When Henry Zavriyev recently toured a building that he was planning to buy, he came across a strange find in the basement: hundreds and hundreds of boxes of expensive toys were just sitting there, gathering dust. The building’s owner, who runs an import-export business, had intended to sell them, but when COVID-19 hit, his plans changed.
“I have a soft spot for kids,” Zavriyev tells me. “I looked at this basement full of toys and immediately visualized hundreds of happy children. It was a no-brainer for me to do what I did next.”
What the 26-year-old Montreal businessman did was spend $30,000 of his own money to purchase all the toys. He then turned around and immediately donated them to Friendship Circle, a Montreal non-profit that provides support to children with special needs and their families.
“I don’t want this story to be about me,” Zavriyev says, reluctantly, when I reach out to him by phone. “We had a lot of fun donating the toys, and I could afford to do it.”
What he doesn’t know is that to a columnist who has been writing for the better part of this year about politics, language tension and COVID failures, interviewing him for such a feel-good story feels like a breath of much-needed fresh air.
Started from the bottom, now he’s here
Zavriyev moved to Montreal from Boston in 2012 to study at Concordia University.
“I don’t come from a lot of money and I can always remember financial stress being a factor in my life,” he says. “When I lived at the university residence, I rarely went out to clubs and such, because I just didn’t have the means. $100 felt like a lot of money to me at the time.”
Zavriyev was always motivated to become financially independent. “I started skipping school — not that I’m recommending this for anyone — and worked every minimum-wage job you can possibly think of,” he says. “Student painter, carpentry, surveys, call centres — they were the worst,” he trails off. “I ended up working as a janitor in an NDG apartment building, where the apartments were $400 per month for rent. I asked the owner if I could renovate and paint a few and then rent them out and manage them myself.”
The owner told him that he didn’t care, as long as he received his $400 rent. That’s how Zavriyev got his start as a real-estate property manager.
“Money is to be spent”
“I’ve always had a ‘just-do-it’ kind of attitude,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to be able to do things on my own terms and work for myself.”
Financial success to Zavriyev has always primarily meant one thing: independence. “Money is just money,” he says. “I don’t have financial aspirations, I have business aspirations, and I hope I continue to build on my success, but money is to be spent.”
He started buying more buildings and renovating them, redeveloping properties that were complicated and restoring them. It became his niche.
“I’ve been working hard, and it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve been able to slow down a bit,” he says. “When the scenario just presented itself for me to do some good, it just made sense.”
Like an “angel from heaven”
Friendship Circle is a non-profit Jewish organization that provides support to individuals (primarily children) with special needs and their families. It’s an inclusive organization, open to all, with more than 80 regional chapters around the world.
The Montreal chapter has been in existence for 19 years, serving as a lifeline to many local families.
“This year has been such a difficult year for so many of our kids and their families,” says the local chapter’s founder, Sima Paris.
“Many of these families are single-parent homes and struggle during normal times, but it’s been a thousand times worse for them this year, because so many also lost their jobs. When Henry showed up with a truckload of these expensive toys, he was like an angel from heaven. I honestly had tears rolling down my face.”
This past weekend, the centre held a gift drive-through to distribute the toys, because of COVID restrictions.
“You should have seen the faces of these kids,” says Paris. “I didn’t even notice the cold, standing out there for hours while we handed them out. I only noticed the warmth and the joy emanating from these children and our teenage volunteers.”
Paris tells me that Zavriyev donated so many toys, they were unable to donate them all over the weekend. They are planning to deliver them directly to the homes of those who couldn’t make the drive-through this week.
“The colossal impact of a single toy,” says Zavriyev, “I can’t overstate that. When you’re a kid, it’s the best feeling in the world. And I’ve always had a soft spot for children.”
In love with Montreal’s multiculturalism
The Montreal entrepreneur says what he loves most about the city he’s now made his home is its multicultural aspect. “Sure, I love all the usual suspects of what makes this city so great — the nightlife, the restaurants, the culture — but this city is truly a multicultural epicentre,” he says.
“The person who sold these toys to me is a Pakistani Muslim, I’m Jewish, the people who helped me load and unload the toys in the truck… one’s Algerian, another a French Quebecer, another from El Salvador. What’s amazing about Montreal is that you meet an Algerian, a Pakistani, a Jewish man and they’re all just Montrealers, all Canadian. They all love cheering for the Habs and eating at Boustan. In the States, society is so much more segregated. Canada is a country that is still so open to immigration and it’s a great place to live.”
Zavriyev thinks his good deed is just a way of giving back to a city he loves. “Listen… I know a lot of people through business who are successful, and I hope they’re giving back, too. If they have the means, they should.”
Emerging from this pandemic as a better world
Paris says that, despite 2020 being such a challenging year, she feels it has motivated many to transform this world into a better one.
“Henry’s kindness was so random and such an unexpected gift,” she says. “It couldn’t have come at a better time! But every day I work with teenagers who provide daily support to these families, even now during COVID, and they’re volunteers… they don’t even have to be here. It’s incredible to see so many people step up and give back.”
As for Zavriyev, he just shrugs all this attention off.
“I’m still pretty young, I don’t know much. Just give back if you have the means,” he says.
I’d say that’s a lot to know already. ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.