By Mikaila Kukurudza
Second-year Ryerson business student Cole Banning has mastered the art of making strangers smile. If you’ve ever been given a wrapped box containing a handmade gift by a stranger on the street in Toronto, there’s a good chance the 22-year-old had something to do with it.
Banning founded Improv in Toronto, a group that organizes events across the city, when he was a senior in high school. He has since expanded on the organization and created different projects – Gifts for Strangers is the most recognizable.
The project is exactly what it sounds like. Around the holiday season, Banning and his team hand out gifts to people on the street.
“To be approached by a random stranger and given a gift might brighten [someone’s] day,” Banning said. “You hope that you made that difference, which is strange to say because all we’re doing is fooling around and having fun.”
Gifts for Strangers began three years ago and has been growing in popularity since. This year, 33 cities in over 23 countries participated in the event. Banning’s concept was inspired by a group in New York City called Improv Everywhere, which conducts similar urban art projects and experiments.
But Gifts for Strangers isn’t the only project Improv in Toronto has undertaken. Banning and his team of 20 plan sporadic community projects on a regular basis. In the past, these events have included pantless subway trips, umbrella taxi services to escort pedestrians through the rain and pillow fights at Yonge-Dundas Square.
The goal is to bring strangers together through unexpected, interactive events and add spice to the day-to-day lives of Torontonians.
“I think people going through their lives put up a wall. It’s nice to break the boundary,” Banning said.
Improv in Toronto has held over 50 free, family-friendly events around Toronto over the past six years. The group also has a You Tube channel with over 25, 000 subscribers (some videos have over 5 million views).
“It just blew up, I wasn’t prepared or ready,” Banning said.
Things really took off after an overwhelming turnout at Improv in Toronto’s second event – a large-scale Where’s Waldo? hunt in the Eaton Centre. The event resulted in Banning being escorted out of his hiding place by mall security due to the overcrowding he had created with his Waldo hunt.
Banning credits the success of his organization to social media and his goal to fill a stranger’s day with a little laughter. He believes that by creating an inclusive community and bringing strangers together, the seriousness of everyday routines can be mitigated.
“It’s nice to be taken away from the stress of life, even if it’s just for a minute,” Banning said.
For students hoping to get involved, Banning suggests “donating your time, not money.”