It is once again time for the Olympic Games. Most of us will turn our attention to the achievements of our athletes and applaud not only for their performance, but also their dedication and effort put forth to make those performances possible. These are our national champions.
I am a strong believer in acknowledging the exemplary achievements of those who have dedicated their lives in pursuit of excellence. In reflection, I have realized that it is in not simply the achievement I applaud, but rather the dedication and single minded pursuit of excellence I applaud. I am humbled by their effort. The same can be said for the youth we support each day. I am humbled by their resilience and strength in the face of adversity and their ability to push forward despite the odds that are stacked against them.
The opponent in the Olympic Games may be the athletes from other countries, the weather conditions, injuries, illness, or even the athlete themselves. For the youth we support the opponent may be mental health issues, emotional injury, cultural stigma, racism, or poverty. What both groups share is the ability and desire to overcome these opponents each day. Our youth are the champions of life. It is their triumphs that should remind ourselves to cheer and to celebrate. The ability to get up each day and push forward despite the challenges and to do so with a smile and hopefulness is truly the triumph of the human spirit. It is the intersection of the Olympic spirit and the human spirit that I choose to celebrate and I invite you to do the same.
We are all familiar with the concept of pay it forward. Performing a kind gesture for someone and then the hope is that the gesture is paid forward or reciprocated in some way. In a cynical world the question always arises about how much impact a single kind gesture can achieve. My response is that is can change a life. But you just don’t know which gesture it will be that makes a dramatic impact, so do it all of the time.
Being kind is one of the only things that doesn’t necessarily cost you anything, and almost never causes any personal inconvenience. In fact, the payback is exponentially tilted in the favour of the doer. It feels good to do good. If you’ve ever done something out of the blue and without being asked, that made someone smile, you know the feeling I am talking about.
This year marks our eighth year of Tokens4Change taking place on February 2nd. The theme of this year’s big day is Change one life, one gesture at a time. It is that simple. One gesture of kindness, one gesture of generosity, one gesture of caring. That is the power of your actions.
I ask each of you to offer one gesture of kindness and please do not feel as though it is only for February 2nd. Offer to buy a coffee for the person behind you line, help someone struggling with heavy bags, pay someone’s transit fare. We can change 30 lives in 30 days. Can you imagine the outcome? If every person in Toronto performs one act of kindness a day, at the end of the month there will have been over 844,000,000 gestures of kindness taking place. That is a staggering number. All it takes is one gesture.
Be kind, and on February 2nd as you pass through the TTC stations, you will see me and other T4C’ers canvassing and raising awareness on youth homelessness. You can change a life, one donation at a time. Your generosity will be met with heartfelt thanks and smiles to hopefully brighten your day as you have done that for us.
As you read this I want you to do an exercise first. Sit quietly, without any distractions. Now think of a time where you were terribly embarrassed. Remember all of the people around you and their reactions. Did you feel something as you thought about it? Were you quick to end the thought? Did the feeling pass or did it linger as the memory did? Chances are you sorted through millions of experiences and memories before you probably landed on this particular one. It took seconds to sort through them all.
Now think about the time you had milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you were 8. Tougher; isn’t it? Try remembering the time you broke a bone or had a terrible fall. Chances are you bypass the actual feeling of the pain, but you can still remember it. More importantly, I bet you can also remember the person who gave you comfort following that hurt as it brings forth a unique connection due to the dichotomous nature.
With the holidays soon approaching here at YWS, it can heightened feelings of isolation and be challenging for many of our youth. Here is where we need to consider the impact of caring and the comfort it brings during this difficult time for many of our youth. Now consider the impact of your caring towards someone who might be hurting and the comfort this may bring. You can show how much you care in many ways. Whether it be through donations and volunteering at YWS, or simply noticing a homeless youth and acknowledging that they are there. It’s time we break the silence and make youth homelessness a topic amongst our discussions with loved ones, colleagues and those around us.
