More and more YMCAs have been adopting the idea of having a youth centre – a place for teens ages 12-17 to go after work or on weekends in order to stay off the streets and out of trouble.
Of all the YMCAs shown above, only three do not include a youth centre: Cartierville, Westmount and St-Laurent. I was able to sit down with the Youth Centre Coordinator for the West Island YMCA, Melissa Keller, to ask her about the troubles she encounters in De-Zone.
“At the Y, I am the coordinator of the youth drop-in centre so i work with 12-17 year old youth in the context of a drop-in centre setting so informal, hardly any structure, that kind of programming. It’s a very informal setting,” says Melissa Keller after I sit down on a small stool in her small office.
“Having not much structure and a very relaxed type of environment allows us to build a relationship with the teens and allows them to open up to us. It’s not like when you’re in school and you have to shut up and listen for 45 minutes and then you’re done, you know what I mean? Here, they’re able to do what they want and talk about what they want.”
On the only other chair in the office is Amanda Duskes, a third-year Social Services student doing her stage at De-Zone – the West Island YMCA’s drop-in youth centre.
The youth centre is available to any child for a small price of 25 dollars a year. It offers boxing lessons, cooking classes, guitar sessions, game nights and homework help. It also hosts informal conversations about things like drug use, sex, peer pressure, police presence in the community, violence and more.
“Often, some of them will ask to speak to me more privately and that’s when they really open up because they aren’t comfortable speaking in front of the other kids,” says Duskes. “Some of them are more comfortable so we’ll talk more openly, with other kids, in the office door wide open.”
The point of De-Zone is not only to get the kids off the streets between the hours of 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., it’s a place teens can go to get help with any issue they are struggling with.
“They know that if we can’t help them directly we will refer them to another organization that can help them. For example, we had a kid get kicked out of his house and we could only do so much in terms of the resources that we have at the Y and what we’re allowed, legally, to do,” says Keller. “So we called on Action Jeunesse de l’Ouest de l’Ile and they were able to bring him to the food depot.”
The YMCA youth centre is in contact with other West-Island-based non-profit organizations in order to help the teens as much as they can.
Keller gets clearly emotional talking about the 17-year-old who got kicked out of his home. “I’ve been doing this line of work for long enough that I should be able to disconnect from something and in that situation I wasn’t able to. It happens to Amanda, it happens to a lot of Youth Workers in the field.”
“This kid had already been part of the system, had already been placed in a unit, had already been to Portage for drug abuse, and then he’s coming back to us with the problem of getting kicked out of the house. So I made a signalement,” she says.
A signalement is a call to the government-run Batshaw Youth and Family Centres’ emergency line. Once the call has been placed, the teen is put in a priority level. Priority one is a call to the child’s parents within 48 hours, priority two is within the week and priority three is within the month.
“They said that because he was 17, the likelihood of [them] holding onto his case was very, very slim,” says Keller. “The lady, she was very nice and she was just doing her job at the end of the day, but they way she said it was, ‘Well he’s almost 18 so he should be mature enough to live on his own.’ Are you fucking kidding me?”
This isn’t the first time Batshaw has let Keller down. “I had a girl come in once who had an eating disorder, she was being verbally abused and was showing some pretty destructive behaviour. I called the emergency line three times before someone picked up. I explained the situation and they say because it’s verbal abuse it’s very hard to see symptoms so there’s nothing we can do. Fast forward a year and she’s self-mutilating. That’s a lot more visible. There are these very fine lines that we have to fall within to make the signalement.”
Duskes gets emotional when talking about a classmate who tried to talk to Batshaw about a young girl who was being abused at home but got the case dropped because they were unwilling to put more time or effort into it.
“Are you okay?” Keller asks and Duskes takes a deep breath and chuckles a bit.
“It’s like what Melissa says – community goes above and beyond,” she says with tears in her eyes.
“So [those are] the reasons why we’re forced to seek help through our non-profit organization partners because a) they understand, b) they’re a lot more willing to go above and beyond and c) they’re available – they’re present; they call to check in, they drop by, they’re a lot more willing to offer the services that the government programs will not,” Keller explains.
“It’s frustrating, it’s really frustrating. These are the programs that our tax money is going to. [Batshaw is] this cold government institution, it has a lot of red tape and there’s a lot of logistics. Right now they have what’s called an engorgement – they have more kids than beds. How do you let that happen?”
Needless to say, youth workers for non-profit organizations are frustrated and feel let down by these government programs, but that doesn’t mean they’re giving up on the kids.
“I won’t give up on these kids,” says Keller, “even though Batshaw drops cases and gives me bullshit excuses. These kids need someone and they need help, and if that is achieved more successfully through non-profits that’s what we’ll keep doing.”
