For many youth who grow up in the Spence Neighbourhood, poverty is more than a social construct - it is their reality.
Growing up with no food in the fridge, parents struggling to pay bills, managing multiple jobs, growing up around addictions and the devastation that resulted from the residential school system is what some youth deal with on a daily basis.
Although this is pretty grim, what many do not see is the resiliency young people in our community develop - what they deal with on a daily basis would be too much for a strong stable adult to deal with, yet they continue to want to grow and learn and make change.
For the past four years, Spence Neighbourhood Association (SNA) has been running a youth outreach program. The program connects with 50 of the most at risk youth in our community and provides them with a positive adult mentor and outreach worker.
The youth outreach program uses an approach called the wraparound approach. It is a holistic approach to supporting at-risk youth; instead of addressing one problem or issue in a young person’s life, you look at all of the positives and negatives in their life.
Outreach workers work one-on-one with the youth to develop a plan for making change or “success,” then we bring together all the people in the youth’s life that play a role - social workers, probation officers, families, schools etc. - and ensure all the services and supports are working together on a plan that was developed by and works for the young person.
Over the four years of the project we were able to support and divert at least 150 youth from the youth centre and gangs.
After an in-depth evaluation, we have re-examined the program and made a shift in the focus from keeping kids from getting incarcerated, to helping youth build connections to their culture, to building a sense of identity and self-esteem.
This shift, paired with our outreach and wraparound approach is leading to the start of an exciting new program.
In April 2012, the SNA will be launching a new youth cultural outreach program. The program will continue to target the most at-risk youth in the community, but will have a focus on building connections with their culture.
The program will be open to all cultures, and outreach workers will be connecting with cultural mentors to support the youth with developing a connection to whatever culture they feel most drawn to.
Many youth grow up without a sense of who they are, and how they fit in their community or city. Over the next three years, we will change this reality by providing a venue of opportunities where confident and healthy young people can develop.
Having worked with youth in the Spence Neighbourhood for the past seven years, I know most young people just need a chance and the support of a positive person in their life to make the changes they need to succeed.
We need to stop ignoring the social problems in our city and pretend they can be solved by locking people away.
It is prevention and intervention programs like these that are necessary to make a change in the life situation for so many of the young people in Winnipeg.
This program will not change poverty in our city, but it will give intensive support to 50 young people a year by giving them an opportunity for change they would not normally have.
Jamil Mahmood is the Spence Neighbourhood Association’s executive director.