Ask The Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

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Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and well-being of children and families. She’s also the national coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

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2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.
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3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

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4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.
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5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

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6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their well-being. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

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3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.

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4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.

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5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.

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6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Changemakers to watch: Kofi Hope

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Kofi Hope
Executive Director, 
CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals

Meet Kofi Hope. He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

WHO: As the Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, a United Way Youth Challenge Fund legacy initiative, Kofi has played a pivotal role in connecting youth with the holistic supports they need for a promising future. This includes creating pathways to meaningful jobs, part of United Way’s bold new Youth Success Strategy that puts the long-term economic security of some of our region’s most vulnerable young people front-and-centre. “It’s not enough to just move a young person from unemployed to employed,” explains Kofi. “You have to build up the person by focusing on the unique aspects of their life.” And he’s doing exactly that—recognizing that stable employment is crucial to economic security—and a springboard to a promising future. “When you empower a person to take control of their life, they realize the barriers they’re facing will not be there forever,” he says. “They’re just problems to be solved and overcome.”

In fact, helping young people overcome barriers has been a life-long affair. He’s been a child and youth champion since he was a teen, organizing programming to address the growing needs of kids in his community. By university, he was advocating on behalf of Black youth as the founder of the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence. And by 28, he had a PhD from the highly-esteemed University of Oxford.

WHY: Kofi’s ability to bring together and mobilize community members, business leaders and decision-makers in a common cause of action is inspiring. In addition to his groundbreaking work with CEE, he’s also led meaningful change beyond our borders. He’s a passionate public speaker who has captivated audiences overseas, and has even advised on a land claim struggle in South Africa, effectively bridging the gap between community and authority as a cross-cultural communicator and negotiator.

WHAT’S NEXT: Earlier this year, Kofi joined the board of the Toronto Environmental Alliance where he’s tackling important social issues that intersect with environmental concerns. “Environmental and social justice are not competing causes,” explains Kofi. “Good public transit helps reduce our carbon footprint, but also opens up economic and social opportunities to marginalized people in underserved areas. You’re saving the environment and building a more equitable society for everyone.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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What can we accomplish when we collaborate for youth?

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Liban Abokor
Executive Director, Youth LEAPS

Our guest blogger this week is Liban Abokor, Executive Director of Youth LEAPS. His niece recently took part in United Way’s CN Tower Climb, and as part of her preparation, set out to learn more about the story of teamwork and collaboration behind our city’s historic landmark. The following article, which has been edited and condensed, originally appeared on October 30, 2016 in the Toronto Star.

Reportedly, it took 1,537 workers, operating 24 hours a day, five days a week for 40 months, to complete construction of the CN Tower. This labour force included electricians, steel workers, crane operators, engineers and carpenters, among many others. Each team member, delivering on a particular task, contributed to what still stands as a testament to human achievement.

The story of the CN Tower and how it was built offers valuable insights into the promise of collaboration and teamwork. When that many people come together for a common purpose they can accomplish an astounding feat.

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It is an especially important lesson for Toronto’s social service sector as it faces increasing pressure to do more with less.

At a time marked by greater competition for remaining resources and growing need in the community, more and more organizations realize that collaboration enhances the impact of their work toward achieving transformational change.

In much the same way, United Way also seeks to move the dial on some of our most pressing social issues by fostering a social service sector driven by a culture of collaboration.

The role United Way plays is best described as part preacher, part practitioner. The organization seeks to not only popularize the spirit of collective effort, but also make the necessary investments. An example of this is the CITY Leaders program and Community Hub model that set the stage for collaboration to flourish.

Early in my career, I participated in the CITY Leaders program, which was an exciting opportunity to work alongside and learn from other emerging young leaders from various fields in Toronto. It was an immersive experience, driven by a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving, that taught me to look at issues as systemic.

dsc_7983Soon I would come to rely on these lessons in my role as executive director of Youth LEAPS, a registered not-for-profit seeking to improve educational attainment outcomes for at-risk youth.

Located in Scarborough, Youth LEAPS operates out of the Dorset Park Hub, which includes several other service providers offering essential supports including health care, settlement, employment, child and seniors care.

At the hub, we recognize that community members—many facing multiple barriers, often access several services simultaneously, which bolstered the case for greater collaboration and offered a clear opportunity to better align our service delivery to achieve greater impact.

dsc_8203Working closely with hub partners meant we could better co-ordinate services, share resources, exchange knowledge and enhance engagement protocols, such as the referral and monitoring processes.

A great example of this is our Learn2Work Initiative where we work with social service, employment, and health-care partners to create a classroom-to-careers pathway for youth between 18-29 years old, without their high school diploma, and receiving Ontario Works.

More so today than ever before, examples like Learn2Work can be found across our sector thanks to United Way’s investment in the development of young community leaders and the idea of collective problem solving and collaboration, imperative to achieving systemic change.

Ask the Expert: What’s the best way to equip youth for the future?

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Christine Walsh
Associate Dean & Professor, Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary

Christine Walsh is Associate Dean and professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She is considered a leading expert on vulnerable youth, including young people living in poverty. Her research interests include child and family health, Aboriginal health and individuals affected by social exclusion, poverty and homelessness. Prior to academia, she also worked as a clinical social worker at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. Imagine a City spoke with Christine for our “Ask the Expert” series to understand the best way to equip youth for the future.

1. United Way is committed to ensuring the success of young people, particularly those youth who face ‘barriers.’ Describe some of these barriers.  

Vulnerable youth are those who face barriers that prevent them from achieving or maintaining well-being. They’re vulnerable because of personal, social and structural factors, such as a lack of family support, stable housing or access to education. These factors not only affect their physical and mental health, but greatly influence their ability to contribute to society.dsc_5334

2. What are some of the contributing factors to vulnerability?

Things like family breakdown, poverty, racism, violence, childhood trauma and physical and mental health issues are significant contributing factors to youth vulnerability. Newcomers or LGBTQ+ youth also experience many challenges including social isolation. These types of barriers make it extremely difficult for young people to excel in school, find stable employment or connect with their communities, making it much harder for them to succeed.

