Photograph by Darryl Propp
Raised in an underprivileged family, Kendall* had difficulties focusing at school. Often he wasn’t getting the nutrition he needed, and transportation to and from school was unreliable. As he grew older, it became harder and harder to concentrate on most anything, let alone his studies.
By addressing the barriers in their lives, we aim to support students to stay engaged so that they can complete their education, and set their course for a life free from poverty.
– Annette Malin
Many young people like Kendall struggle in school because of challenges at home. While the symptoms don’t go unnoticed, teachers are limited in what they can do. “Teachers often worry in silence,” says Andrea Thrall, a Family Centre mental health therapist working at Delton Elementary School. When academic performance suffers, there is a lot at stake. Many of these students won’t see a high school diploma in their future and may have limited career options, perpetuating the cycle of poverty in their lives. In Edmonton, statistics indicate that one in five students won’t graduate from high school in three years.
But a new program in our city is aiming to change that. All in for Youth is a local initiative led by United Way of the Alberta Capital Region. It focuses on tackling the root causes of poor academic performance – such as poor nutrition or mental health issues – to help get children and youth successfully through their educational journey. “By addressing the barriers in their lives, we aim to support students to stay engaged so that they can complete their education, and set their course toward a life free from poverty,” says Annette Malin, community investment specialist with United Way.
Since the initiative’s launch in September 2016, five Edmonton schools have benefited from a program that offers students the resources they need to succeed. From food programs hosted by in-school nutritional support workers to counselling sessions led by full-time mental health therapists, All in for Youth is trying to make sure no student falls between the cracks.
As Martin Garber-Conrad, chief executive officer with the Edmonton Community Foundation, says, “It’s about a whole variety of services and assistance that we can bring to bear on children and families so they have the kinds of experiences and opportunities that we know will help them succeed, not just in school, but in life.”
As one of the most well-established charitable organizations in our region, United Way already had an existing network to call on when talks of the initiative started three years ago. Since then, a variety of partners have come on board to ensure that every student receives the support they need to graduate.
“We’ve got a great collaborative group – they’re focused, determined, innovative, but most of all, passionate about improving the lives of these young people and their families,” says Judy Smith, director of community resources with the City of Edmonton. “When you can streamline processes, capitalize on the strengths of your partnerships, and coordinate resources, it helps whole communities, not just individuals.”
REACH Edmonton was able to bring the voices of indigenous and newcomer communities to the table by coordinating regular meetings between members of the agencies that serve these populations. “We’re proud to help backbone this important collaborative designed to improve the lives of our most vulnerable,” says Jan Fox, REACH Edmonton’s executive director.
Edmonton Public and Edmonton Catholic Schools along with agencies took a hands-on approach, facilitating the training and integration of new staff, all while bridging the gap between planners and principals to set both teachers and students up for success. “It’s our shared ownership which will help students learn and gain the skills they need in order to go on to their next adventure,” says Nancy Petersen, director of governance and strategic support services with Edmonton Public Schools. “We wouldn’t have achieved as much as we have doing this by ourselves,” adds Melanie Kidder, community engagement coordinator with Edmonton Catholic Schools.
Five schools in the inner city were selected as the demonstration sites for the program. Based on need and present resources, as well as on the desire to offer wraparound services at every grade level, John A. McDougall Elementary School, Delton Elementary School, Spruce Avenue Junior High School, Eastglen High School and St. Alphonsus Elementary Junior High School were chosen as the sites where the program would be the most effective.
The program is already showing early signs of success. Kendall, who is now 16 years old and in Grade 11, and other students at Eastglen High School have begun to benefit from a whole host of new resources available right in the school. Ben Hofs, a success coach with The Family Centre, who has known Kendall since he was in junior high, says he’s seen a real change since programming started.
In addition to building his confidence and social skills, Kendall has recently developed an interest in pursuing a career as a success coach or social worker. “We arranged for him to attend an open house at MacEwan University – he is quite eager to pursue that,” says Hofs. “It’s a complete turnaround; it’s why I love my job!”
Kendall is thankful for the program and the positive impact that Hofs has had on his life. “It has allowed me to problem solve situations when before I probably wouldn’t know what to do,” he says. “It’s not an overstatement to say that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without this program.”
Working at the high school level, Hofs is there for students every step of the way. “We know kids who are invested in their school stay in school,” he says. That’s why he commits himself to mitigating some of the most difficult aspects of his students’ lives. “I’ve had to find kids places to live after they’ve been kicked out, I’ve helped find them funding, helped find them jobs. It’s all about a personal response to their crisis.”
All in for Youth also works to alleviate some of the pressures children face at home by making sure families are connected with the help they need. Service providers at each school have been scheduling sessions with parents, guardians, or relatives and linking them with resources they may not have known were available. “We know these kids, but now we know everything that’s going on at home,” says Fatmeh Kalouti. “We want to support families through those difficulties.”
Kalouti works as an out-of-school time coordinator at Spruce Avenue Junior High School. Building on her experience as a youth coordinator with Boys & Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton & Area – yet another organization contributing to All in for Youth – Kalouti runs a variety of programs after school, when at-risk students are most vulnerable. “We cover five key programming areas during after-school sessions,” she says. “We encourage physical activity; foster a love of the arts and culture; focus on health and nutrition; host life skills and leadership workshops to support growth and prominent leadership; and of course, aid students in all areas academic.”
The life skills workshops include things like career preparation, cooking instruction, social skills development, driver’s education and participation in community initiatives. In addition, cultural programming sessions are led by prominent members of the community. Children are then able to discuss topics ranging from growth and empowerment, to race issues and marginalization, without fear of embarrassment or reprimand. “These kids consider us safe people to talk to, and they’re at an age when these conversations need to happen,” explains Kalouti.
At Delton Elementary School, mental health therapist Andrea Thrall is in classrooms every week, working alongside teachers to tackle the subject of mental health or meeting with students for individual counselling sessions. “By the end of the year, I’ll have worked with each class at the school. That means that each and every student will have participated in a program supporting mental wellness,” she says. When she’s not working with students, Thrall is connecting with teachers to provide professional development, and acting as a resource for teachers so they might better understand some of the issues facing their students.
All in for Youth’s team members are quickly learning to adapt and respond to the unexpected circumstances of many of the students they’re helping, and their efforts are paying off. For instance, Hofs remembers finding out that one of his teenage students was living with absolutely no furniture. Hofs and a team of teachers got creative and found some great used furniture and then organized a moving effort to deliver the pieces to the student and his family.
These kids consider us safe people to talk to, and they’re at an age where these conversations need to happen.
– Fatmeh Kalouti
Thanks to Thrall’s therapy and mentoring programs, a student at Delton Elementary – who had been struggling with feelings of frustration and isolation – has since begun regularly engaging in a pleasant way with peers and staff. And through Kalouti’s after-school efforts, one student previously showing signs of being severely antisocial has built critical social skills. “Now I see him in the halls talking with a big group of friends,” she laughs.
It’s success stories like these that are keeping United Way and its partners motivated to continue striving for greatness. “It’s still early days,” says Garber-Conrad, “but we’re excited for the future.” Advocates like Petersen are hoping All in for Youth will expand its programming to other schools in Edmonton. “There’s definitely a need,” she says.
Thanks to the diligent efforts of collaborators, as well as contributions from major funders like EPCOR, the Mental Health Foundation, and the City of Edmonton, for many of Edmonton’s youth, the future is already looking brighter.
*name has been changed to protect identity