What does educational success and inclusion look like for Black youth? This question shaped a recent panel discussion convened by United Way’s Black Community Advisory Council (BCAC), which mobilizes community members around pressing issues affecting Peel’s Black community. The council invited thought leaders from across the Black community to weigh in on the best ways to help young people feel supported and safe at school—and beyond.
1. Engage youth
There is strong evidence that points to the urgency of engaging community leaders—including Black youth—in a dialogue as well as systemic change. According to Wayne Brunton, superintendent of education at the Dufferin Peel District Catholic School Board, many school administrators don’t always understand what Black students are going through. “There is a lack of understanding around the specific experiences of Black students, they are being treated like they are troublemakers,” he notes. A United Way-supported research report—The Black Community in Peel—echoes similar findings. It notes that Black youth felt unwanted, devalued and socially isolated in Peel Region. It mentioned factors such as teachers’ low expectations of Black students, relatively few Black teachers in schools and the relative absence of Blacks and Black culture in the curriculum as contributors to Black youth’s feelings of exclusion. “We need young students to continuously give feedback,” says Melissa Wilson, Vice President of Mayfield Secondary School. She adds, “parents and youth are our strongest stakeholders. If you feel like your assignments are too Eurocentric, voice that. Speak up about anti-Black racism. Advocate for yourself. This is not a privilege. It’s your human right.”
2. Examine what safety looks like
Wilson urges that we re-examine what we mean by safety. “When we think about safety, we need to ensure the psychological safety of Black students. We need to understand why Black students feel like they need to code switch (the modifying of one’s speech, behavior, appearance, etc. to adapt to different sociocultural norms) for the risk of being labeled as having behavioural problems.” Brunton stressed the need to listen to Black youth in order to understand what safety looks like to them in order to implement system level changes. “Safety is our priority but if we are not listening to Black youth, how will we understand the barriers to education?”
3. Reinforce education as a right, not a privilege
The school boards in Peel Region aren’t alone. It’s an issue across the GTA. In fact, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) reports that there was variation in high school graduation rates among racialized groups in 2016. For example, students in the Grade 9 cohort who identified themselves as Black had lower high school graduation rates (77%) than students who identified as East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian (96%, 92% and 90 respectively). The numbers point to a trend of Black youth being left behind in the education system.
Marc Andrews, honorary chair of BCAC, is deputy chief of the Peel Regional Police and the first Black senior officer in the history of the force. “Education is a right, not a privilege. We need to build a community where if you make an honest effort, you would not be denied opportunity.” The panel demonstrated the need for multiple stakeholders to work together to have a wraparound effect and a desire for policies, initiatives and practices that give hope for a better community. To help Black youth succeed, United Way currently allocates $352,029 towards programs that provide leadership development activities, counselling and support to enhance the academic success of high school students. We Rise Together—initiated by United Way—is the Peel District School Board’s Action Plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black male students in schools. Members of the Black Community Advisory Council continue to advance the work of the initiative in partnership with Peel District School Board.
to all work together to build a bias free and inclusive community,” said chief
Andrews. “The development of safety and security of our youth should always be
our community’s top priority.”
Four out of 10 Canadian adults have literacy skills “too low to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy,” according to The Conference Board of Canada. And the reports that only 47 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket (families earning less than $30,000 per year) met the provincial standard for reading.
“At a national level, in comparison to other countries, Canada is doing very well, but when you boil that down to a community level, there are communities in Ontario that are really struggling,” said Camesha Cox, managing director of The Reading Partnership. “At the top of the list are Black and Indigenous children and youth.”
Cox founded The Reading Partnership eight years ago, after returning from a teaching job in the U.K., where she developed a program to help high-school students who were reading at a primary-school level (or not at all).
“I thought, first of all, how does a person get to Grade 7 without literacy skills?” said Cox. So, when she returned to Toronto, she further developed the program to work with both children and parents, starting when the children were still young (ages four to six). For those who don’t read at the provincial level by the age of eight, she said, the likelihood they’ll continue to struggle through school and later in life increases.
Tax dollars are poured into the educational system, says Cox, yet it’s still failing many children. It’s not because these children have learning disabilities, adds Cox, but rather that they may have gaps in their education.
In a low-income home, for example, children might not have access to reading materials, or they may attend under-resourced daycares or schools. Single parents or those with precarious employment may be working multiple jobs and have less time to spend with their children at home.
“There is no system or protocol in place to ensure that those learning gaps are addressed and you’re caught up,” said Cox. That’s where community-based literacy interventions come in.
A key component to making this work, however, is involving parents, which is why The Reading Partnership also teaches parents how to teach their children to read. The program has worked with hundreds of families in the Toronto neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). In 12 weeks, children progress from not knowing their letter sounds to the ability to read and respond to comprehensive questions.
Cox specifically chose KGO as a starting point for the program. “When you see the food bank lines, even in the dead of winter, the line is long and it extends outside and people will wait in the cold and the snow and the rain,” she said. “Poverty is real and it’s dense in this community. The link between poverty and literacy is real, too. How does somebody who doesn’t have the literacy skills fill out forms, how do they become gainfully employed?”
While there are community programs, “there are still marginalized families in the community that don’t know about or don’t feel comfortable engaging and interacting with these services,” said Cox. “It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap—we’re trying to create a program and services that are meeting marginalized families where they are.”
This fall, for example, the program was piloted for the first time in one of the neediest schools in the community, where about 50 per cent of every Grade 3 class is struggling to meet the provincial standard for reading. “The teachers in the school have jumped at the opportunity to support this program,” said Cox. So far, they’ve seen an improvement in attitudes toward reading; kids are more excited and focused in class.
EarlyON Child and Family Centres also provide free family programs to parents and their children (up to six years of age) in communities and in some schools, supporting parent education and fostering healthy child development. This includes a library program, where families can take home (and keep) free books.
“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is giving children opportunities to read,” said Cynthia Pommells, family resource program manager for EarlyON programs with the Delta Family Resource Centre. “When you improve their reading ability, it’s a way of giving them an education and an opportunity to build better lives as they get older.”
The program engages children—and parents. “The changes can happen when parents become interested … where you’re engaging the parents and then letting them know why we need to do this,” said Pommells.
In some cases, parents may lack literacy skills themselves, so they’re not able to help their child at home (or, even if there are books at home, the parents might not put an emphasis on reading). According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Canadian adults aged 16 to 65 had a literacy score of Level 1 or below (meaning they can only find single pieces of information in short texts). Among those with the lowest levels of literacy, 29 per cent were in low-income households.
If children grow up with poor reading skills, they’re more likely to end up working unskilled jobs—and continue living in poverty “because of the intergenerational piece they inherited from their parents,” said Pommells. “So, we try to give parents that educational piece also.”