To everyone who advocates for our youth and invest time, energy and resources in support of YWS, we say thank you. For you will be remembered as someone who gave comfort, stability and warmth this coming holiday season.
Although many of us would like to believe otherwise, how we think of someone else impacts how we not only respond to them but also how we judge someone after the fact, and apply a narrative for the future. When we misjudge or prejudge other people, the risk is that we soon put those persons into the ‘Them’ category, while the people who judges put themselves into the ‘Us’ category. Thus we enter into the danger of Us and Them.
Us and Them is dangerous as it encourages blanket statements which are usually quite negative to the Them and positive to the Us. There is a dehumanizing aspect to Them. This makes people feel better since they aren’t burdened by empathy, which could likely implore someone to act. Not acting can evoke guilty feelings that are uncomfortable. Instead, too often we strive for comfort and this can lead to being dismissive to the plight of others. The other strategy often employed is to attach a value statement to the Them. To see Them as being the author of their own misfortune allows us to once again distance ourselves from empathy. We group the Them into convenient packages – and socially constructed spaces.
My challenge to everyone is to change how you view others in a way which humanizes and individualizes Them. Putting homeless youth in the same space as Us is the most basic change that can do so much good. In this space you are thinking of homeless youth as good people having a hard time. The stereotypes and social construct around youth homelessness are simply untrue. Challenge those stereotypes when you hear them. Even more importantly, challenge yourself should they enter in your head.
Over the past 30 weeks, we have embarked on a journey through the lenses of youth who have called Youth Without Shelter (YWS) home and their path to success. These powerful stories of resiliency, empowerment and achievements continue to guide us to provide support and care in working towards breaking the cycle of youth homelessness.
Young people often feel silenced by the labels, stereotypes, and assumptions made by society about homelessness and street life. Their voices can often become lost amid the statistics and stigma associated around “poverty” and “homelessness”.
Even though the series has concluded – let us not forget to listen, empower, and continue the fight to end homelessness.. one youth at a time.
Today, The Home Depot Canada Foundation announced a 2017 partnership with Youth Without Shelter (YWS) with an investment of $125,000. The Home Depot Canada Foundation focuses on supporting initiatives that prevent and end youth homelessness through renovation and repair projects and programs that provide youth access to safe, stable shelter and support services. This gift of $125,000 provides essential project and program funding to Youth Without Shelter. Funds have enabled the replacement of the shelter’s kitchen walk-in combination freezer and refrigerator. The YWS kitchen is the “heart of our home”, a 24 hour operation offering three meals and two snacks daily and facilitating life skills learning. The program funding supports the continued enhancement and growth of YWS’s Employment Program. Priority areas identified by youth in the employment program include the need for increased support with pre-employment trainings, workshops and certifications.
Team Depot is on-site today sharing their energy and skills to bring YWS’s outdoor space to life with fresh, colorful plantings and herbs for container gardening. Lunchtime will bring the YWS youth and staff team and Team Depot together to enjoy a meal prepared by Team Depot!
Thank you to The Home Depot Canada Foundation for your continued investment in young people challenged with homelessness. This gift recognizes that each youth comes to YWS with their own set of strengths, challenges and dreams, each requiring personalized strategies to successfully and safely transition to independent living.
It is hard to imagine the struggles, fears and loneliness one might feel being in a strange country and having no one. As hard as it may be to imagine, it is a situation that occurred to a young seventeen year old girl named Liceie. She came to Canada for the summer as a visitor, never suspecting that she would be held against her will by a relative who would become abusive and steal her only means of returning home.
Liceie was brought to Youth Without Shelter (YWS) after she phoned the police from a neighbour’s house where she had run to escape physical abuse by her aunt. When she arrived at the shelter she was afraid and had no idea what was to happen to her next. She had never been in a shelter, let alone one in a foreign country. The police informed her that they would try to retrieve her stolen passport and plane ticket which were believed to be held by her aunt.
