Teens from troubled neighbourhoods get lessons that will last lifetime
By Kris Scheuer
(Originally written Jan/6/06 for Town Crier)
For young people growing up in some of the most disadvantaged communities in Toronto, initiatives like the Youth Leadership Program can be a lifesaver.
More than 200 youth from high-risk neighbourhoods graduated Dec. 17 from the program, a joint initiative of the city and Toronto Community Housing (TCH).
Many of the 52 gun deaths (from 78 murders) of 2005 involved youth, either as victim or perpetrator, and many of the shootings took place on or near TCH complexes. The city and TCH responded this summer by initiating a pilot project in 13 communities, including Malvern, Lawrence Heights, St. Jamestown, the Jane and Finch neighbourhood and Flemingdon Park, which is southeast of Don Mills Rd. and Eglinton Ave. East.
The significance of the successful completion of the nine-week leadership course was not lost on parents, community leaders, media, politicians or youth themselves.
“I feel proud that we are in this moment. We are Toronto the Good when we work and build together,” said Kwasi Kafele, a community leader and youth advocate.Tanisha, a young graduate from Lawrence Heights, said, “I feel good about it because now people know I am doing something with my life and am not wasting my time.”
After the ceremony, Toronto Mayor David Miller told the Town Crier the city gave TCH $10 million for a variety of initiatives, including this program.
He said the city will have to find a way to financially support the expansion of this program in 2006.
|“It’s too important. You can feel the energy in the room,” he said. “These kids face so many barriers. They come from families who don’t have much money and they still face racism and discrimination. These programs help those youth face those barriers.”
Stacy Golding, a child and youth program coordinator for TCH, led the Flemingdon youth group, which met on Mondays and Tuesdays after school for nine weeks at the Flemingdon Resource Centre.
“The communities we chose had shootings this summer,” she said, adding her youth group had the largest turnout of all.
Notices for youth wanting to join the group were posted in the local schools and community centres.
“It was supposed to be for 15 youth but 28 graduated,” said Golding, adding there were 20 more youths waiting to get in to the Flemingdon group.
The group focused on various topics for each meeting — from youth poverty and gun violence to sexual identity and managing money — and invited guest speakers such as Provincial Conservative Leader John Tory and local politician Jane Pitfield, who spoke about civic engagement.
The youths gave presentations, asked their guests thought-provoking questions and actively discussed each topic.
“At first they were very reserved. Then we started to connect and we were a unit after that. They are incredible,” said Golding, adding the TCH plans to create a youth council made up of the graduates from all 13 communities.
Garth Yarde, who runs Conflict Mediation Services of Downsview in the Jane and Finch area, spoke to the Flemingdon group about managing conflict.
He taught the youth how to recognize when they were in a conflict, how to stop it from escalating and how to resolve the conflict peacefully.
“One of the biggest questions they had was how to deal with (their) own anger and how to de-escalate the situation,” Yarde said. “One of the prominent issues was gang violence that they’ve been affected with directly or indirectly.”
When a conflict involves a weapon, the situation immediately escalates and the threat is much greater. “Weapons are used as a form of power and a means of getting respect,” he said, adding he would like to see this program expanded into schools.
“The younger you are when you learn how to deal with conflict, the better off you are.”
Yamo Said Ogho, an18-year-old who recently moved to Thorncliffe, near Flemingdon, was part of the Flemingdon youth group.
“We learned how to deal with gun violence, which is the main problem in society,” he said. “We met with John Tory about youth education, housing, immigration and why the community is feeling antsy about their security and violence.”
He said the program helped him learn how to create a resume and prepare for university. He is now vice-president of a youth homework club at Marc Garneau High School, where he’s in grade 12.
Sandra Haraan, another participant, said she learned how to be respectful, patient and listen to other people’s points of view. The 18-year-old wants to be a social worker and now volunteers to help run a youth group that meets twice a month to watch films and discuss them.
Fatima, a 16-year-old Flemingdon resident who wants to be psychologist, also graduated from the program. She said the youth group will continue to meet informally every month or two.