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After-school cooking program fosters leadership and connectivity for rural youth 


Story highlights: 

  • Rural youth have fewer after-school activities and resources for their mental health than kids living in urban areas. 
  • The hours after school and before going home for the evening are critical for young people as the potential for high-risk behaviour is at its peak.  
  • United Way works with partners like the Mississippi Mills Youth Centre to give every young person a chance to learn leadership skills outside of school and make friends in a fun and healthy environment. 

This is Sophie:

Sophie is 13 years old, and like many teenagers, she values her time with friends. In the town of Almonte, there are few options for places to go and things to do after school and on weekends, but Sophie has found a special place in the Mississippi Mills Youth Centre (MMYC). It’s a safe space where she and other youth have fun and learn valuable life skills together. 

The hours after school and before returning home for the evening are when many teenagers are on their own and want to spend time with friends. United Way East Ontario works with partners like MMYC to give young folks a safe space during these critical hours.

Unlike school, where the primary focus is on academic work, Sophie can

be with friends at MMYC in a secure environment that encourages spending time in meaningful ways. The centre offers a diverse range of programs and opportunities to empower youth to grow as individuals. 

“The youth build meaningful connections between each other, as well as with caring adults. It’s important as they’re more likely to have higher self-confidence and do well in school.”

Cooking Up Something Awesome

Sophie first learned about MMYC through her friends, who spoke highly of the centre.  

Inside is a relaxed and inviting atmosphere that feels like a cozy family room. The space has sofas, foosball tables, shelves filled with books and games, and plants growing in the windows. It’s a space designed to encourage a variety of activities, from reading quietly to working on puzzles and playing games.  

One of the highlights of the centre is its large kitchen, and a recently added program called Cooking Up Something Awesome. 

Under the guidance of Joey Graff, the Project Coordinator, youth learn vital kitchen skills, such as proper knife handling, onion cutting, and using a stove and oven with confidence. The program promotes teamwork, instills safety awareness, and enhances self-esteem.  

Joey believes that programs like these are especially critical in rural areas, where youth face unique challenges, including limited access to after-school spaces and support services. 

During the summer months, Lilli saw a lot of youth from Carp and Arnprior attending MMYC workshops.

“What draws youth to Almonte is access to free services. A lot of cooking programs and classes can get expensive. Through Cooking Up Something Awesome, we’re able to provide a free cooking class and free meals,” she explains.

A place at the table

For Charlotte, a regular attendee at MMYC, the centre has become a place of belonging where she can nurture her leadership skills. She’s has been coming to the youth centre for years, and now serves as a role model for younger attendees. 

One unique aspect of the cooking program is the opportunity for the youth to sit together at a table and enjoy a meal without the distractions of phones or other electronic devices. In an era of increased screen time, this program encourages meaningful face-to-face interactions.

“I want people to know there’s no judgement here, and it’s a fun place to hang out and express your creativity.”

Moreover, with the rising cost of food, the program offers an additional benefit by providing healthy meals that participants can take home or freeze to have at the centre later. This not only teaches the value of budgeting, but also ensures that the youth have access to nutritious food even when economic challenges arise. Everyone is welcome at the table. 

Community support

United Way, alongside our partners, donors and allies at all levels of government, remains committed to creating positive change and working toward real solutions to issues across our region. 

The success of Cooking Up Something Awesome at MMYC is made possible through the support of the Government of Canada’s Community Services Recovery Fund (CSRF) and fueled by United Way East Ontario. This funding has enabled MMYC to adapt and modernize its services to better serve the community, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Programs like Cooking Up Something Awesome not only teach practical life skills but also foster meaningful connections among youth in a safe and accepting environment. MMYC plays a crucial role in empowering rural youth, ensuring they have the resources and opportunities they need to thrive. 

As Sophie, Charlotte, and many others have discovered, MMYC is more than just a youth centre; it’s a place where dreams, skills, and confidence are nurtured and shared. 

Make a difference in the lives of local youth.




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