Literacy allows children to successfully move onto post-secondary education and become gainfully employed, said Cox, but it’s not the only benefit. When she was young, books allowed her to ‘travel,’ despite her inability to physically travel. “I was able to imagine and experience a world outside of my everyday lived experiences through the books I was reading,” she said.
“A child in poverty can experience a world outside of their own through books,” said Cox. “They need to be able to hope and dream and aspire to something better … Books provide another opportunity to see and experience a positive world and positive people.”
We reached out to several mental health experts to put together a tip sheet for parents. It can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness in children and youth and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.
SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD OR TEEN MIGHT BE STRUGGLING
One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag. “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.
WAYS TO GET HELP:
IN AN EMERGENCY
If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.
Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support. The Toronto Star notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.
COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH CENTRES
There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Peel, Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and, in some cases, supported by organizations, including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, former Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto. The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children, piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.
Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in Peel, Toronto and York Region that offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”
Growing up is tough, especially for girls in a hyper-connected world where social media and FOMO (fear of missing out) make those teenage years even more challenging. During those years, their self-confidence plummets, as does their mental health, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and self-destructive behaviour.
In Grade 6, 36 per cent of girls say they are self-confident; by Grade 10, that number plummets to only 14 per cent, according to a report by Healthy Settings for Young People in Canada. And approximately 12 per cent of female youth, aged 12 to 19, have experienced a major depressive episode, according to the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association). Supporting girls at this critical point in time can help to build confidence and provide them with tools to face life’s challenges. Imagine a City talks to front-line workers and experts about how to empower girls and young women — and why it’s so critically important.
Growing up comes with its share of growing pains, but it’s even more challenging for girls who are already at a disadvantage, whether that’s living in poverty, experiencing violence in the home or suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse. “Low self-esteem reduces one’s ability to cope, increases self-destructive behaviour and their ability to plan for the future, which puts them at greater risk,” said Jody Miller, managing director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peel-Halton, a United Way-supported agency.
That’s why it’s critical to provide supports that build self-esteem in girls — supports that are holistic, non-judgemental and trauma-informed. “We have a classroom for at-risk girls in collaboration with the school board,” says Miller. “We’re able to decrease the barriers they would normally experience in attending traditional school, making things more individualized, as well as offering mental health support that helps keep girls involved.”
But it’s not just getting girls to do their homework; it’s about providing activities that build self-esteem and develop leadership skills, “countering those trends toward self-doubt,” Miller says, “having girls be able to build those supportive relationships, recognizing their own inherent capabilities, including them in decisions, honouring their self-worth, and building upon that.”
Building self-esteem goes hand in hand with building resilience and empowering girls to stand up for themselves and avoid exploitation — whether that’s peer pressure, being taken advantage of by a boyfriend or getting lured into sexually exploitive situations. This can happen to any girl, but particularly those who are experiencing low self-worth.
Once a girl is being trafficked, for example, it takes her on average seven times before she’s able to successfully exit that life, says Miller. “It requires a lot of resources coming together to support that girl.”
That’s why the society’s Empowering Against Exploitation program, funded by the United Way, was created — and is now held as a national model for effective sexual exploitation preventative education, starting with girls in Grades 7 and 8.
Embracing an empowerment approach, this program blends a variety of activities that foster self-reflection, understanding about the issue, and knowledge to help young women identify predators and potentially exploitive situations. It also teaches them how issues like substance abuse can tie into exploitation. “The average age of recruitment is so young, you want to be able to give them the tools [at an early age],” says Miller.
For girls at risk, completing high school is challenging enough; the idea of pursuing post-secondary education may seem like a pipe dream. That’s why Girls Inc. of York Region, a United Way-supported agency, provides lunch-time and afterschool programs specifically for girls aged 12 to 18 identified as ‘at risk’ by school guidance counsellors. These programs are aimed at building life skills and confidence, from violence prevention to youth leadership, career counselling and opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
As well as providing academic support and teaching life skills — such as how to open a bank account and what to wear to a job interview — it’s also important to open up opportunities they may have never considered or even thought possible, such as those in STEM. Teaching girls to code and create websites, for example, builds confidence, but also gives them skills that can lead them out of poverty or other limiting situations.
“As women we have fewer opportunities or have to work harder to get treated as equals,” says Barb Wallace, executive director of Girls Inc. of York Region. “Especially with STEM programs, girls are often overlooked, or if it’s hard they tend to give up, so we’re trying to make it really fun and cool … doing it in a large group builds momentum, gets them excited about it, but in a different way than [a traditional classroom].” Providing these opportunities levels the playing field, she says, and “lets them know there are other options out there — hopefully we’re breaking the cycle of poverty in some scenarios.”
So why is it so important to build self-esteem, build resilience and create opportunities?
“These young girls are going to be our future and we need to provide them with opportunities to learn outside of school, to open up their horizons so they become strong, independent members of society,” says Wallace. “[Otherwise] they might fall through the cracks [in the school system]. If they can’t stand up for themselves, they can’t advocate on their own behalf. We give them an opportunity to develop their self-esteem to stand up for themselves.”
All around the world, human trafficking interrupts—and, in many cases, destroys—the lives of women and girls. And despite what you might think, Canadians aren’t immune. While many people assume that victims are trafficked into Canada, more than 90 percent of cases that occur here are, in fact, domestic in origin: Canadians are trafficking Canadians. And trafficking across the country is on the rise, including in the GTA.
Trafficking victims are lured and exploited, often through fear, violence, intimidation or coercion. The crime is often confused with human smuggling (the illegal entry of a person into a country), but trafficking has to do specifically with controlling a person for the purpose of exploiting them, usually sexually. It encompasses anyone who is forced to perform sexual acts, including prostitution, exotic dancing, massage parlour work and pornography production.
One of the regions with the highest rates of trafficking in Canada? Peel. According to Statistics Canada, Peel has a higher rate of trafficking incidents per 100,000 people than any other region in the country—and in 2017, Peel Regional Police saw the most human-trafficking charges in the region in a decade. Most victims in Canada are first trafficked when they’re 13 or 14 years old and the average age of rescue, if they’re rescued at all, is 17. Often, trafficking victims end up addicted to drugs and trapped in the sex trade for life.
Targeted populations include those who tend to be socially or economically disadvantaged and excluded, such as Indigenous women and new Canadians, and those who move—or are lured—to large urban centres. High-school students are also frequent targets, particularly through social media, but also sometimes by peers. Because awareness is so low and public apathy so high, many women and girls don’t even realize they’re being trapped—until it’s too late.
But there’s reason to hope the situation could improve. On February 22, 2018, Ontario marked its first Human Trafficking Awareness Day, with the goal to make the province a place “where everyone can live freely and in control of their own bodies and lives.” A little over a year earlier, in November 2016, the provincial government launched a Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, naming Jennifer Richardson, a survivor, as its director. Her office is now responsible for implementing the government’s four-year, $72-million anti-trafficking strategy. Part of the plan is to dedicate services such as support and housing to Indigenous partner organizations, as well as to create a survivor-led round table, the first of its kind in Canada, to prioritize the perspectives of those with lived trafficking experiences.
