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.

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: 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.”

GOOD ADVICE: