in general. The current opioid crisis, he points out, isn’t just affecting the Downtown Eastside – we all have a connection to addiction.
“We all know someone,” he says, “or know someone who knows someone.” He himself has seen it firsthand – with colleagues, with friends, even with professional athletes. Substance use is a common problem even in sports, he says. And it’s not an easy issue.
“Addiction is the destroyer of families and society. And yet, people just kind of bury it. I want to talk about it in the open – you don’t need to keep it a secret, you aren’t the only one. You want people to know that there’s somebody out there that cares.”
Bringing the conversation out in the open is the key, he says, and the more people involved the better.
“If you keep it a secret, the cycle goes on and on. We need to break the cycle. Open conversation brings it out of the darkness and into the light. That’s what we need to be doing. And that’s why I’m proud to help.”