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3. Why is the transition from adolescence to adulthood often so difficult for young people who face barriers?

Transitioning from youth to adulthood is challenging for all young people, but it’s especially tough for those who face barriers such as poverty and different forms of violence. Attaining an education, entering the workforce and establishing financial independence are key components of becoming an adult. Unfortunately, many youth simply don’t have access to the supports they need to successfully transition into this life stage. To cope with these challenges, youth are vulnerable to high-risk behaviours like alcohol and drug use, which can lead to longer-term consequences such as becoming street-involved or even homeless. These long-term health issues can also have implications on our justice system and health and social services sectors.

4. Why is it so important to invest in youth during this critical transition period into independent adulthood?

Many of the decisions made, and the opportunities that are available or lacking during the transition into adulthood, have long-term impacts on a person’s future. That’s why it’s so important to address vulnerability during this time. If a young person lacks the supports they need to finish school, adequately prepare for the workforce or find affordable, stable housing, then that’s going to impact the rest of their life.dsc_6965

5. What are some of the best ways to support youth facing barriers to build brighter futures?

Community supports are one critical piece of helping young people thrive. These supports include things like mental health counseling, career workshops and mentorship programs that can enable young people to change trajectories, even helping them acquire the tools necessary to break the cycle of poverty. It’s these type of what we call ‘wraparound’ supports  that are so crucial to ensuring youth have access to the opportunities they need to build stable, secure futures. United Way plays an important role in this because it’s embedded in the community in a really profound way. Social supports offered by community-based organizations enable youth to make good decisions throughout the developmental process. Engagement is also extremely important when it comes to young people. When we engage youth in meaningful ways, they become active participants on a personal and community level.

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6. Why does youth success matter to communities at large?

Youth, including those who face barriers, have tremendous skills and potential. When we support them, we capitalize on their talent. These young people play a vital role in society because they’re the future of our communities. They are the ones who are going to be working and raising their families here. If we want safe, healthy, livable communities where every young person feels supported to build a better life, then we need to ensure we create the conditions that allow all youth to benefit and contribute in a multitude of ways.

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Changemakers to watch: Hibaq Gelle

hibaq1Meet Hibaq Gelle. She’s a community mobilizer and a powerful youth champion committed to bringing good jobs to people in her Rexdale neighbourhood. Using innovative ways of working, she’s empowering community members to take ownership of their neighbourhood and revolutionizing the way community change is made.

WHO: For Hibaq, building vibrant communities isn’t just a pastime—it’s a commitment she lives and breathes every day. As a graduate of CITY Leaders, a leadership program co-certified by United Way and the University of Toronto, Hibaq knows a thing or two about empowering youth. A staple in many priority neighbourhoods across Toronto, she’s helped youth facing barriers, including poverty and racialization, connect to the programs and supports they need to thrive.

But Hibaq is not only passionate about bringing opportunities to youth here at home; her impact can be felt province-wide. As a political appointee on the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, Hibaq—one of just 25 people selected by the Premier—represents Ontario’s youth by bringing their voices to the table. Most notably, Hibaq advised on Ontario’s Youth Action Plan, a crucial $55 million investment in programs and services to tackle issues like youth violence and unemployment so that young people can transition successfully into adulthood.

WHY: It’s no surprise Hibaq has become a well-known name in Rexdale—community activism is a family affair. “Growing up, my mom was a go-to resource in the community,” says Hibaq. “Whether she was organizing women’s programming or helping newcomers navigate community resources, if you needed support, she was the person you would turn to.” And although Hibaq has undoubtedly followed in her mom’s footsteps, she’s definitely carved her own path. “Young people are not succeeding in the way that they should be,” says Hibaq. “By engaging non-traditional stakeholders and community members, we can start building new tools to tackle local issues in entirely different ways.”

One of the big barriers: unemployment. The tool: Community Benefits Agreements—partnerships that connect residents from priority neighbourhoods to work opportunities on local infrastructure projects. It’s a new way of working that United Way is also behind. Just last year, our advocacy led to provincial legislation that ensures Community Benefits will be included in all provincially-funded infrastructure projects moving forward.

WHAT’S NEXT: While a fellow in MaRS’ prestigious Studio Y program, Hibaq created the My Rexdale project, where she began working to tap into planned infrastructure projects in Rexdale—like the proposed casino at Woodbine Racetrack—to connect youth, precariously employed individuals and newcomers to work opportunities spurred as a result of planned development. Through community outreach (and the massive billboard she leveraged next to Highway 27), the idea is on its way to having a big impact in the lives of residents—who are equally thrilled at the prospect of good jobs coming to their neighbourhood.

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And Hibaq’s Community Benefits work is just getting started. So far, she’s established a core team of community builders and is assembling a steering committee for the My Rexdale project. She’s also gotten Rexdale residents on-board through community consultations, door-to-door outreach and social media—educating community members about the investments coming so they can advocate on behalf of their community. “We need a strong base of support before we start conversations with big stakeholders,” says Hibaq. “The community is united behind it. This is just the beginning.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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5 tips for teens on getting volunteer-ready

Back-to-school is just around the corner! Which means there’s no better time for Ontario high school students (particularly those just starting Grade 9) to start thinking about how they’ll give back to their communities. That’s why we’re bringing back this popular “cheat sheet” that we created during National Volunteer Week for high school students who are required to complete 40 hours of community service before they graduate. If you’re a parent, we hope you’ll share our tips list with your teen for everything they need to know on getting “volunteer-ready.”