Shae Invidiata founded Free Them in 2010 to raise awareness—and funds—to abolish human trafficking in Canada. Like many other activists in this sphere, she believes one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is lack of public education—and motivation. “If you’re not aware there’s a problem, you can’t fight it,” she says.
Invidiata first became aware of human trafficking while studying in Hawaii, living on a street known as “Candy Lane” because of its child prostitutes. When she spoke with girls and women being trafficked in her neighbourhood, she pictured herself in their shoes and realized that if it were happening to her, she’d be praying that somebody would speak on her behalf, without judgement. When she returned to Canada, she started looking into the human trafficking problem within our own borders, and at how many people think it’s an issue endemic to other countries—not ours. “It happens in India, it happens in Thailand—yes,” she says. “But Canadians need to be aware that this is happening here.”
It may seem hard to believe—and there are those who prefer to pretend it isn’t an issue here, Invidiata says—but many women and girls in Canada are vulnerable. One of the many things she does to raise awareness is to speak at schools across Ontario. Almost every time, a student approaches to tell her they now realize human trafficking could be what’s happening to a friend, or even to themselves. In many ways, they just needed someone to speak out so they could be encouraged to speak up, Invidiata says. “All of the girls being trafficked have a voice, but they’ve been silenced by fear.” Education, she adds, is key. Just knowing what human trafficking is, that there’s a name for it and that there is support out there can make a huge difference.
Katarina MacLeod, Rising Angels
When Katarina MacLeod entered the sex industry at 21, she thought she was making a choice. Like so many women and girls in the industry, she had a background of abuse, exploitation and objectification that had become so ingrained that she didn’t actually see it as abuse, but as part of her identity. “It becomes you,” she says. “It’s normal.”
MacLeod’s path out of trafficking 15 years later wasn’t easy or clear-cut. At first, she says, she couldn’t function on her own at all. She didn’t know how to pay bills, budget, cook—or even how to dress appropriately for a job interview. Hurdles like these are why it’s so important for those working in anti-trafficking to understand a survivor’s mindset, MacLeod says. These girls and women have been degraded every day. Eventually, that abuse can start to feel normal; a lack of self-worth becomes ingrained. The more they’re exploited, the harder it can be to believe they even deserve to get away, or to have a better, kinder life, MacLeod adds. She stresses that it’s important to put survivors’ voices at the forefront—otherwise, solutions won’t work.
In 2015, she founded Rising Angels, a registered non-profit headquartered in Peel that helps women and girls exit the sex trade. It wasn’t just that MacLeod felt she was the right person to help other survivors. She also saw a dearth of survivor-led organizations in her region. “I wanted to help women,” she says. “I wanted somebody to understand them. I wanted them to know I had been through it.”
Today, MacLeod says she knows that entering the sex industry wasn’t intentional on her part. “It was a lack of choice,” she says—a long pattern of forced sexualization and exploited vulnerabilities. In October 2018, she’ll mark her tenth year out of the industry. She’s still in therapy, though, and she’s still healing. She might always be. And that’s what she tells the girls and women she helps: she’s not an expert—she’s still one of them. The only difference is that she’s further along in her healing. But as someone who understands, she hopes she can help them make it there, too.
Const. Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police
Peel Regional Police officer Const. Joy Brown is not the type of person to take all the credit. She stresses that it was the combined work of multiple Peel region organizations that made a big, collective step forward in the fight against human trafficking back in 2016 when more than 22 groups, including community, law enforcement, and medical service providers, joined to create the Human Trafficking Protocol. Essentially, the protocol, which Brown helped develop, provides a streamlined support process for trafficking survivors, linking support groups under one umbrella.
Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, won the Brampton Board of Trade’s annual Police Services Award in 2017 for her work with homeless and at-risk youth and human trafficking victims. In 2015, she organized a three-day human trafficking conference for 150 police officers and community partners, and she has chaired three committees focused on prevention and making victim resources more accessible.
Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational. Today, police are focusing on community rehabilitation instead of working in an enforcement role. Brown says that part of providing such “wraparound” support means that people from other regions also sit on the advisory committee, largely because trafficking is, by its nature, transient. This way, the groups can further prevent women and girls from falling through the cracks. “We continue to work as a collective,” says Brown. “It has been great having a coordinated approach to providing support.”
Together, the groups launched an awareness campaign with posters that ask, “Are you the one?” The brief scenarios that follow invite women and girls to consider behaviours that may have been normalized for them. For instance, many traffickers pose as affectionate boyfriends or friends at first, bestowing proclamations of love, expensive gifts and often drugs. That so-called grooming eventually turns to control and isolation. Victims are shut off from friends and family and made to keep in constant, supervised contact with their traffickers.
Trafficking victims also tend to be destabilized in terms of geography and community. In southern Ontario, women and girls are commonly shuttled along the Highway 401 corridor, from hotel to hotel—or, increasingly, to Airbnb rentals, which are more difficult for police to trace—all with the aim of ensuring they’re far away from home and have nobody to turn to for help. “Anybody can be a victim,” says Brown. “You can be recruited anytime.” But she, Peel Regional Police and their partner organizations are working hard to show victims that, despite what their traffickers might say, somebody really does care.
Bonnie Harkness, 360°kids, Hope Program
Victims of human trafficking were never on Bonnie Harkness’s radar. As director of operations at 360°kids, a United Way agency that provides safe housing to at-risk youth, her focus was elsewhere. But four years ago, York Regional Police called with a concern. The police were rescuing trafficked girls and women from hotels, but had no safe place to take them. Some survivors were subsequently lured back into trafficking, while others found themselves homeless.
Until then, 360°kids had no specific programming for victims of trafficking—it didn’t realize it needed one, says Harkness. But that call made the organization see that there was a need for expansion of their services. “Of course these girls are in a housing crisis,” says Harkness—and it’s one that requires unique, tailored solutions. She jumped into action.
Today, the Hope program offers survivors housing and support for up to five years, depending on their needs. In December 2017, Hope debuted a new three-stage model geared toward healing, independence and building a better life. The first stage includes services like 24-hour staffing, survivor-focused trauma and drug counselling and programs on how to do taxes, cook and shop for groceries. Survivors can move on to become semi-independent, with staff support, then graduate to living in a subsidized apartment, transitioning more fully to a new life.
Two girls have already told Harkness that Hope is the only place they’ve ever felt cared for. That feeling of home, she says, is critical. “They could have been treated very nice by these pimps at times, but with a string attached,” she says. “We want to be clear that there are people who care and want to help them move on and be independent—with no strings attached.”
