Krystal Bell and Soila Hill surf the web on side-by-side desktop PCs. It’s a typical Tuesday evening at the Kla-how-ya Youth Drop-in Centre in Surrey.
Led Zeppelin, New Order and others flowed out of the radio, mixing with the sounds of teens talking and laughing as they spent time together.
“I wasn’t very social before Kla-how-eya opened up,” said Bell, 15. If the drop-in center were not there, Bell said, she most likely would be doing “nothing at all, not video games, not homework. I’d just go to sleep pretty early.”
A few weeks ago, Bell was uncertain if she and the other youth at Kla-how-ya in Metro Vancouver would have a place to gather much longer. Funds for the drop-in centre come from a grant from the Urban Multipurpose Youth Centres Initiative, which was set to end in March.
She and other Aboriginal youth who benefit from programs funded by the initiative did not just wait around and hope for the best when faced with the potential loss. Program leaders, youth and supporters launched a petition drive and they took their message to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, James Moore.
The result: the renewal of the program for six more years.
“I am very pleased to announce this extension, ” said Moore. “Our government is committed to providing Aboriginal young people with culturally focused programming that helps tomorrow’s leaders build strong communities and families.”
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Consistency is key when working with youth, said Tanya McKenzie, youth initiatives director for the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres.
Youth programs suffer when they face funding gaps like the one that could have been caused by delaying renewal of the initiative.
McKenzie said the legacy of colonialism can be seen in many of the issues faced by Aboriginal youth. “People should see these programs as a way to restore what was broken down by the Canadian government,” she said.
The drop-in centre can keep Aboriginal youth out of trouble. Boredom and difficulties at home can lead to minor criminal offenses, starting Aboriginal youth down a destructive path, according to the Canadian Criminal Justice Association website.
Aboriginal youth face high rates of depression and acute stress. Other family members who would ordinarily help youth deal with their problems can be caught up in their own stresses, leaving youth with few places to go for support.
If left unattended to, youth under acute stress are more likely to consider suicide, according to information from Health Canada.
Risk factors faced by Aboriginal youth can be countered to some degree by participation in youth development programming. For youth who are not experiencing difficulties, those same programs can give them an even brighter future, according to research from Family and Community Support Services, Calgary.
The number of Aboriginal children in care in comparison to non-Aboriginal children in Canada offers a stark reminder of the effects of colonization and assimilation efforts have had on Aboriginal families.
Even though Aboriginal people make up just 3 per cent of the Canadian population, Aboriginal children make up 40 per cent of the number of children in-care.
Centres of support
Bell said her mother found the program in the hope of helping Bell connect with her peers. She said the centre helped her become more social by providing volunteer opportunities and a chance to be seen as a leader by younger program participants.
“At Kla-how eya they help you form the person you want to be” she said.
When Kla-how-ya threw a block party, Bell pitched in to help by emceeing the event. “My public speaking has really improved,” she said.
Hill, 16, became aware of the program at Kla-how-eya when youth workers came to her school. Her voice is soft, yet sure as she talks about how the center has changed her weekday evening routine.
“Just being there…having warm people welcome me and not judging me,” has helped her stay out of trouble, Hill said.
“If it wasn’t for the Youth Centre I would probably be hanging out in the streets and doing whatever,” she said.
The initiative, now named Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth represents an investment of $150-million aimed at providing culturally relevant programs to the Aboriginal youth of Canada, according to information provided by Moore’s office.
Programs funded by the initiative also help communities deal with hard economic times, McKenzie said.
“It’s a response to poverty. It’s a response to homelessness. It’s a response to school drop-outs and addictions and teen pregnancies. That’s what happens in bad economic times,” she said.