Camara Chambers Director, Community Engagement Volunteer Toronto

Camara Chambers
Director, Community Engagement
Volunteer Toronto

Start early: It’s never too early to start thinking about your volunteer service. In Ontario, students can start clocking their community service hours starting right after they finish Grade 8 and all the way up until, and including, Grade 12. It often takes several weeks to secure a volunteer position, so it’s best not to leave it to the last minute, especially if you’re close to graduation.  “If you have to squeeze all of those 40 hours into two weeks, you’re going to be setting yourself up for failure,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto. “A great time to start volunteering is during the spring when the annual ChangeTheWorld: Youth Volunteering Challenge takes place.” Since you can’t volunteer during school hours, many students choose to complete their hours during the summer or even March Break. Volunteering at a number of events is another popular option since it gives young people the chance to split their volunteer hours into smaller chunks of time. “It’s also a great opportunity to try different roles, meet lots of different people and get a behind the scenes look at lots of different events throughout the city,” adds Chambers.

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1. Do your homework: It’s important to find an opportunity that’s a good match for your personality, skills and future career aspirations. Chambers advises all volunteers to narrow their search using the “3 Rs”— reflect, research and reach out. What do you really want to get out of the experience? Maybe you’re focused on getting some valuable experience for your resume. Or perhaps you want to put a particular skill to good use. Are you interested in working with a particular group of people or on a specific issue such as poverty? Or maybe you just need to find a position that fits into your busy schedule and is close to home or school. Knowing what you want will help you narrow your search once you’re ready. It’s also a good idea to talk to your school guidance counsellor to get pre-approval on your position. “Some schools are more flexible than others and will allow you to volunteer just helping your neighbour,” says Chambers. “Others will want you to do it specifically for a non-profit or a charity.” It’s also important to know your rights. You should expect to have the role clearly explained to you and receive some form of training, even if it’s informal. Having a supervisor or adult mentor is another must. Remember that you can’t be paid for your volunteer service but some organizations provide tokens or small honorariums.

Spencer-Xiong-20130507-1UWL0259-fb2. Find a role that fits: You’re ready to start your search. The best place to look? Online volunteer databases such as volunteertoronto.ca or yorkinfo.ca that list hundreds of opportunities organized by age and category. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you can also contact individual organizations to learn more about any positions that might be available. Talk to your parents and peers for suggestions, or contact your local place of worship or a charity in your neighbourhood.  Don’t forget to factor your personality into the equation. If you’re not comfortable in big groups, choose a role such as one-on-one tutoring. You can even volunteer with your friends at certain fundraising events. Family volunteering opportunities are also available and include delivering meals to seniors. Once you’ve secured your spot, it’s not unusual to complete a brief in-person or phone interview to learn more about the position. Some roles may even require that you attend an information session or day of training.

DSC_79593. Put your best foot forward: Although you can’t be paid for your volunteer service, treat this opportunity as a valuable learning experience for the future. “It’s really important to leave a good impression. That means turning up on time, asking lots of questions when you don’t understand your responsibilities and communicating honestly, especially if you’re not finding the job enjoyable,“ says Chambers. “The person overseeing you will likely be your reference in the future.” She adds: “If you make a really good impression, your volunteer supervisor will probably introduce you to other people, give you other opportunities or give you more of a leadership role.” And finally, don’t forget to say “thank you” once you’ve completed your position.

CamaraChambers4. Become a better citizen (and have fun doing it!): Completing your mandatory 40 hours of volunteer service is about much more than just clocking time. If you want to get the most out of your experience, be prepared to learn. Engage with your peers and supervisor to learn more about the issues facing the organization—and the sector—where you’ve selected your position. When you’re done, stay in touch with any friends or contacts you’ve made along the way. “Volunteering is a fantastic way to try new experiences, meet new people and make new friends,” says Chambers. Maybe you’ll even find something you want to stick with over the long-term.”

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5 community events you can’t miss

Toronto Islands, C.N. Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, Canada’s Wonderland. With the season halfway over, chances are you’ve already visited one of these summer hot spots. So we put together our own list of community events happening right across our region. Get outside, have some fun and get to know a new neighbourhood.

1. HOPE Community Garden BBQ – August 11, 2016

Community Garden BBQLooking for an event that brings together residents, young and old? The 5th Annual HOPE Community Garden BBQ takes place August 11 in Vaughan. It’s organized to celebrate the seniors who help grow and nurture the community garden, many of whom participate in this project through wellness programs funded by United Way. It’s a great opportunity for elderly residents, who are more likely to experience isolation, to participate in a community-building event. Come for the BBQ…and stay for an action-packed day full of intergenerational fun!

2. Dragon Boat Race for United Way – August 13, 2016

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Taking place in beautiful King City, the Dragon Boat Race for United Way is more than just a fundraiser; it’s a community-building opportunity with something for everyone. Watch the paddlers race to support their region while enjoying music, yummy BBQ, and plenty of activities for kids. With 100% of the fundraising from this event going directly to changing lives across our region, it’s sure to be an incredible day!

 

 

 

3. Good Food Market at CICS – August 12 and 26, 2016

Good Food market option 1Show your support for a local community garden in Agincourt by visiting the Good Food Market at the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services, a United Way-supported agency. It’s a great way to get affordable, seasonal, and organic veggies and to see firsthand the vital role innovative urban gardening programs play in helping get healthy, nutritious food to the nearly one in 10 households in Toronto that experience some level of food insecurity.

4. Moonlight movies in the park – August 12-13, 2016

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Want to enjoy a fun flick with your family in some of Toronto’s many beautiful parks? Park People, a non-profit organization, has teamed up with parks and recreation centres across Toronto—including United Way agencies—to bring movies to the masses this summer. Malvern Family Resource Centre is co-hosting The Lego Movie at Little Road Park on August 12 and Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office is co-hosting Madagascar at RV Burgess Park on August 13. Bring your own snacks, camping chairs and blankets and grab a spot for some blockbusters that also bring communities together.