The workers at YWS quickly began working with Liceie to calm her fears and make her feel more at home. The housing worker immediately met with her to see what could be done to assist her in returning to her home country of St. Vincent. In attempting to acquire travel documents for her the Consulate of St. Vincent informed the housing worker that, given the situation, they would issue her new documents for her travel home if her original ones were not retrieved.
Liceie was escorted by YWS to a meeting with Project Go Home to see if they would be able to fund Liceie’s trip back to St. Vincent. They were indeed able to help her and now, because of the meaningful connections made by YWS, Liceie had YWS, Project Go Home, the O.P.P. and the Consulate of St. Vincent all working to resolve her dilemma.
Meanwhile, Liceie was attending the Life Skills Program sessions at YWS, making new friends and getting used to the routine at the shelter. YWS provided her with warm clothing as all she had with her was a small summer wardrobe. She made calls to her mother in St. Vincent to let her know that she was safe and keep her up to date on the help she was receiving to go home. The YWS housing worker was able to help her through every step of the process by spending hours on the phone with the O.P.P., Project Go Home and the Consulate of St. Vincent, and attending all the appointments with her.
That November, two weeks to the day Liceie was brought to YWS by the police, she was on a flight back home to her mother. Liceie was grateful for everything that had been done for her and although she had nothing to give, she showed her gratitude by making bead bracelets in our Life Skills Program for the strangers she had found safety and security with.
Stories are often shared over meals at Youth Without Shelter (YWS). Nancy called YWS to arrange a date for a team of volunteers from her church to provide and serve a “home cooked” meal to YWS’s 50 youth. While visiting the shelter Nancy was asked how she learned about YWS. Well, YWS had been her “home” several years ago. For many years, Nancy never shared that she had any contact with a shelter, let alone had lived in one. But now she has begun to open up, firmly believing that her experience can help others.
Family circumstances were such that Nancy had no choice but to strike out on her own as a teen. For a time she tried balancing living on her own with staying in school. Nancy dreamed of becoming a nurse and was enrolled in a college nursing program. But she simply could not afford rent, and lost her housing. It was a social worker who told Nancy about a newly opened program called the Stay in School Program (SIS) at Youth Without Shelter.
Looking back, Nancy says that coming to YWS was like being welcomed into a “home”. The youth and staff team became her family. “The computer lab, the school supplies, space to study, all of those vital supports helped me stay in school.” Nancy finished the nursing program and graduated with honours. “If I had not come to YWS I would not be a graduate. I would have dropped out.”
Today, Nancy works full-time as a public health nurse specializing in healthy food and nutrition education with youth ages 5 through 18. She is settled with a family of her own. Nancy’s church community is a big part of her life – and it is there that Nancy shares her life journey with young women.
“I am the impact of donations to the shelter. What I have achieved would not have been possible without all those who support YWS. If I a former resident of YWS can come back and give, than any one can give. It does not have to be a big donation, many small donations can make a difference.”
Growing up George’s family life was in constant turmoil. Early on George spent time in foster care when his Dad could not control his temper. At 16, George made the decision to leave home when his father insisted he drop out of school and make money, an education was not needed. George was determined to get an education. He turned to “couch surfing” moving from one friends home to the next. When that was no longer an option he found his way to a shelter. Throughout it all George remained in school. It was a shelter housing worker who recommended George apply to Youth Without Shelter’s Stay in School Program. He applied and moved in.
George finished Grade 12 and attended an adult high school to take additional courses and improve his marks. George’s favorite subject is Chemistry, where he achieved a grade of 95%. What’s next for George? College- George’s goal is to be a paramedic. George: “I’ve found the resources I need to be able to focus on finishing school. I can concentrate on my studies; there are computers, quite spaces. Bus fare had become a big obstacle in getting to school. I really value the TTC pass provided in the Stay in School Program.”
Note: George has now transitioned to independent living, joined the Canadian Armed Forces and is pursuing his dream of becoming a paramedic.