How parents react when their children come out makes a huge difference to kids’ feelings of self-worth, says Afi Browne, provincial LGBTQ+ youth outreach worker for Skylark Children, Youth & Families in Toronto. There are plenty of positive things you can say to your kid, but there are definitely things you shouldn’t say, including “Are you crazy?” or “Don’t worry, it’s just a phase”—two common responses on the less-supportive side of the parental-reaction spectrum.
Instead, validate your child’s experiences and express your support. “The best thing to say is, ‘Thank you for telling me. Thank you for trusting me. I love you unconditionally,’” says Browne.
Many parents aren’t sure how to respond simply because they don’t really understand what their children are going through. “They may need to start by untangling ideas around gender and sexuality,” says Browne. “Gender is a social construct—it lives in our heads, not in our bodies—while sexuality is about who you’re attracted to and has nothing to do with gender. It helps to understand all these concepts and to confront any preconceived ideas of what ‘normal’ means.”
Browne suggests that parents read blog posts by LGBTQ+ youth to gain some insight into what their own children might be going through. Another great resource is Central Toronto Youth Services, which offers a variety of programs to support families with LGBTQ+ children. It offers an online resource booklet calledFamilies in Transition that Browne says is a must-read for families of youth who are transitioning.
Supporting your child may also mean standing up for them in the community. “People will talk, and often parents don’t do a good enough job of defending their kids,” says Browne. The best approach is to take the time to educate yourself so you can help educate others.
LGBTQ+ youth often experience depression and other mental health issues, which are a result of the trauma they often face. That’s why it’s especially important to make certain your child doesn’t feel isolated or alone. Ensure that they still feel engaged and accepted within the family and provide them with counselling resources if they need them. For example, Skylark offers walk-in and ongoing counselling options. You can also encourage your child to join an LGTBQ+ support group with their peers, such as those offered by The 519 and YouthLink. Skylark offers two great options: First Fridays for LGBTQ+ youth at The Studio and a newly opened group for LGBTQ+ tweens. “Just let kids determine what they want to be doing and support them in doing it,” says Browne.
For more information on supporting your child when they come out—and to find places where you can access LGBTQ+ youth resources—visit Supporting Our Youth, a community development program at Sherbourne Health Centre for queer and trans youth. Or visit Central Toronto Youth Services for their Pride & Prejudice and Families in TRANSition programs.
For Monica Gunaratnam, superhero flicks and movies set in space are more than just escapist entertainment. They’ve also influenced this Markham mother’s take on the world, and how she hopes her two daughters see it. “We want [them] to see that we’re all human, but we all have different characteristics that make us special,” says Gunaratnam, whose daughters are six and three.
But while she and her husband try to teach their girls what they have in common with their peers, that doesn’t mean they ignore differences. The couple are both of South Asian descent, though their cultural backgrounds and faiths differ, and their community includes people of diverse ethnicities, religious practices, sexual orientations and gender identities. Gunaratnam says she welcomes the questions that her kids, particularly her free-spirited firstborn, ask about those differences—even if it means delving into complex issues. “You don’t want them to ever feel like, ‘Oh, Mom doesn’t want to answer that,’” she says.
That’s exactly the right approach, says Joanne Lomanno-Aprile, a principal in the York Region District School Board and former Toronto elementary-school teacher who holds a master’s degree in Equity Studies and Sociology. One of her top priorities, she says, is to ensure teachers create an environment where students can be vulnerable and open enough to challenge their thinking and deconstruct inherent biases. Of course, opportunities to do that don’t disappear when school’s out. We asked Lomanno-Aprile to break down ways that parents can teach their children to understand and appreciate diversity at home.
Talk it out
“The most important piece is to talk about diversity,” says Lomanno-Aprile. “We’re supposed to see differences and appreciate, respect and understand that.” She and Gunaratnam agree that they want their children to keep asking questions. Lomanno-Aprile says the key is to answer in a way that’s digestible for the child’s age and stage. If one parent is more adept than the other at doing that, then they should try responding in front of their partner, so that they’ll know where to begin next time.
Questions related to diversity are bound to come up when you’re out in public. When they do, Lomanno-Aprile says the key is not to scold your children or urge them to be quiet. Instead, stick to the facts. This approach will reinforce to them that whatever they’ve noticed is not a big deal. If a child asks why two men are holding hands, she’d respond simply by saying: “Because they love each other, like Daddy and I do.”
Lead by example
At the end of the day, be the hero your kids see swooping in to call out injustice. If a family member makes a derogatory remark, speak up—even if they’re from another generation, don’t mean to offend, don’t know any better or aren’t aware that your kids are within earshot. “I’ll say in front of [the kids], ‘You can’t say something like that,’” says Lomanno-Aprile. “Then later they’ll ask why, and we’ll have a talk about it.”
Turn the tables
Jokes or phrases a child picks up at recess might be in stark contrast with the way you speak at home. If a child puts down or pokes fun at another group, explain why those comments can be hurtful. Lomanno-Aprile suggests that asking how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of such comments can help you illustrate your point.
Tell a story
Choose storybooks that feature families that don’t resemble yours. Lomanno-Aprile says it’s important to make a conscious effort to expose children to different cultures, families or religious backgrounds. Reading about them can lead to opportunities to learn more.
One recommendation from both Lomanno-Aprile and Gunaratnam? Wonder, the 2012 children’s novel by R.J. Palacio that inspired the 2017 movie starring Julia Roberts. Gunaratnam’s daughter immediately connected to the protagonist, a boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome. “[She] related because [she thought], ‘He wants to be an astronaut. I like space.’ She found a similarity, that they both like space—that’s what I want to encourage, that your differences are not that big of a deal.”
Most important, remember that the goal is to teach your children to understand other people’s feelings. “It’s about having empathy, not [about] feeling sorry for somebody,” says Lomanno-Aprile. “That’s not what we need to teach our kids. We need to appreciate what people bring to our world and that people are different. We’re not lesser because we are different. We are all the same, and we are different. It’s not an either-or kind of thing.”
Ultimately, Gunaratnam wants her girls to know that people are more alike than different, a theme that comes up repeatedly in the sci-fi stories her family loves. “At the end of the day, if there was ever a threat that came to Earth, we would all stand together. It’s a very positive way of looking at it.”
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 wellbeing 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.
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.
3. Across Canada, 1 in 6 Children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. 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.
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.
5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (includingthose 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.
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 wellbeing. 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.
Ways you can help:
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Child poverty is a widespread issue, with an alarming 17 per cent of Canadian children living on a low income, according to the 2016 census. In Toronto, the rate is even higher, and our region has the dubious distinction of being the child poverty capital of Canada. According to Unequal City: The Hidden Divide Among Toronto’s Children and Youth, a 2017 report from Social Planning Toronto, more than one in four children under the age of 18 live in poverty, making Toronto’s child and youth poverty rate the highest among major cities in Canada. Indigenous, newcomer and racialized children are more likely to be growing up in low-income households, creating an even wider gap in quality of life.