5. Scarborough Community Multicultural Festival – August 5-7, 2016

Multicultural eventCome out to this 3-day festival to celebrate the cuisine, music, and art of the many diverse cultural communities that make up Scarborough. This year, the festival will also host a Canadian citizenship ceremony to welcome some of the nearly 75,000 newcomers who arrive in Toronto and York Region each year. So get out to Scarborough Civic Centre this summer to celebrate your own cultural background or learn something new about your neighbour.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us how you’re getting to know your community this summer!

Changemakers to watch: Kofi Hope

Kofi Hope2Meet Kofi Hope. He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

WHO: As the Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, a United Way Youth Challenge Fund legacy initiative, Kofi has played a pivotal role in connecting youth with the holistic supports they need for a promising future. This includes creating pathways to meaningful jobs, part of United Way’s bold new Youth Success Strategy that puts the long-term economic security of some of our region’s most vulnerable young people front-and-centre. “It’s not enough to just move a young person from unemployed to employed,” explains Kofi. “You have to build up the person by focusing on the unique aspects of their life.” And he’s doing exactly that—recognizing that stable employment is crucial to economic security—and a springboard to a promising future. “When you empower a person to take control of their life, they realize the barriers they’re facing will not be there forever,” he says. “They’re just problems to be solved and overcome.”

In fact, helping young people overcome barriers has been a life-long affair. He’s been a child and youth champion since he was a teen, organizing programming to address the growing needs of kids in his community. By university, he was advocating on behalf of Black youth as the founder of the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence. And by 28, he had a PhD from the highly-esteemed University of Oxford.

WHY: Kofi’s ability to bring together and mobilize community members, business leaders and decision-makers in a common cause of action is inspiring. In addition to his groundbreaking work with CEE, he’s also led meaningful change beyond our borders. He’s a passionate public speaker who has captivated audiences overseas, and has even advised on a land claim struggle in South Africa, effectively bridging the gap between community and authority as a cross-cultural communicator and negotiator.

WHAT’S NEXT: Kofi has big plans for the year ahead. Recently, he joined the board of the Toronto Environmental Alliance where he’s tackling important social issues that intersect with environmental concerns. “Environmental and social justice are not competing causes,” explains Kofi. “Good public transit helps reduce our carbon footprint, but also opens up economic and social opportunities to marginalized people in underserved areas. You’re saving the environment and building a more equitable society for everyone.”

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Changemakers to watch: Michael Braithwaite

Meet Michael Braithwaite. He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

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Michael Braithwaite
Executive Director, 360°kids

WHO: Michael has a long history is the social services sector. Before taking the lead at 360°kids, a United Way–supported agency, he spent over two decades with the YMCA—spearheading everything from day camps in Niagara Region to a men’s shelter in downtown Hamilton and employment programming in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. But as a father of three, Michael is especially drawn to the youth demographic. “My kids look no different than the young people that I work with everyday,” he says. “I like working with youth because they have so much to offer. If they matter to just one person, that can be the hope they need to turn their life around.”

WHY: In March, 360°kids was named “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards. And with good reason. Thanks to a partnership with the Regional

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Municipality of York, 360°kids is operating out of a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Richmond Hill, increasing its youth drop-in capacity. Prior to the expansion, there were only 27 shelter beds dedicated to youth throughout the rapidly-growing region. “Housing is a major issue in York Region, especially for young people who are experiencing issues at home,” explains Michael. “These crucial spaces allow youth to live semi-independently while accessing the supports they need to get back on their feet.”

Michael celebrates 360°kids' award for "Best Non-Profit" at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

Michael celebrates 360°kids’ award for “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

It’s an issue Michael knows well—because it hits close to home. For years, his sister struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and, at just 16, found herself in and out of precarious housing. “It can happen to anyone and any family,” says Michael. “This cause drives me because if my sister had access to an organization like 360°kids growing up, she might have broken that pattern a long time ago.”

But Michael’s impact is more than just bricks-and-mortar improvements. His team has also been the brains behind 360° Experience, which invites business and community leaders to experience a day in the life of homeless youth—braving the cold, hunger and isolation. “I wanted to do something that really has an impact,” he says. “You might only endure these struggles for one day, but it’s an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drawing on innovative ideas from across the globe, Michael is now piloting a preventative program—in partnership with Raising the Roof—that will see outreach workers visiting schools to identify early signs of struggle that could lead to homelessness. He’s also working to create the first LGBTQ youth shelter in York Region, and plans to have 360°kids become the first Night Stop-accredited agency in Canada—a UK-based program that matches individuals and families who have space in their home to young people in need. “It would only cost $4,000 a year to place a child in an actual home—whether it’s a couple whose grown children have moved out or a senior who feels isolated and could use some extra help around the house,” he explains. “It would be beneficial to both parties, and the best part: a child would have a real place to call home.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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5 tips for teens on getting volunteer-ready

It’s National Volunteer Week! This year, we’ve put together a “cheat sheet” for Ontario high school students who are required to complete 40 hours of community service before they graduate. If you’re a parent, we hope you’ll share our tips list with your teen for everything they need to know on getting “volunteer-ready.”

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Camara Chambers
Director, Community Engagement
Volunteer Toronto

1. Start early: It’s never too early to start thinking about your volunteer service. In Ontario, students can start clocking their community service hours starting right after they finish Grade 8 and all the way up until, and including, Grade 12. It often takes several weeks to secure a volunteer position, so it’s best not to leave it to the last minute, especially if you’re close to graduation. “If you have to squeeze all of those 40 hours into two weeks, you’re going to be setting yourself up for failure,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto. “A great time to start volunteering is during the spring when the annual ChangeTheWorld: Youth Volunteering Challenge takes place. Since you can’t volunteer during school hours, many students choose to complete their hours during the summer or even March Break. Volunteering at a number of events is another popular option since it gives young people the chance to split their volunteer hours into smaller chunks of time. “It’s also a great opportunity to try different roles, meet lots of different people and get a behind the scenes look at lots of different events throughout the city,” adds Chambers.

