Marilena and Michael Latifi are longtime supporters of Sunnybrook,
through their annual Sofina & Amici Golf Classic.
Photography by Doug Nicholson
Over a decade ago, for deeply personal reasons, Michael and Marilena Latifi committed their support to the launch of the visionary Women & Babies Program at Sunnybrook. Then, years later, the family was blindsided when their son came home partway through his semester at university and revealed some troubling news.
It led them down a path that was sometimes uncertain and overwhelming, and inspired the couple to once again throw their support behind a new state-of-the-art Sunnybrook program, this time in mental health care.
This summer marks the 11th annual Sofina & Amici Golf Classic, a family-friendly golf tournament that was founded by the Latifis and has raised more than $3.7-million. The success of the event stems from their “grab-life-by-the-horns” philosophy, and they have used their own challenging experiences in health care to inspire their philanthropy.
Each year, the tournament has grown, with 2017’s event raising another record high amount. “When we started, it was unthinkable that a one day-event of 18 holes of golf could generate half a million dollars,” says Michael, Founder, Chairman and CEO of the Markham, Ont.-based Sofina Foods Inc.
The event has become so popular that there’s a waitlist of golfers (the event accommodates 144 players). From celebrity chefs to the nightly entertainment and signature cocktails, the planning for every indulgent detail of the event begins a whole year in advance. As Michael says, “it was never just about the golf.”
In 2008, Michael and Marilena launched the tournament in support of Sunnybrook’s Women & Babies Program. The Latifi family shared Sunnybrook’s vision on how to promote baby-parent bonding when babies require incubators.
When Michael Jr. was born in Montreal, the stress of the long and difficult labour meant he needed to stay in an incubator for a couple of days immediately after the birth.
The Latifis had to view him through glass in a room with 20 other babies in incubators. Four children later, the Latifis toured the Aubrey & Marla Dan Centre for Women & Babies, which offered comfortable rooms, each with its own incubator. “It made me want to have another one,” jokes Marilena.
Then, five years ago, Michael Jr. inspired a new cause for the Latifis’ drive to give back. Partway through his semester, he came home unexpectedly, overwhelmed with anxiety and depression. He was afraid to be alone. He could barely muster up the energy to go upstairs to his bedroom. He was afraid to drive somewhere unfamiliar to him.
“He thought the worst thing in the world could happen to him if he got lost,” recalls his father. “Mental health issues prevent people from doing normal everyday things. They’re as debilitating as severe physical diseases.”
The Latifis contacted their family doctor and were referred to different specialists but were given conflicting advice. “There are so many aspects to navigate,” explains Michael. “How do you guide [patients]? How do you help them learn when there may be learning difficulties involved?”
The Latifi family’s experience inspired them to support Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project. The program connects families with trained health professionals who navigate them to the most appropriate counselling groups, health-care options and social and educational services in the mental health and addictions system for youth.
Thanks to the all-in support from his family and community and a customized treatment plan provided by his medical team at Sunnybrook, Michael Jr. made an inspiring recovery.
Just how inspiring? Well, when Michael Jr. was invited to take part in the 2014 RBC Race for the Kids, a signature annual event that raises money for the Family Navigation Project, he set a goal of not only raising the most money, but also winning the 25k race, which was only a couple of months away. Though overweight at the time and not a runner, he accomplished both goals. Fellow competitors asked him how many years he’d been running. “He said, ‘I just started.’ They were floored,” recalls Marilena. Michael Sr. was so inspired he ran the 25k in solidarity.
The challenge was so affirming for the young Michael that he moved on to Tough Mudder obstacle mud races, and then to the Ironman triathlon, considered the most difficult one-day endurance competition in the world. Having won the Ironman for his age group in Panama City, Florida, Michael Jr. will compete in the prestigious Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this October.
It would be easy for the Latifis to put their son’s mental health struggle behind them, but they want to use their family’s experience to help others.
“Mental health is something you have to nourish all the time,” notes Marilena. While the Latifis initially reacted with disbelief and confusion at their son’s outpouring of his inner struggles, they quickly understood how serious mental illness is and how little it’s understood, even by parents.
“When a child is sleeping all day, most parents think, My kid is lazy,” says Michael. “[But maybe] the kid is depressed.”
Michael Jr. now speaks at schools and fundraisers and, in doing so, inspires others to reach out. When the Latifis hosted a fundraising event in their home for the Family Navigation Project, they were stunned at the number of high-profile executives coming to them afterward to speak about family members struggling with depression, addiction and homelessness.
“We say that it shouldn’t be taboo, but to actually take that leap of faith and speak personally takes tremendous courage,” says Umeeda Madhany, a family friend of the Latifis. She is the head of the Sofina Foundation, which is the charitable arm of Sofina Foods Inc.
But facing situations head on and then going all in is typical of the Latifi family.
Michael credits his personal and professional determination to his upbringing as a refugee. He fled Iran with his three other siblings when he was 15.
“We all got jobs at McDonald’s,” he says.
He went on to complete a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA at McGill University and built Sofina Foods into the third-largest food company in Canada.
Michael and Marilena are strongly committed to their community, and so are their children, who help with the long days of preparation that go into the Golf Classic. It was natural for the family to direct their passion toward the challenges of difficult births and mental health struggles that are common to so many, and that they experienced firsthand.
Choosing Sunnybrook, which is leading scientific discovery and teaching health providers across Canada in improved obstetrical and mental health care, was an easy decision.
“We’re blessed that we can give back,” says Michael, “and we want to do more.”