Listen to the whole interview here
On the map above are just some of the non-profit organizations that are available to help Keller do her job more effectively. Also available to Keller and youth workers at the YMCA is help from within. The YMCAs of Quebec has just launched a new program this summer called Alternative Suspension. It offers a place for children to go when they get suspended from school for a short period of time and offers tutoring and youth services as well.
The West Island YMCA is constantly looking for ways to get youth to take charge of their futures. Considering it does have a health and well-being aspect, what better way to do that than through sports? I talked to Greg Thomas about his sports initiatives within the YMCA and how they help at-risk youth.
Greg Thomas works three jobs.
During the day, he works at Horizon High School, a school for children who have been kicked out of the regular system.
At night, he’s at the West Island YMCA performing his duties as Coordinator of Youth Programming.
On the weekend, he runs his own business running security for events in and around Montreal.
One would think Thomas is a hard guy to get a hold of, but that could not be farther from the truth.
As Thomas walks by the front desk on the main floor of the West-Island YMCA, at least two voices call his name at once. Not surprising, considering he’s worked there for twenty years. He says hello to everyone as he walks by; staff, members, supervisors, anyone who will say hi back.
Starting out as a personal trainer with no salary, Thomas has grown and matured at the YMCA.
Thomas has also coached every sport you could imagine.
“I took over a team [the Junior Broncos] where the General Manager told me to fire all my friends – he gave me an ultimatum, people do that a lot to me,” he chuckled. ” I took the team over, I got a new staff. We won a championship that year. Then I left – I didn’t want it in the first place.”
Thomas is the definition of no-nonsense. He tells it like it is.
“It’s hard to see where a child is headed these days. Twelve, fifteen years ago it was ten times easier. You had a society that actually paid for kids to play sports. Kids had more of a goal of where they wanted to go. Now, no. There’s too much going on for them to realize what their path is,” he says.
Thomas is in charge of youth programming at the YMCA; anything organized for teens aged 12-17 must go through him first. The activities include open gym times,a basketball league, volleyball, badminton, soccer, boxing, water polo and many more.
“I was good at sports, I was good in school [...]The only reason I stayed after school was to play sports. And if I wasn’t staying after school I would be on my way to play sports somewhere else.”
One could say that Thomas’ main objective at the YMCA is to provide teens with the guidance that he was lacking as a teenager.
“I was drafted by the Expos at 18 [years old] and I gave it up because I wanted to play football. My dad and I didn’t talk for a long time because of that. He wanted me to play baseball [...]That’s why I love kids. I see kids that have the ability I had and they waste it. My dad came from Trinidad, he didn’t know how to get me ready for these things.”
However, in Thomas’ line of work, seeing kids fall through the cracks is a very real issue, especially working at Horizon High School. It prompts him to ask what more he can do, what more he can offer, so that kids stay out of trouble.
“A lot of kids have already started doing drugs at Horizon. Because remember, Horizon is a school for kids who were kicked out of the regular school system,” he says. “Then I come here [to the YMCA] and I feel like we’re sometimes too selective about what happens inside these walls. I want to bring in kids to train and feel good about themselves and we have to charge them six dollars each to do that? It’s saddening.”
Thomas also gets to see the other side of things; helping out a child who would not normally have succeeded if not for his advice, time and resources.
“We’ve sat in my office and talked for hours,” he says about one teenager who came to him for help during the football season. “He’s come from a place where he didn’t have much, but his mindset is to be the best football player possible [...]I have to talk to him about education but I can’t talk to him about it before the season is over. I know he’ll be back in my office.”
For Thomas, it’s about having perseverance even when there is nothing left to give, even when you have been told no before. Thomas tells a story about how he tried to hire an Olympic lifter for this young man but his supervisor told him that if no one could pay him there was a slim chance they would be able to hire one.
“So I talked to my volunteers and now he has an olympic lifter teaching him power-lifting for free. It’s changed his life,” Thomas says, as if it was easy as pie.
It is great to have a person like Thomas working at a non-profit organization such as the YMCA, but getting more people involved like him would make an even bigger difference in the lives of children.
” I see a lot of kids who want to achieve. So many kids from [the YMCA basketball team] are trying to get to American universities [...] I want to use sports as a tool. I want these kids to like sports, I want them to come to the YMCA and I want to show them that even if you come from nothing, you can make something out of yourself.”
Listen to the full interview here
It will always be a struggle to help teens in the community, but through the help of people like Melissa Keller, Greg Thomas and all the non-profit organizations, maybe we can start to make small differences in the community we live in.
To find out more about the West Island YMCA, you can follow them on Twitter.