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2. Do your homework: It’s important to find an opportunity that’s a good match for your personality, skills and future career aspirations. Chambers advises all volunteers to narrow their search using the “3 Rs”— reflect, research and reach out. What do you really want to get out of the experience? Maybe you’re focused on getting some valuable experience for your resume. Or perhaps you want to put a particular skill to good use. Are you interested in working with a particular group of people or on a specific issue such as poverty? Or maybe you just need to find a position that fits into your busy schedule and is close to home or school. Knowing what you want will help you narrow your search once you’re ready. It’s also a good idea to talk to your school guidance counsellor to get pre-approval on your position. “Some schools are more flexible than others and will allow you to volunteer just helping your neighbour,” says Chambers. “Others will want you to do it specifically for a non-profit or a charity.” It’s also important to know your rights. You should expect to have the role clearly explained to you and receive some form of training, even if it’s informal. Having a supervisor or adult mentor is another must. Remember that you can’t be paid for your volunteer service but some organizations provide tokens or small honorariums.

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3. Find a role that fits: You’re ready to start your search. The best place to look? Online volunteer databases such as volunteertoronto.ca or yorkinfo.ca that list hundreds of opportunities organized by age and category. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you can also contact individual organizations to learn more about any positions that might be available. Talk to your parents and peers for suggestions, or contact your local place of worship or a charity in your neighbourhood.  Don’t forget to factor your personality into the equation. If you’re not comfortable in big groups, choose a role such as one-on-one tutoring. You can even volunteer with your friends at certain fundraising events. Family volunteering opportunities are also available and include delivering meals to seniors. Once you’ve secured your spot, it’s not unusual to complete a brief in-person or phone interview to learn more about the position. Some roles may even require that you attend an information session or day of training.

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4. Put your best foot forward: Although you can’t be paid for your volunteer service, treat this opportunity as a valuable learning experience for the future. “It’s really important to leave a good impression. That means turning up on time, asking lots of questions when you don’t understand your responsibilities and communicating honestly especially if you’re not finding the job enjoyable,”says Chambers. “These people will likely be your reference in the future.” She adds: “If you make a really good impression, your volunteer supervisor will probably introduce you to other people, give you other opportunities or give you more of a leadership role.” And finally, don’t forget to say “thank you” once you’ve completed your position.
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5. Become a better citizen (and have fun doing it!): Completing your mandatory 40 hours of volunteer service is about much more than just clocking time. If you want to get the most out of your experience, be prepared to learn. Engage with your peers and supervisor to learn more about the issues facing the organization—and the sector—where you’ve selected your position. When you’re done, stay in touch with any friends or contacts you’ve made along the way. “Volunteering is a fantastic way to try new experiences, meet new people and make new friends,” says Chambers. Maybe you’ll even find something you want to stick with over the long-term.”

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Changemakers to watch: Yasin Osman

We’re pretty excited to introduce you to Yasin Osman.  He’s a 23-year-old Regent Park resident and photography phenom who captures the heart and soul of his beloved neighbourhood with the click of a shutter. His stunning images—which he posts to his thousands of followers on Instagram, are raw and real—Yasin’s way of showcasing all that makes him proud of the place he grew up. When he’s not busy working as an early childhood educator (ECE), he’s inspiring local kids and youth through #ShootForPeace, a pioneering photography program he created to inspire young people to explore art outside their neighbourhood.

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WHO: Yasin grew up in Regent Park with his mother who worked hard to make ends meet. He often saw firsthand the impact that a lack of opportunities can have on a neighbourhood—from poverty to unemployment. But despite the challenges faced by many Regent Park residents, Yasin is remarkably hopeful about the revitalization of his neighbourhood. His stunning photos tell stories of perseverance, resilience and the power of community. And others are taking notice of Yasin’s talent, too. He’s won numerous awards for his work including a Basquiat Neon Crown from the Art Gallery of Ontario and an Adelaide Gyamfi Award from The Remix Project, a United Way–funded agency. He’s also been named one of Pique’s Top 100 Artists from Toronto.

WHAT: Yasin uses his camera to document everything from pictures of kids out for an -evening bike ride.

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To breathtaking cityscapes.

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And candid snaps of residents in his community.

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But what caused Yasin to pick up a camera is just as interesting. At 13, after noticing the structural changes happening in his neighbourhood, he decided to use the camera on his mom’s cell phone to capture the transformation. Years later, he decided to pursue photography more seriously—a decision his fans (including us!) are thankful for. Now, he’s working with big-name companies including Facebook, Adidas and VICE.

WHY: Yasin loves kids. So when he’s not working as an ECE at Community Centre 55, he’s running his budding #ShootForPeace program, an initiative that brings young people from Regent Park together to learn about photography. It all started when some local kids noticed his Instagram and asked him to teach them how to take similar photos. “At first, I wasn’t sure if they were serious about learning photography, but they were,” says Yasin. “Sometimes we undermine the intelligence of children, but they’re capable of so much when it’s something that interests them.”

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Yasin Osman (centre) with #ShootForPeace program participants.

Participants have soaked up as much knowledge as possible from Yasin—not to mention guest artists that join the weekly program including NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay and even Oliver El-Khatib, the manager of Toronto’s own Drake. “A program like this isn’t something all of us had when we were younger,” explains Yasin. “One of the kids told me that he never thought he could be so good at something. It’s amazing to see how it has changed the way they see themselves.”

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Youth in the #ShootForPeace program check out a photo taken by NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay.

