Journeys of Change and Empowerment

Being on the Board of Directors for YESS, I have had significant exposure over the past three years to the important work that YESS is doing to support Edmonton’s youth, and every time I hear of new initiatives or specific impacts of their work, I am overwhelmed with passion. With a mission to walk beside traumatized youth on their journeys towards healing and appropriate community integration, the opportunity is tremendous, yet complicated.

YESS works collaboratively within a network of care focused on the prevention of youth homelessness. They do this by providing youth with the necessary supports to stabilize their housing, improve their wellbeing, build life skills, connect with community, and avoid re-entry into homelessness. It’s not just about emergency shelter, but so much more. YESS strives to meet youth where they are at and works with them to build a trauma-informed support plan that the youth can understand and own themselves.

Now, outside of my work with YESS, I spend my work life managing change within organizations, and as such have learned a lot about the psychology of how people move through change. It’s most often not straightforward or smooth, and never the same for two people.

I’d like to introduce one model developed by Prosci, a global organization committed to the development and education of change management methodologies and tools. It’s called the ADKAR Model, and it represents the five outcomes every individual needs to achieve for change to be successful. In other words, this model outlines the stages of change that people go through as they adopt change. ADKAR, in its simplest terms, is defined as:

  • The first “A” stands for awareness, meaning understanding what needs to happen is the first step in moving an individual through change.
  • The “D” represents desire, which suggests that the next step in an individual’s change journey is why they should change, otherwise known as “what’s in it for them.”
  • The “K” indicates the stage where knowledge comes into play, and individuals learn how to make a change.
  • The second “A” speaks to an individual’s ability to implement new skills and behaviours towards changing.
  • Last, the “R” represents the reinforcement required to make a change stick, or what’s needed to sustain a change.

I share with you this model because I think it helps understand youth’s journeys, as well as YESS’ approach to support. The idea behind the model is that people need to move through each stage at their own pace, step by step. Each person spends more or less time within each phase based on their own experiences and abilities. Consider the last change you went through—was it exactly the same for others around you?

And what I have learned in my time working with the YESS team is that the path each youth takes is not clear, straight, simple, or short. It is indeed an individual journey, and when we try to leverage a standard one-size-fits-all model, we fall short. We need to make space for our youth to build trust and find safety in working with YESS, allow them to create their own goals, and craft their own plan to achieve those goals.

And here’s where we see impact: YESS has already created a support model that allows youth to be in charge of their own plan, focusing on what is important to them and allowing the right amount of time to process as they need—an approach that takes time and energy beyond what a one-size-fits-all model might require.

So, putting that into the context of the ADKAR Model, YESS is already doing their part to support youth in their individual change journeys towards healing and community integration, allowing them to address their own unique barriers, in their own time.

Part of why I become a Board Trustee is because I hope we, as a community, can do the same. What I’ve learned through stories of youth who access YESS is that the change process is different for everyone, and every time I think I understand these youth’s experiences, I learn something more. Their journeys are evolving, and so are the perceptions of the community. People are starting to understand the impact of trauma-informed structure and processes, and I am honoured to be part of YESS’ contribution to this awareness building.

From the YESS team: It is our belief that if we give youth safe space, consistent and non-judgemental support and teaching, and the time to choose their own path to success, we can prevent further entrenchment into the cycles of trauma and homelessness.

How can we as a community continue to show up and find new ways to support youth in their unique journeys?

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A Huge Thank You to the Edmonton Civic Employees Charitable Assistance Fund!

The Edmonton Civic Employees Charitable Assistance Fund (ECECAF) donated $34,000 to our recent project of renovating the laundry room and bathroom space in Graham’s Place, one of our supportive housing programs.

The remodeling of Graham’s Place bathroom space and laundry room has provided a comfortable home-like environment for youth to thrive and achieve their personal goals. The new laundry room has provided a sustainable way for our staff to teach life skills, and the remodeled bathrooms have created a space of self-care and privacy. The new setup for bathrooms has also taken away the notion of gendered bathrooms and has created a safe and neutral environment for all.

 

Tell us why you choose to support YESS?

