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Young leaders keep learning after school

5 MIN READ

STORY HIGHLIGHTS:

    • Rural youth have fewer resources for their mental health and after-school engagement than kids living in the city of Ottawa.
       
    • 80% of rural Ottawa youth surveyed in 2019 indicate they didn’t have the mental health support they needed in Osgoode Ward. Ensuring mental health resources are available for rural youth is key to overall improved health for children, youth, and the community.
       
    • United Way works with partners like the Osgoode Youth Association to give every young person a chance to learn leadership skills outside of school, make friends, and access mental health resources in a fun and healthy environment.

Alice has been part of the Osgoode Youth Association (O-YA) since she was a child. Now, as a teenager, Alice sees the benefits that came from spending her time in a caring and constructive environment. Sitting on O-YA’s youth advisory committee, Alice has grown into a leader working with new and returning youth, witnessing the ways in which young people thrive by getting involved with programs and activities. 

Located in rural Ottawa, O-YA is a community centre offering an assortment of programs including summer leadership camp, after school drop-ins, and mental health counselling. The inside of the centre is designed to feel like someone’s living room, with stylish decor and relaxed sofa seating. There’s a kitchen with a large island where kids learn cooking skills, and as with a home, learn to clean up and treat the space with care.

"There are some kids that do our after-school program, and they want to join our youth advisory committee, and they come to drop-in and they come to camp, so it’s like building this connection with the kids”.

United Way East Ontario works with partners like O-YA to give youth a safe place to go after school, before they return home for the evening. Nicole McKerracher, the Executive Director of O-YA, knows how important it is for kids to have dynamic spaces to hang out before caregivers get home from work

We know from research that kids who are left alone during those critical hours are really at risk,” says Nicole. This is especially true in a rural community because most working parents work outside of the village of Osgoode, adding to their commute time. That’s when a third space or a critical hours program comes into play.”

During the summer, those critical hours could be much longer, with parents working full days and youth left on their own. Week-long programs like O-YA’s summer leadership camp help fill that gap. 

Paige, who is going into grade eight, experienced OYA’s leadership camp for the first time in the summer of 2023. 

I was definitely really nervous when I first walked in, but now it’s the second day and I feel like I know a lot of people. We have teams and I get to learn a lot about the different people on my team.”

Meeting others and getting to know them isn’t always possible at school, says Paige. “You’re always busy and it’s hard to have a good conversation because there’s so much happening. Even if it’s a short conversation, you can learn a lot more about them at camp.” 

With youth back in school, O-YA offers drop-in and other programming to ensure kids are safe until they can reunite with their families later in the evening. 

“My parents work pretty late, so going to O-YA and being with everyone else is a good way to keep us busy, and occupied and safe, while having fun,” says 11-year-old Noah.

Making mental health less intimidating to talk about

The number of young people in Ottawa reporting poor or fair mental health has doubled since before the pandemic, and in rural communities, access to mental health support is limited. So, when Quinn Rivier-Gatt, the only in-person rural youth counsellor for Osgoode Ward comes into the centre, her impact is greatly felt.    

“A lot of the time kids feel unheard. One of the reasons their issues get worse is that they feel that they’re telling people what they need but they’re not listening to their concerns or they’re kind of dismissive,” says Quinn. If youth are asking for help that’s the best step and the first step in the right direction.” 

Quinn encourages conversations about mental health in all areas of a young person’s life.  

“Our physical issues won’t go anywhere just like our mental health issues won’t go anywhere. If we don’t fight to get them better, they just take over our lives,” says Quinn. A great step is to start normalizing the conversation, to make the stigma and pressures of having any mental health issues a little less intimidating. It allows kids to know they’re not alone.  

One way O-YA is helping youth get more comfortable talking about their mental health is by integrating mental health supports into non-mental health programming. O-YA is able to do this thanks to the Government of Canada’s Community Services Recovery Fund (CSRF), administered by United Way East Ontario, which helps partner organizations adapt and modernize their services in the wake of pandemic.

Using their already successful after school teen drop-in as pilot, staff will incorporate different mental health components every day, like meditation cards, posters about what is inside and outside your ‘circles of care’, engaging in intentional check-ins with youth, or writing down a different mental health topic on the centre’s white board.

“It’s amazing how curious they are about new things in their space, so we know they’re going to ask about it. Through this we’ll learn what works, what doesn’t work, what youth like, what makes them feel more supported, and then we’ll be able to share these best practices with other youth organizations as well.”

O-YA began testing this during the summer leadership camp. One camper talked about how, in a group discussion, participants were asked to step forward if they’ve ever experienced feeling anxious or worried. He said that it helped him to know other people his age felt this way, and it wasn’t just him.

Keeping youth safe

With our commitment to impact, our role as community convener, and our collaboration with policy makers and government, United Way East Ontario leverages our network of partners and donors to help our communities come together to create real solutions that will work for our region, taking into account the unique needs of the rural communities we serve.  

The space and activities O-YA provides ensure young people have access to safe and caring environments and opportunities for developing skills, nurturing relationships, and accessing mental health resources close to home.   

O-YA lets kids be kids. In the words of one young camper: “If I could experience one thing every day that I experience at camp, it would be hanging out with my friends and meeting new people. It’s really fun to meet new people.”  

Thanks to our donors, children and youth have a safe place for this to be possible. 

Make a difference in the lives of youth.
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