WHAT’S NEXT: Yasin has big plans in store for 2016! “I’m constantly hearing from kids across Toronto who want to get involved,” he says. “It would be amazing to offer this program to more kids who would normally not have the opportunity to learn about photography.” And so Yasin’s putting the wheels in motion to do exactly that. Currently, he’s in talks with a community organization to expand #ShootForPeace across the city. Stay tuned to see what this Changemaker is up to next. We’re sure it’ll be nothing short of inspiring!

GOOD ADVICE:
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Literacy is every child’s right

 

Today is International Literacy Day, a day for communities to celebrate the joys of reading, while raising awareness for those without access to education. But while literacy is a global concern, it’s also an issue that hits close to home— right here in Toronto and York Region.

Consider these troubling statistics from the Canadian Paediatric Society:

  • 50% of adults with low literacy levels live below the poverty line
  • People with low literacy skills are twice as likely to be unemployed
  • Low literacy is a severe and pervasive problem with serious health, social and economic consequences

No one understands this issue better than Camesha Cox, a long-time resident of Toronto’s priority neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). Over the past five years, approximately 49% of KGO Grade Three children have not met provincial reading standards—a startling statistic since studies show those who experience reading difficulties at this level seldom catch up to their peers.

So, in 2011, Camesha decided to do something about it. She started The Reading Partnership, a small resident-led project supported by United Way, that brings together children and their parents to strengthen reading skills and empower families with the knowledge and tools they need to ensure their children are on a promising educational path.

Watch the video below to learn about another unique school-readiness program offered by United Way-supported Working Women Community Centre that helps newcomer children—and their families—prepare for the Canadian school system.

Literacy is every child’s right

Camesha Cox, The Reading Partnership

Our guest blogger this week is Camesha Cox, an Ontario-certified teacher who has worked in schools across Toronto and around the world. She has been recognized by the Ontario Women’s Directorate for her role as Managing Director of The Reading Partnership, a charitable initiative to improve child literacy, and for her contributions to improving the lives of girls and women across the province.

Cassandra knows first-hand the negative impact that low literacy in childhood can have in adulthood. As a teenager she struggled with low-self-esteem and became rapidly disengaged at school. She eventually dropped out and went on to endure a long history of being under-employed, with no choice but to rely on a system that barely provided for her family. She worries that one day, her six-year-old daughter Geonna will bring home schoolwork that she will not be able to help with, and in that moment she will stand exposed.

Cassandra’s story in many ways mirrors that of her mother’s and grandmother’s. Two generations of under-educated women who lived below the poverty line and struggled to read into adulthood.  Determined not to allow the cycle of poverty and low-literacy extend past her, Cassandra works hard to instill a love for reading in her daughter by keeping her busy in programs and community events in their Kingston-Galloway Orton Park (KGO) neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, Cassandra and Geonna’s story isn’t unique. Over the past five years, approximately 49% of KGO children in Grade Three have not met the provincial standard for reading. Studies show that children who continue to experience difficulty with reading in Grade Three seldom catch up to their peers.The likelihood of these children transitioning to post-secondary education and becoming gainfully-employed as adults is also limited.

Consider these troubling statistics from the Canadian Pediatric Society.  Fifty per cent of adults with low literacy levels live below the poverty line. People with low literacy skills are also twice as likely to be unemployed. Low literacy is a severe and pervasive problem with important health, social and economic consequences.

The Reading Partnership was established in 2011 to begin to uproot what is a dangerously systemic issue. Cassandra and Geonna were one of 12 families selected to take part in the inaugural reading program piloted in the Spring of 2012. This community-based literacy program, supported by a Resident Action Grant from United Way Toronto has helped children from more than 80 local families show improvements in literacy. Parents enrolled in the program are diverse in age, culture, religion, income level and education. But they all share a common belief that learning to read is integral to their child’s success in school and in life.

Reading should be a right for every child in KGO—and in communities across our city and country.  In the words of Canadian authors David Bouchard and Wendy Sutton, “Literacy is not for the fortunate few. It is the right of every child. Teaching children to read is the responsibility of every teacher, every administrator and every parent.”

The work that we are doing in KGO serves as a model for establishing a local culture of reading and learning that calls for not only parents, but the entire community to be active and engaged.

 

Toronto’s child poverty rates among the highest in Canada

Photo of Nauman Khan

Nauman Khan,
United Way, Public Affairs

This week we welcome back Nauman Khan as our guest blogger. He is a member of United Way Toronto’s Communications and Public Affairs team.  Thanks to a career in broadcast journalism and politics, he has built a strong understanding of how governments influence community building through strategic investments.  He also thinks Toronto is the best city in the world to live, work and raise a family.

 

 

Subway. Light Rail. Property Taxes. You have likely heard these ideas repeatedly over the last several months as Toronto gets ready for the 2014 municipal election.  The idea that you have heard much less about is poverty.  And that is surprising considering the latest data from Statistics Canada that shows poverty has reached unprecedented levels across Toronto. The full analysis of the data can be found here.

Poverty undermines our strength and resilience as a city and is an issue for all Torontonians. All of us — no matter where we live or work — should be asking what municipal candidates will do to reduce poverty in Toronto.  Despite living in a city that is the economic engine of Canada, hundreds of thousands of children, families and individuals are living in low-income.

  • Nearly a third of all children in Toronto now live in low income households
  • 15 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods have child povetry rates of 40% or more and 55 of the city’s neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30% of more.
  • When compared at a neighborhood level, there is alarming disparity in child poverty rates, ranging from 5% in Leaside to more than 50% in Regent Park, Moss Park, Thorncliffe Park and Oakridge.