Across the board, kids who experience poverty are at a great disadvantage in life, with effects lasting well into adulthood. Here are 10 ways poverty holds kids back:
1. Food insecurity
When children don’t have enough to eat, they are more likely to have difficulty focusing at school. But it gets worse: hunger can actually impair cognitive functioning and brain development. Sugary and refined foods that are low in nutritional value can also have a negative effect on a kid’s ability to learn. That’s one reason children who have access to nutritious (and often, more expensive) food typically do better academically. “Food insecurity can play into certain mental health disorders and developmental disorders,” says Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital and founder of the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative, an in-school healthcare program that works in low-income communities. “If you’re not nourished a certain way, you’re at risk for developmental problems in childhood.”
Food insecurity also puts kids at a higher risk for developing other health issues—like diabetes and cardiovascular disease—later in life. According to a 2017 report from the University of Toronto, people with lower incomes typically consume less produce than those in food-secure households. “It’s not a question of not knowing you should be eating fruits and vegetables; it’s not being able to afford the fruits and vegetables,” says Raphael. “With poverty, you live under conditions of material deprivation.”
2. Affordable housing
As housing costs increase, lower-income families are forced into enclaves where there are usually fewer recreational resources—or lower-quality resources—for kids. “Inadequate housing may be located in high-risk neighbourhoods which have less access to quality services, infrastructure and vibrant communities, compared to housing in more secure locations,” says a report by Best Start Resource Centre. “Welfare rates and Ontario Disability Support Program are not enough to meet basic needs, making it impossible for families to save for a house or to increase their standard of living.”
Plus, when families are underhoused, they are often subject to overcrowding, says professor Raphael. This means it’s not uncommon for two or three families to live in a single apartment. “From a health perspective, this can cause infections and stress.” And it’s not a short-term problem: “the waiting list is 18 years [for subsidized housing],” he says.
There’s a link between childcare and school success. Quality childcare helps early childhood development and boosts success later in life: it provides a safe, educational environment that fosters cognitive development and prepares kids for school. While affordable childcare is important to families from all economic backgrounds, access to this service is not equal across income brackets: a 2018 report from People for Education found that elementary schools with a higher percentage of university-educated parents are more likely to offer childcare, whereas at schools with fewer university-educated parents and higher rates of poverty, subsidized or affordable childcare services are lacking.
When low-income children don’t have access to this vital service, they’re put at risk, says Khanna. “Unfortunately, affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare is still a matter of chance, as children linger on the subsidy waitlist when they could be gaining foundational skills through play-based learning,” she says.
4. Extracurricular activities
According to the Unequal City report, access to recreational opportunities is key for children’s development and well-being, and prepares them for success in school. But when kids can’t join in for financial reasons, they lose out. Data from the Toronto District School Board shows that 48 per cent of children in families with incomes below $30,000 do not regularly take part in extracurricular activities. This is a huge contrast with children in households with incomes of $100,000 or more, where only 7 per cent do not attend out-of-school sports or lessons.
“Typically, children in low-income [households] have fewer opportunities for enrichment,” says Anita Khanna, the director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto. “Experiences like going to an arts-based day camp or on trips to the zoo or science centre help bring in-class learning to life. This is why programs that promote access to summer programs for children in all income groups are so vital.”
Those findings are backed up by a 2013 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society, which found that dental disease disproportionately affects low-income families, Indigenous children, new immigrants and kids with special health needs. On top of having poorer oral health, the report states that these populations are also less likely to have dental insurance, and tend to have limited or no access to oral health care.
This is all despite Healthy Smiles Ontario, an initiative aimed to provide government-covered dental care to low-income kids. According to the Ontario Dental Association, there’s still a critical funding gap that leaves many behind. A June 2018 press release calling for “meaningful action” on funding public dental health programs from Ontario’s new premier noted that dentists in Ontario treat about 200,000 kids under Healthy Smiles Ontario—but there are 500,000 eligible children. This means that even with current government support, many low-income kids still aren’t receiving quality care.
6. Educational opportunities
Findings from a 2013 Globe and Mail investigation showed that schools in affluent Toronto neighbourhoods had higher student literacy test scores and better educational resources than schools in lower-income areas. Not only do low-income kids tend to do worse on literacy tests, but research shows they’re less likely to succeed in the long term, too. One study published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health revealed that kids from low-income households were less likely to graduate from high school and to attend university or college.
“In Canada, only 31 per cent of youth from the bottom income quartile attended
post-secondary education compared with 50.2 per cent in the top income quartile,” the report found. “Once again, the evidence indicates that students from low-income families are disadvantaged right through the education system to postsecondary training.”
Another gap is in the simple—yet, for many, less achievable—act of reading aloud to and with kids. According to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, kids who are regularly read to at home and have more positive parental interaction have higher levels of school readiness. But for a number of reasons, this tends to happen less often in lower-income households.
“Despite parents’ best efforts, the hunger, anxiety and social exclusion associated with poverty can have negative effects on children’s school readiness,” Khanna says. “Parents who have to juggle multiple low-wage or contract jobs may have less time to read to their children and build early literacy skills.” This barrier is even greater for new Canadian families if English is not their first language. Even if they’re able to spend time developing other skills with their children, English literacy is key to school success.
Kids from low-income households are also more likely to experience summer reading loss, a decline in literacy skills that can happen when children take a break from reading over summer vacation—and one that can have cumulative effects. “We all know that it is much harder to play catch-up when you start off on an unequal footing,” she says.
8. Swimming lessons
Knowing how to swim can save your life. Unfortunately, many low-income children aren’t enrolled in swimming lessons due to cost, much like other extra-curricular activities. When kids don’t learn to swim, they are literally more likely to die than those who can.
There are also cultural barriers that may prevent many low-income kids from learning how to swim—the need for gender-segregated lessons, for example. New Canadians are four times less likely to know how to swim than those born in Canada, and are therefore at a higher risk for drowning.
Children from lower-income households typically receive worse, and less frequent, medical attention than more-affluent kids do, which means they’re at a greater risk for physical and mental health problems. Plus, kids experiencing poverty are more likely to be hospitalized for acute conditions and are less likely to receive preventive care. According to Social Determinants of Health, a report co-authored by York University’s Raphael, the bottom 33 per cent of Canadian income earners are less likely to see a specialist when needed compared to the country’s top 33 per cent of earners.
“Poverty affects a number of the social determinants of health,” says Freeman. “There’s transportation barriers, financial barriers, parents have to take time off work to go see the doctor and there’s significant language barriers. There’s difficulty navigating our healthcare system in general. It’s more difficult than we may realize for families to access the care they need.”
