Saidat Vandenberg, children’s entertainer-youth mental health advocate

“If you can find out who you are, at a young age, you can avoid a lot of pitfalls.”

Imagine being able to affect someone’s mood so significantly that they could be out of sorts when you meet them, and then after an hour or so in your presence, they head away dancing.

That’s the power Saidat Vandenberg holds. For the past two decades, she’s been spreading her message of positivity and empowerment to Canada’s youngsters, first as a youth pastor and now as a children’s entertainer within the school system.

Her program, The Saidat Show, is a full day, high-energy presentation and hip hop workshop for students from JK to Grade 12. Drawing on Saidat’s singing and dancing talents, the show addresses serious topics with a smile, tackling bullying and helping youth boost self-esteem and better understand how to handle everyday life.

The show’s motto is: One person can make a difference; together we can change the world.

On tour with “The Saidat Show”

“We use music, dancing and drama to bring that message across,” says Saidat. “I’m so honoured to be able to inspire kids every day by coming into a school with lots of colour and lots of love, helping students feel better about themselves.”

She has presented live to more than 500,000 students across Canada. And, since launching The Saidat Show on YouTube in 2015, in partnership with Rogers TV, she’s greatly expanded her reach. Her online show, which features several themed episodes, has an international audience, with more than 3 million views to date across North America, Europe and India.

For the live show, Saidat picks a new theme every school year. She’s currently bringing the Getting to Know You Tour to students in Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, focusing on social and emotional education. “We want youth to feel good about themselves so they can help others feel good. (This tour) is about inspiring young people not to waste time dwelling on feeling badly about themselves; instead, we want to inspire them to make a difference.”

Don’t Let Me Get Me

Saidat has specific insight into the topics of self-doubt and negative self-talk. As confident and outgoing as she is today, it wasn’t always that way.

Growing up in Minnesota, Saidat struggled with insecurity and feelings of inferiority. The eldest of five (she has a younger brother, sister, stepbrother and stepsister), Saidat split her time between Minneapolis and Saint Paul once her parents divorced. By all appearances, her siblings were happy and confident, and “to this day, my mother doesn’t understand why I had such low self-esteem,” says Saidat. “I just think that was part of my makeup.”

She recalls being surrounded by caring, motivational people, like her mother, Lynn Taliaferro, whom Saidat credits for inspiring her work with children. “My mother was always positive, always trying to help me believe in myself.” And her father, Dola Abari, an “amazing, outgoing person” who emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, was a great influence. Saidat also had mentors and supporters in her church choir and at school, including her Harding High School music teacher, Robin Lorenzen, who encouraged her love of performing and remains in touch with her to this day.

In spite of that strong support network, Saidat was hounded by feelings of inadequacy throughout her youth. “I always felt that no one understood me. It wasn’t that people weren’t trying to; I just wasn’t expressing how I felt.”

How she felt, she says, was deeply insecure. So much so that she abandoned her journalism studies at the University of Minnesota—scholarship and all—after just one year. “I was a solid student on scholarship and I let my lack of self-confidence get in the way. I wasn’t failing, but I was so afraid of failure that I left university.”

Instead of completing a journalism degree and pursuing her dream career as the host of a children’s talk show, she enrolled at Rhema Bible Training College, which she thought would offer an easier academic path to working with youth. What Saidat didn’t know at the time was that the two paths would wind up merging.

If It Be Your Will

Though Saidat regrets leaving university, her time at Rhema brought her exactly where she needed to be. It was there that she began learning how to work with at-risk youth—something she quickly grew to love. “I got to know myself a little bit more, and realized that I wanted my work to go beyond just the church and extend to the broader community.”

Rhema also introduced her to another great love: fellow student Jason Vandenberg, a Canadian studying to become a youth pastor. Not long after finishing bible studies in 1993, Saidat wound up moving to Canada to marry Jason. The couple spent several years as youth pastors, first in Woodstock, Ontario, then briefly in Saskatchewan, before settling in St. Thomas, Ontario, where Saidat continued her work with at-risk youth outside of the church. And along the way, she and Jason had two youngsters of their own: daughter Destiny, now 18, and son Isaiah, now 15.

In 2004, Saidat began collaborating with the school board. She began by talking to students about pursuing their dreams, but soon switched her focus to bullying prevention. It was the start of what would become The Saidat Show.

It was also the last few years of life as she had come to know it.

Losing My Religion

In 2008, Jason was killed in a hit-and-run. It completely changed the way Saidat saw the world.

“I think my whole life was church until 2008,” she says. “I was already questioning things before (Jason died). I wanted to not think about God the way I’d been taught, which was pretty strict; that if you’re not praying enough, if you don’t believe enough, you can’t be healed and your family won’t be protected. Those were the concepts the church was giving me, and I would internalize those ideas and think that if good things happened to me, that meant I was doing good things, and if bad things happened to me, then I must not be doing something right in God’s eyes.”