Analysis of the data also shows Toronto faring much worse than other cities across Canada when it comes to poverty — overall rate of 23% — and the worst across jurisdictions in the Greater Toronto Area, such as Peel, Durham and Halton.  Spurred in part by these dismal numbers, Toronto City Council voted unanimously in April this year to pass a motion asking staff to develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy. That work is underway now and United Way Toronto is working with city staff to lay the groundwork for a strategy that is inclusive, responsive to residents and has clear targets.

Addressing poverty is all of our responsibility. On October 27 we will be making some important decisions. We will be deciding who will represent us at city council for the next four years. As we consider our options, we need to make sure the issues that affect us all are part of the conversation. Torontonians need to ask mayoral and council candidates what their vision is for a more equitable and prosperous Toronto.  What are they planning to do so that thousands of people do not have to choose between a TTC metropass and their next meal, between paying their rent and living in a shelter, between watching their days go by in hopelessness and feeling like empowered, engaged citizens who have a role to play in making Toronto better.

The time to have the conversation about poverty — is now.

Propelling youth from classroom to career

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Learn what these leading experts have to say on addressing youth unemployment.

UPDATE: On Thursday, September 4, at a mayoral candidates debate hosted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and the Globe & Mail, our own Susan McIsaac, President and CEO of United Way Toronto, asked candidates how they would address the issue of high youth unemployment in Toronto. Hear from the candidates and go on to read the thoughts from some other leading experts on how we can create opportunities for our youth to succeed.

Toronto’s youth are one of our city’s greatest assets. But we also know that many young people in our city are struggling, particularly as economic opportunities continue to dwindle. The youth unemployment rate in Toronto is more than twice the national average and has been on the rise for more than a decade, up more than 50% since 2001.

Over the past year, an alarming number of young people have given up looking for work. Many of these same youth not only have to face a lack of opportunities, but they also face considerable barriers to their economic success including poverty, social and economic inequity, and discrimination, among others.

It’s time for solutions. Strategic solutions. Youth-led solutions that put our city’s young people in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating meaningful opportunities for their long-term success. But we can’t do it alone.

Propelling our city’s youth from classroom to career requires strategic, lasting partnerships between the private, public and not-for-profit sectors with a focus on education, employment and engagement. Here’s what three leading experts on youth employment had to say at our recent 2014 Annual General Meeting.

Employers need to set youth up for success in the workplace. “We really have to focus on building the workplace of the future,” says Zabeen Hirji , RBC’s Chief Human Resources Officer. The best way to do this? Help our city’s youth develop “soft skills” such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving and critical thinking that are so important to success in the workplace.  In January 2014, RBC introduced its “Career Launch” initiative, a one-year employment program for 100 young people across the country that offers on-the-job training, a three-month placement in the not-for-profit sector (including United Way Toronto) and a formal mentoring component. “The soft skills they learn here build a more agile workplace and help young people learn and evolve as they progress,” she says.

We need to level the playing field for youth facing barriers. Young people who face additional barriers to employment—including poverty and exposure to violence and crime—are particularly vulnerable.  “The reality is when you face systemic challenges over-and-over the one thing that does to young people is to rob them of hope,” says Denise Andrea Campbell, Director of Social Policy Analysis and Research at the City of Toronto. “We need to bring employers in front of young people who are vulnerable, with supports, to ensure that we are leveling the playing field. These young people have tremendous skills and talents and if we create the space for them to apply these…towards a living wage and a career.”

We need to go beyond short-term fixes and build lasting, customizable solutions: “At the heart of any social intervention is real human relationships—and that takes time to build,” says Kofi Hope, a youth advocate and Managing Director of Community Empowering Enterprises, a non-profit initiative that aims to increase economic opportunities for Black youth living in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods and is a legacy initiative of United Way Toronto’s Youth Challenge Fund. “We want to support youth now, but what’s our 10- to 15-year plan?” Leadership groups, job training workshops and youth-focused events are a good start, he adds, but we need to focus on fully integrating youth into the employment system by engaging them all the way from high school to entry-level jobs and up the organizational ladder.

Why investing in young fathers makes sense

Father’s Day is just around the corner! Dads play a vital role in supporting their children’s development from early childhood all the way to young adulthood. But sometimes fathers need support, too. Particularly young fathers.

The Young and Potential Fathers Initiative (YPF) is a United Way-funded program that helps provide young, Black fathers from some of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods with the knowledge, skills and supports they need to connect with their kids—and each other.

Imagine a City spoke to Zakiya Tafari, a young parent who works at YPF, about how helping young fathers today helps entire families tomorrow.

Zakiya, 32, and his nine-year-old daughter

Zakiya, 32, and his nine-year-old daughter

Tell us a little bit about yourself: I was 22-years-old when my daughter was born. Prior to that, I had a lot of experience taking care of my younger cousins. I already knew a lot about changing diapers and making bottles and putting kids to sleep. But I wished there had been a place where I could have gone to connect with peers who were going through some of the same issues I experienced as a young, single parent. I ended up applying for a job as an outreach worker for the Young and Potential Fathers Initiative in the Weston-Mt. Dennis neighbourhood where I live.

Who is the YPF initiative designed for? The program is intended mostly for young, Black fathers, and specifically, for men who want to get more involved in their kids’ lives. We see men in early 20s to their early 30s, some of whom are going through family court, and who are looking to get more access to their children. I myself have been through family court, and I know firsthand some of the stresses involved in coping with that. Many of the men we help are also seeking housing or employment support. We also work in a couple of high schools and middle schools to help boys understand the broader role they play as young men in their community.

Why is it so important for young fathers to connect with their children? Within our communities it’s very important to have healthy families and for children to get a healthy start. It’s important for children to build resiliency from a young age. A lot of times young fathers in our communities are facing a lot of issues that they don’t understand and the supports aren’t there for them. Children end up taking on adult issues. It’s about helping fathers understand the role they play and the importance of letting children just be children.