10. Financial literacy
“Financial services are generally designed to cater to the needs of middle- and high-income individuals,” says a report by Prosper Canada. “This can result in financial information and advice that is unintentionally ill-suited or even harmful to people with low incomes.”
If a child comes from a family where there are financial barriers, like low levels of education or low-wage employment, they’re less likely to develop financial literacy as they grow up. Certain segments of the population that are more prone to poverty, including Indigenous people and new Canadians, are also less likely to learn how to make more informed financial choices. Things like applying for student loans and government grants, for example, are more challenging for kids whose parents don’t have the knowledge base.
It’s clear that poverty impacts the trajectory of a child’s entire life and accentuates the income gap across generations—which is why it’s important for society to do everything it can to counteract its effects. Advocating for change, getting involved in local politics, and volunteering in your community can help.
“All children should have the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute to our communities,” says Khanna. “We all benefit from lower poverty and inequality, so we need to be fully invested in making positive change to improve the lives of children and families.”
From childhood to early adulthood, mentorship matters — not just in the near-term, but for future success and prosperity. For vulnerable or at-risk children, in particular, mentorship can help to prevent possible challenges down the road, while building self-esteem and improving peer relationships, academic success and future employability. Imagine a City spoke to the experts on the lasting effects of mentorship and how it can change lives—and communities. Here are five reasons why mentorship matters:
1. It improves educational outcomes
Vulnerable or at-risk youth can face challenges at school, as do children being raised by a single parent. In fact, kids from single-parent homes are at higher risk of growing up in poverty and facing emotional and behavioural problems, including strained parental and peer relationships, poor academic achievement and disengagement from school, according to the Canadian Institute of Child Health.
It’s one of the reasons Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada (BBBSC) offers an in-school mentoring program, where an at-risk child meets with a mentor for an hour a week to talk, play games or hang out. Children are selected by school administrators based on need — perhaps they have fewer peer connections or they’re at risk of becoming disengaged with school, says Katie Lowes, program manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters of York, a United Way-supported agency. Kids with mentors, she adds, are less likely to skip school and display behavioural problems, and they are more confident in their academic abilities.
2. It helps develop self-esteem
Any child can benefit from having a ‘champion’ in their corner, but it’s particularly important for those who are at-risk or experiencing trauma. “This is more of a preventative program, as opposed to something that’s a nice to have,” says Lowes. “Our kids have experienced things most kids wouldn’t need to even think about. [Having a mentor allows them] to have an advocate in their corner, to show them that they’re worthy, that their opinion matters.”
A mentor isn’t a guardian or peer; a mentor is an adult role model. Through regular outings, a relationship is developed built on trust and common interests, where the child gets to be the priority — and have fun. “It’s not about resume building, it’s about building confidence,” says Lowes. “Giving them that confidence at a young age, there’s really nothing more powerful.”
3. It improves mental health
Seventy per cent of mental health problems show up during childhood or adolescence, according to a five-year study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) commissioned by BBBSC. It found that boys and girls with mentors were two times less likely to exhibit conduct problems; girls with a mentor were four times less likely to bully, fight, lie or express anger than those without a mentor.
The study also revealed that girls with a mentor were two times less likely to be depressed, and boys with a mentor were two times less likely to have social anxiety. This is particularly noteworthy, since nearly one in four youth in the study reported depressive symptoms before being matched with a mentor.
4. It helps create professional networks
Mentorship teaches skills that extend beyond resume writing. Many jobs aren’t posted online; in fact a LinkedIn survey found that 85 per cent of jobs are filled via networking: “Before jobs are posted online they’re filled either internally or through a referral from a trusted source.” That means job-ready youth who don’t have a professional network are already at a disadvantage.
United Way’s netWORKS program was created to bridge that gap. “For [certain] groups of youth, they were not making the jump from education to employability,” says Annique Farrell, manager of youth initiatives at United Way. The missing piece? Access to professional networks. By collaborating with agencies and employers, the program connects young people with career-oriented mentoring connections. Research shows this approach is working: A Boston Consulting Group study found that adults who had a mentor in their youth earn $315,000 more income in their lifetime and are more likely to hold senior leadership positions (47 per cent versus 32 per cent) than non-mentored youth.
5. It inspires
For job-ready youth, a professional mentor can be a source of inspiration. The mentor can share their own journey, as well as what they’ve learned along the way. “The idea is really to inspire them to see beyond what they know, to open up their minds and demystify some of the misperceptions,” says Farrell.
This is particularly important for youth who haven’t had strong role models and don’t believe a VP at a major firm would want to meet with them for a coffee and a chat. That’s why netWORKS creates opportunities for both group networking sessions and structured one-on-one mentoring relationships. “If you’re willing to ask for advice, people are willing to give you advice,” says Farrell. “If you learn how to build relationships, that could potentially turn into an opportunity you didn’t even know existed.”
In recent weeks, youth violence has taken an alarming turn across the GTA. We must get at the root of the issue. Working with community has never been more important. United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti offers his comments.
There has been a flurry of headlines, soundbites, tweets and blogs all trying to define, diagnose and dissect youth violence across the GTA. This is not a flashpoint in the heat of the summer. Behind the recent increase in youth violence is rising poverty and inequality, decades in the making, cementing and connecting itself in GTA neighbourhoods. And it requires decades of sustained investments and community collaboration to correct.
In the urgency of so many lives lost and hurt, it is too easy to be moved to reactive solutions. In the continuing tragedy being faced by communities, it is too easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges.
This is not an “either-or” issue. It is immediate action AND long-term solutions. It is prevention AND policy. It requires residents and agencies; faith and business; police and government. And it requires continuous and strategic acts of intervention and care.
That’s why United Way works every day, so often invisibly, on the ground, with community.
Partnership is at the heart of everything we do.
Over a decade ago, anchored in Poverty by Postal Code, we partnered in neighbourhoods across the city to build hubs, support resident action and solutions, mobilize policy and investment, and pioneer youth leadership initiatives through our Youth Challenge Fund. The work that we are doing together with donors, the City and so many other partners on a strong neighbourhood strategy remains one of the most comprehensive efforts to curb violence and youth poverty in the city.
And we continue to build on this foundation in Peel, Toronto and York Region.
Communities are at the centre of solutions.
It always starts with putting communities and people at the heart of driving solutions. That’s why we are continuing to invest in the people, places and priorities where the need is the greatest.
We are helping young people access good jobs.
We must get to the root causes of hopelessness by connecting young people to good jobs. That’s why we are working with young people facing multiple barriers and employers to create pathways to meaningful employment through our Career Navigator and netWORKS programs.
We are continuously improving how we work together to change outcomes for those most vulnerable to violence.