When Jason died, at first Saidat wondered what she had done to cause the incident. But that way of thinking brought up too many questions and set her on a journey that reshaped everything she’d been taught. “My idea and opinion of God and how I see things began to change. I started to feel that life just happens because you’re a person on Earth; things don’t always happen because you’re a good person or a bad person.”

And then, years after losing her husband, something else “just happened” that further shook her beliefs. She fell in love again, this time with a woman—her former backup dancer and current manager (and fiancé), Kristina Zakharyan. “That was a conflict in my faith,” says Saidat. “But I think it helped me grow and become a better person for what I do today, in being inclusive and respecting the rights of all people and not feeling like my ideas are the only ideas out there.”

London Calling

Saidat met Kristina in London, Ontario, where she now lives (and where she became a Canadian citizen in 2013). She moved there in 2011 to start over in a place that would embrace her changing mindset and wouldn’t remind her and her children of their loss, a trauma that “involved the entire community.”

“My husband was killed about half a mile from our home and we were constantly driving past the site,” says Saidat. “It was hard on my kids, and I just wanted them to be able to enjoy their life and not always have to relive what happened.”

For Saidat, London has become much more than a home; it’s a haven. “The people are amazing. It’s been a great thing for all of us, and a place where I can embrace my new love for life and the love of my life without judgment from the path I left behind.”

Being in a same-sex relationship wasn’t something Saidat had ever thought about before, so it took some adjustment, for her as well as her family and friends. But, she says, “once I have something in my head and I’m pretty sure that I’m okay with it, I really go with it. I’ve come to be that person, and am able to be more confident and say, ‘Well, you don’t agree but let’s agree to disagree, and I’m going to live my life.’”

Learning to Fly

In the past 14 years, The Saidat Show, like Saidat, has found its groove, largely because it’s uniquely tapped in to what educators want students to hear. “I’m just enhancing a message that teachers are providing every day at school,” says Saidat. She and her team deliver that message while leaving a lasting impression. They spend entire days at each school, leading separate events for primary, junior and intermediate students, before teaching everyone to dance. Saidat is also excited to offer an ongoing resource for all schools in the form of her YouTube channel. “It’s pretty awesome to be able to refer teachers to those programs.”

Beyond her show, Saidat has created other valuable mental health resources for youth. In 2012, she wrote and published Tadias and the Pitbully Tree, a children’s book about how to conquer our inner bullies. And in 2013, Saidat produced the short film What Have We Done, aimed at suicide awareness and prevention. “It’s now become an inspiration online. We kind of released it to the universe and it’s there for whoever wants it. We get messages every day from students telling us how it inspired them, and from teachers asking permission to allow their students to view the video in the classroom. I’m honoured by that, that it’s making a difference.”

In 2016, Saidat became the first female brand ambassador for the National Basketball League of Canada (NBLC). Through that partnership, The Saidat Show is involved with game days (where Saidat sings the national anthem) and can offer free tickets to students. NBLC athletes also make appearances at her shows, diversifying the program’s appeal—and its ability to reach more students. “If I’m not able to reach a kid on a given day, maybe the 7’ tall basketball player can,” says Saidat. “It’s nice to have those connections to be able to reach the students in whatever way they need.”

“The Saidat Show” at an NBLC game day

Saidat is sensitized to finding ways of including people from all walks, backgrounds, faiths and orientations. Her son, Isaiah, is autistic and non-verbal; she and her family are always looking for new ways to help him relate to the world around him. “He’s my blessing and challenge. Every day, I’m learning more about myself and more about how to show empathy and be able to communicate with someone who can’t communicate in the way that you’re typically expecting someone to interact with you.”

That experience is important to Saidat not only for personal reasons, but also because, for her, inclusivity is one of the most meaningful aspects of The Saidat Show. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your abilities are. We can all enjoy each other in our own creative way.”

Let’s Dance

Looking back on her childhood, Saidat sees that she could have worked through her struggles much earlier if she had talked about them. Now, she feels it’s her mission to let youth know they’re not alone in their experiences and that there are people who can help. “I would love to meet every child in Canada so I can share that message. Eventually, I want to have a nationwide children’s talk show, either online or on television, that parents and students can access.”

She wants to empower youth with the tools they need to manage their feelings and emotions, and get to know—and accept—themselves. “If you can find out who you are, at a young age, you can avoid a lot of pitfalls, like feeling insecure or unwilling to try or afraid to fail, or always worrying what people think of you.”

For Saidat, one of the most rewarding parts of her show is when students approach her at the end of the day and tell her, “I felt insecure about myself, and you’ve given me some ideas on how to get better, and I’m going to ask for help.”

She explains that her first name, which is Arabic, means profitable. Her middle name, Titilola, means happiness. “I feel like I live up to my name every day: I bring value and happiness to schools, even if it’s just for that moment,” she says.

And then she dances on to spread joy and love to the rest of Canada’s youth.

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To follow Saidat and The Saidat Show, subscribe to her YouTube channel, follow @saidat2motivate on Twitter, ‘Like’ her Facebook page and join her on Instagram.

You can also email [email protected] to get in touch.

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