Drop-in program offers opportunity for families to play and learn

Drop-in program offers opportunity for families to play and learn

What sort of programs do you offer? Super Dads Super Kids is an eight-week parenting program that focuses on child growth and behavior, managing parenting stress, anger management and effective communication. We help young fathers understand the importance of being good role models and making the right choices when it comes to their children. We also offer a drop-in Play and Learn program for families that focuses on building literacy and play skills. And we’re hoping to re-open our ‘Barber’s Corner’ where men can get their hair cut and feel more comfortable sharing without it feeling like they’re part of a more formal program or support group.

Any success stories to share? When the centre first opened, we helped a young man with a one-year-old son get joint custody of his child.  Through our parenting program he started to understand his role as a father, and as a result, he made better personal choices in terms of who he was associating with. We helped him get a job that he still has today. He was able to move into a new apartment and get off social assistance. Now everything is about him and his child. He still drops by the space. A lot of times he brings his son, too.

YPF participants and their mentors are recognized at a special ceremony

YPF participants and their mentors are recognized at a special ceremony

How does YFP create lasting change in the lives of the fathers it supports? Although we focus on fathers, it’s really about building healthy families and creating a generational impact for children. A lot of the young men we deal with haven’t had a strong father figure in their lives. Our hypothesis is that if young fathers play a more active role in their children’s lives, their children are more likely to have a healthy family themselves.

Want to learn more about how YPF supports fathers?  Check out www.youngpfathers.org

Young and Potential Fathers is also inviting everyone to celebrate Fathers Day with them on Sunday, June 15, 2014, from 1-5 p.m. at The Little Avenue Memorial Park. (22 Little Avenue)

 

Scarborough’s mental-health waiting game

Parker McDowell

YouthLink’s Walk-In Counselling meant the difference between life and death for Parker McDowell.

Scarborough is a big place: 625,000 people living in over 187 square kilometres. You could take the entire population of Hamilton and fit it neatly within Scarborough’s borders, with room to spare.

It’s also a youthful place: almost 150,000 people under the age of 20 live here. That’s 23.6% of its population, compared with 21% in the same age group for Toronto as a whole.

And, as Manager of Counselling at YouthLink Patty Hayes points out, it’s a community with substantial social and economic challenges: “There’s poverty, finding jobs is difficult, [and] the transportation system isn’t fabulous,” she says.

Seven of the city’s 13 priority neighbourhoods are located here, and it all adds up to an environment that can seriously impact mental health—an especially acute concern for young people.

Suicide is second only to accidents as a cause of death among young Canadians, taking 4,000 lives a year. (Canada has the third-highest youth-suicide rate in the industrialized world.) It’s not surprising, then, that the handful of services in a populous, younthful community like Scarborough are typically overwhelmed with clients. Some kids in immediate crisis are even waiting up to two years for help.

That’s where YouthLink steps in. A United Way–funded agency, it specializes in providing mental-health services to youth—especially important for a part of the city in which mental-health supports are hard to come by. In 2011, YouthLink began offering a simple but innovative program to address long wait times for care: a unique walk-in counselling program, offered every Wednesday from noon until 8 p.m. YouthLink is now seeing up to 30 families a night, and kids aged 12 to 21 can come with parents or guardians, or alone. Between August 2011 and August 2012, YouthLink served 409 youth through 909 free walk-in sessions. (You can read the story of one client, Parker McDowell, here.)

In addition to the regular struggles of adolescence, Hayes notes, a high proportion of newcomer youth also face cultural conflicts at home, at school, and in the city at large—which may place them at increased risk of mental-health problems. While this remains a Canada-wide issue, it’s especially acute in communities like Scarborough.

Thankfully, YouthLink is ensuring that great strides are being made. “I don’t want to paint the youth of Scarborough as in these terrible predicaments,” says Hayes. “I want to emphasize how truly, truly, remarkable they are. They navigate…a complex community that is underserviced and overlooked, and they have really remarkable skills and knowledge that I think we adults could learn from.”

What else do you think is missing from mental-health supports in Toronto? What are some of the barriers preventing young people from accessing care, and how can they be overcome?

Share your thoughts below!

A Summer to Remember

My favourite memory of Summer 2013 has come courtesy of none other than Statistics Canada. In late June, they released new household income figures showing that child poverty in Ontario dropped for a third consecutive year, down to 13.8%.

The fact that life is improving for tens of thousands of children and families is good news. But what makes this even more noteworthy is that it took place despite one of the worst economic downturns in memory—in large part thanks to Ontario’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy.

United Way Toronto has been an active supporter of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction, a group of organizations that first joined together in 2007 to push for this province-wide strategy.

Through significant investments in child benefits and early learning education, increases to minimum wage and employment protections for the precariously employed, we’ve seen progress in social conditions for some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

It is clear that poverty reduction programs are key to promoting a healthier population and safer communities. We also know that it is more effective to invest in long term preventive strategies rather than focusing on Band-Aid solutions.

There is a great opportunity before us to build on what we have learned and to make the next five years really count for poverty reduction, for everyone in Ontario.

Thanks to provincial legislation backed by all three parties, Ontario is now required to renew its poverty reduction strategy and set new targets every five years. This summer, the province launched a round of public consultations that will continue into the early fall.

Today, there is much excitement about the potential of a provincial strategy that builds on progress, sets bold targets for children and adults, and has a comprehensive action agenda based on strong policy measures and investments that lead to impact.

United Way will continue to do our part to rally every sector of our city in common cause for building strong communities where everyone can contribute to our economic prosperity.

More information about how to participate, including an online survey, is available here. I encourage you to add your voice to the conversation and influence the next strategy.

Also make sure to check out the 25 in5 Network’s Five Priorities for Ontario’s next Poverty Reduction Strategy and help spread the word about this opportunity to make a difference.