It requires taking a comprehensive approach to systemic solutions through partnerships like FOCUS (Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services), a table with the City of Toronto, Toronto Police Services, United Way and 90 community agencies—collaboratively managing some of our city’s most complex individual cases before they become community crises. That’s why we are committed to working as part of a joint effort to scale this innovative model and grow its preventative impact. And we continue to strengthen partnerships with young people, police forces, school boards and youth-serving agencies across Peel and York Region.
More news on this and other investments to come in the weeks ahead, as we work together with our partners.
But you have to know that we are here. In it. With community. Immediate and impactful. Long-term and intentional. Still one of the most comprehensive efforts in curbing violence and youth poverty in the GTA.
Peel. Toronto. York Region. No matter where you live within the region, you know that poverty remains a real and ongoing threat. But, if the past year was any indication, there’s lots of proof of how we, as a community, are fighting back.
Today, we are pleased to share United Way Greater Toronto’s 2017–18 annual report. It highlights all the change that your generous donations, on-the-ground volunteer efforts and tireless work on the front lines helped to create—in the places, populations and priorities most impacted by poverty.
Watch this video for President & CEO Daniele Zanotti’s summary of an eventful 2017:
Then, for all the ways that your support fuelled our region-wide uprising of care, read the full report here.
When kids do their part to get involved with their communities, the benefits go way beyond the people they’re helping. They’re also more likely to get good grades, experience a self-esteem boost and even prioritize civic engagement in the future. But kids may not always see why volunteering is so important, for themselves or their communities.
Luckily, there’s a solution: use March Break as an opportunity to combine fun activities with a lesson on the joys of giving back. Encourage them to participate in activities that allow them to engage with their local community, and they’ll soon learn exciting new things and a little about themselves, too—like how full their hearts can feel when they do something good for others. Here are our best bets for ways to make a difference.
Combine collaboration and innovation—with camp
MakerKids is the perfect organization for kids who are ready to kick-start their journeys as changemakers. The organization, which uses STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to teach kids to innovate and inspires them to make a positive difference in the world, is hosting its annual March Break day camp at the Toronto MakerSpace in Bloor West Village. All week long, kids aged eight to 12 will discover how to be creators, not consumers. They’ll work in teams to solve problems and also have a chance to create their own mind-blowing designs and inventions. The camp advances kids’ skills in communication, leadership and critical thinking—and, best of all, they get to dabble in gaming, coding and robotics.
Create eco-aware kiddos
Show kids how they can help the environment by creating their own drop-off boxes for hard-to-dispose-of items. Let neighbours know that this March Break, you’ll take recyclables like batteries, electronics, light bulbs and other items that can’t go in the regular blue bin. Mark each box clearly so everyone knows which items go in which box. At the end of the week, take the kids on a trip to drop off the boxes at local depots, big box stores or other facilities that will take the items. Make a game of it and see who can collect the most for a prize of their choice. Maybe an afternoon matinee or a bowling bash?
Embrace a new neighbour
Helping newcomers to Canada learn about the events, resources and activities available to them is a great way to help new neighbours feel included in the community—and this is the perfect week to get started. From taking a family of newcomers to a maple syrup festival to bonding over superheroes at ComicCon to simply helping them access services, there are plenty of ways to help.
Take part in the #marchbreakcharitychallenge
Challenge your kids to support their favourite local charity. It’s a great opportunity for them to get creative or learn a new skill while supporting a local cause—and they get a prize at the end! Participants sign up for the Wish and Give March Break Charity Challenge, which allows kids to set their own goal and choose what charity they want to support. Maybe they want to try to read five books? Create a masterpiece? Or learn to make a new recipe? Whatever the goal, they must collect pledges and complete their task by end of March Break. That’s when the charity gets their donation and the kids get their prize. What a great way to wrap up the week!
At some point, it’ll happen—as a parent, you’ll have to talk about developmental differences with your child. Maybe a new classmate will have a physical or intellectual disability, or your family will see someone in a wheelchair, or it’ll come up on TV. (Sesame Street recently introduced a new Muppet, Julia, who has autism, so maybe it already has!) It might not be a comfortable conversation—after all, even talking about developmental differences among adults can feel awkward at times—but it’s a necessary one when raising compassionate kids. Here’s what you should keep in mind.
1. Use the Right Words
Your child will speak about developmental differences the same way that you do, so be sure to use inclusive language that’s up-to-date.
“When we talk to parents who’ve received a diagnosis, we have to be careful about word choices. We always talk to them from a place of positivity,” says Sasha Delgado, manager of the preschool speech and language program at Macaulay Child Development Centre, a United Way agency that supports children and their families in Toronto.
That’s the ideal way to talk to your kids about a friend or classmate’s developmental difference, too, says Delgado. Explain that certain terms can make people feel left out and unhappy, and that using the right words helps you avoid hurting their feelings.
2. Focus on Ability
Terri Hewitt, vice-president of developmental services at Toronto’s Surrey Place Centre, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities, also thinks it’s a good idea to emphasize abilities. “I advise parents to highlight what a person can do rather than focusing on what they can’t,” she says.
Hewitt often talks to elementary school children about cognitive differences and always starts with a general discussion about what makes each person special, making sure to highlight positive traits rather than negative ones.
When you’re talking to your kids at home, follow Hewitt’s lead. Start the conversation by asking your kids what makes them unique, and have them identify their own physical abilities and personality traits. Then, if your child has a classmate or friend with an intellectual disability, talk about challenges he or she might have with learning, whether its reading, doing math or speaking up in class.
3. Encourage Compassion
After you’ve talked about some of the challenges that developmental differences can cause, it’s important to emphasize the importance of empathy. First, talk to your children about their own strengths and weaknesses; then help them see that they’d want help from others in areas where they struggle, too.
Delgado says that when it comes to children, it’s important to remember that progress is always possible, so long as adults play to their strengths.
Hewitt adds that separating cognitive skill from personality is also helpful. Being a kind, thoughtful and helpful person has nothing to do with a person’s developmental differences. By considering the way you talk to your child about people with disabilities, you might find that you’ll change the way you think about them as well.
For more information and resources, visit Macaulay Child Development Centre, which specializes in helping all children reach their full potential. Services include early education, literacy and support for kids with special needs and their families.
If a friend mentions they need job hunting tips, legal advice, or even housing help, do you know where they can access resources? In many cases, the answer is the same for each of these issues: their local Community Hub.
Community Hubs provide everything from seniors’ programming to English classes for newcomers to information for parents, all within one space.
“Many people might not even realize that their neighbourhood has this wealth of resources all under one roof,” says Alex Dow, United Way’s Director of Neighbourhoods. And even if they can’t directly help, Community Hubs can connect an individual with further resources.
Here are four reasons why it’s worth checking out your local Hub:
1. Hubs address multiple needs
Often someone who needs help in one area could use a hand in other ways as well. A newcomer who needs English classes can also access employment support. Someone who is struggling with parenting can get support along with counselling services. In fact, these “wraparound” supports provided by Community Hubs are vital to overall well-being and help create a strong social safety net across our neighbourhoods. United Way’s Hub in Rexdale, for example, provides everything from health services to social programs, as well as legal help and cultural assistance.
2. The whole family can find support
All of the hubs offer a variety of programming specially tailored to local residents. Go to United Way’s Bathurst-Finch Community Hub and you’ll find seniors’ programs, breastfeeding support and childcare. AccessPoint on Danforth provides health care, LGBTQ+ programs and youth peer mentoring. “The Hubs are really designed for people of all ages,” says Dow. “You might come in looking for a program or a service for your child, but if an elderly parent lives with you, you’ll find activities for them, too.”
3. They create opportunities to volunteer
Don’t be surprised if your friend wants to continue going to the local Hub after receiving the help they needed. “After accessing services, many people like to give back,” says Dow, and there are many different types of opportunities to pitch in, including working in a community garden, running classes, helping with promotions, participating in workshops, or leading cooking classes or playgroups.
4. Hubs help people connect
The connections and friendships that can come from Community Hubs are one of their biggest advantages, says Dow. That’s because meeting neighbours and learning more about the community’s needs can lead to increased engagement with the neighbourhood and a better understanding of the issues that are affecting it—not to mention a desire to help.
Looking to access services at a Community Hub near you? Try calling 211, a helpline supported by United Way, to connect with one of these vital community resources in your neighbourhood.
Landing that first real gig hasn’t ever been easy, but experts agree that today’s youth are facing a more challenging economic landscape than their parents did. Employers receive hundreds of applications for every posting, and young job hunters might have plenty of education, but often lack necessary office experience and soft skills. What’s more, the labour market is increasingly digitized, says Vass Bednar, who chaired the Federal Expert Panel on Youth Employment. “Not only is the nature of work different for this generation, but the job search is fundamentally different, too, because it’s online,” she says. “This means that there is more labour market information than ever before, but increased demand for entry-level jobs, which makes it harder for young people to transition from school to work.” So while contacting job banks and people within your personal networks is a good start, starting a satisfying career often takes more.
Here are five underrated career resources and strategies you may not have thought of trying.
1. Try a community agency
Job banks, the online sites where employers post available opportunities, can be useful for finding work quickly, but they don’t always reflect all the available opportunities.
“About 80 to 90 per cent of jobs are not publicly posted,” says Annique Farrell, Manager, Community of Practice at United Way Toronto & York Region. “If you don’t have a strong résumé and cover letter, and if you’re not connected, your chances of being hired are not as high.”
But, Farrell says, there’s another option: community agencies. There are a variety of agencies across Toronto and York Region that offer employment services for youth. In many cases, young job hunters aren’t always aware of the programs available, but they’re well worth investigating.
United Way, for instance, supports a program called netWORKS, which offers career-oriented mentoring and networking opportunities for young people in partnership with employers across Toronto and York Region. The program also helps youth facing barriers to employment, including newcomer status and poverty, get job-ready with résumé workshops and mock interviews.
Rather than combing through hundreds of job postings online, Bednar suggests using Magnet. This online career search tool, created by Ryerson University, integrates with job sites like LinkedIn, Monster and Workopolis, and matches users with potential jobs based on skills, experience and preferences.
It’s likely the youth in your life already have social media accounts, but it may be worth taking a second look at their online personas. That’s because a strong online presence tailored to professional opportunities can help job hunters stand out. On Twitter, youth should follow companies and people whose careers align with their interests, because job openings are often announced on their social media accounts first. Facebook can also be a good place to search for career groups that regularly host networking opportunities for people in specific industries.
Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers and tech junkies. Now it can give job hunters exposure to job experiences and environments to help them decide if they’ve chosen the right career. The Learning Partnership has created dozens of 360-degree videos of specific jobs in all sorts of industries, from construction to hospitality.
Bednar says that virtual-reality job testing is always productive, but it is most useful for people interested in skilled trades. “The skilled trades are great jobs, but have very distinct pathways, and if you start training to be a welder or a roofer and suddenly find out you’re afraid of heights, there’s a lot of sunk costs with that,” she says.
5. Try Tinder—for jobs
There are several job apps that mimic Tinder’s swipe-to-like model. Jobr pulls information from your LinkedIn page, not Facebook. Blonk, on the other hand, requires users to upload a short video of themselves answering entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s favourite interview question: “What is one thing I believe everybody disagrees with me about?”
Parents who want to support their kids in their first job hunt may be tempted to think back to lessons learned from their own moms and dads. This might elicit eye rolls and audible sighs from your 20-somethings—and they’d be justified. According to Timothy Lang, CEO and president of Youth Employment Services (YES), the job market has changed drastically since you started your career.
“There are fewer jobs, and many employers are only offering part-time or contract positions,” says Lang. Young people will have to change jobs many times throughout their careers as a result. And even securing a position in the first place is often more challenging than it was in the past.
But there are several ways that parents can help their children set themselves up for job-hunting success. Here’s how.
1. Support experimentation
Encourage youth to “cast a wide net” when thinking about where to start their career, Lang suggests. Young job seekers should explore options that they may not have considered in the past, even in areas that they don’t initially find interesting. “We have seen thousands of examples where people end up having very fulfilling careers in areas they did not know they would even enjoy,” says Lang. And, he continues, even if that experimentation doesn’t lead to a career, the skills and experience gained will help when looking for the next job.
2. Help them understand their skills
One of the biggest missteps for those new to the workforce is not understanding how their previous experience could relate to the job they want. As a result, many young people stumble when writing their resumés. They may not realize that retail experience, for example, provides them with soft skills, including communication and customer service, which are attractive to employers of all kinds. “Youth today are also very adaptable, and that’s a huge benefit for those coming into a workforce where they will constantly need to upgrade their skills and knowledge,” says Lang. “Parents can help them articulate these attributes on resumés and in interviews.”
3. Restrain yourself
Don’t be overzealous in your desire to help or protect your adult children, though. Lang says occasionally he’s seen parents go so far as to attend job interviews with their kids. “That never ends well,” he says.
4. Stay positive
This is, perhaps, the most important way you can support your young job hunter. While putting out 30 resumés and receiving rejections for all of them can be incredibly discouraging, parents can help youth see the big picture. “At the end of the day, yes, people want experience from a new hire. But they really want people that will fit in well, are positive and have a good work ethic. I have personally hired people who sometimes have less experience, but show they are good team players and learn quickly,” says Lang.
If the young person in your life need help with their job hunt, look to resources like Youth Employment Services. YES has career counsellors available, skill-building workshops and even a job development team that helps youth find employment. And check out Canada’s Top 100 Employers’ annual list of the country’s top employers for young people.