YESS is a locally based, grass-roots organization that aligns with many of the values ECECAF strives to uphold. We recognize the desperate situation of traumatized youth in Edmonton and applaud the tireless dedication by YESS to mitigate and heal this issue. We especially realize the importance of supporting youth as they are our future.

 

How does ECECAF give back to the community?

ECECAF gives back to the community by helping our contributing members to help others on a larger scale through collective donations.

We choose to support local organizations which in turn tend to support the community we live in, our members, their families, and their neighbours.

 

Why is it important for ECECAF to support the community?

With our motto being “Impacting Lives and Promoting Healthy Communities,” ECECAF was formed in 1941 to address three main concerns: 

  • To contribute to the comfort of military patients in Edmonton hospitals
  • To provide assistance to soldiers and their families during WWII
  • To give financial assistance to charitable and welfare organizations formed for the purpose of scientific research into the causes and cures of diseases

We still believe that by helping those in our community who need help the most, we help the entire community in turn.

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Spotlight on the Youth Education and Employment Program

The YESS Youth Education and Employment Program provides youth between the ages of 15–24 with skills and knowledge to help them identify career goals, access job-specific training, and learn job readiness skills like cover letter writing and interview skills.

This year, we are so grateful for the support of The Home Depot Canada Foundation and their grant of $150,000 in support of the Youth Education and Employment Program! The Home Depot Canada Foundation is committed to preventing and ending youth homelessness in Canada. Together with community partners across the country, they work to remove barriers, break cycles of inequity, and enable at-risk youth facing homelessness to achieve positive development outcomes and realize their full potential.

 

Staff at the Skyview, South Common, Westmount, and Windermere Home Depot locations with The Home Depot Canada Foundation grant amount of $150,000 in support of YESS

 

We talked to YESS staff members Caitlin Parker, Karley Spelrem, and Juwayriya Abdullahi, who run and support the Youth Education and Employment Program, about what they see youth learn and achieve in this program.

 

Describe your role at YESS!

Caitlin and Juwayriya: We are the Employment Coordinators. We facilitate the Youth Education and Employment Program. Before the program begins, we provide information to youth about what the program entails and complete the intake for each of the youth who are interested. We also reach out and form connections to agencies throughout Edmonton to support the youth during their placements. During the program, we teach youth for three weeks about life skills that can help them obtain employment. An example of this would be discussing employability skills and mental health. After this takes place, each of the youth complete the 12-week employment/practicum portion of the program. We support both the youth and the employers throughout these weeks. Finally, we work with the Transitional Worker to form a plan for what comes next after each youth has completed the entire 15-week program.

Karley: I am the Transitional Worker at YESS where I work with our Supportive Housing Program to transition youth out of our group homes and into independence. I also work with community youth as well as Children Services youth to transition them into our group homes. I support youth in the Youth Education and Employment Program with their transition out of the program, whether that is getting hired onto to work full-time or finding alternative job placements that work with their schedules.

 

Describe the Youth Education and Employment Program.

The Youth Education and Employment Program is a 15-week program that assists youth between the ages of 15-24 with building skills to enter the workforce. The first three weeks entails in-class lessons with the Employment Coordinators where the youth learn life skills such as resume building and how to be successful in an interview. Following that, the youth are placed with an employer for 12 weeks while being provided with the support needed to ensure they are successful at their work placements. Finally, a transition plan is created to provide the youth with a clear path for what their life will look like after the employment program is complete.

 

What are the training/opportunities/outlets that this program provides for youth who access YESS?

The Youth Education and Employment Program provides youth with three weeks of in-class training, followed by 12 weeks of work experience at a place of employment. Youth are trained in basic safety courses such as First Aid and food safety, as well as employment-specific training by obtaining licensing, that is required by employers at their work placements. Youth are led through different courses during the initial 3 weeks which include employment skills, mental health, sexual awareness, and finances. The program supports youth in their placements of choice by seeking to eliminate barriers that might cause inconsistency.

 

How is this program part of the YESS mission to walk beside youth on their journeys towards healing and appropriate community integration?

Within our Youth Education and Employment Program we provide youth with training on mental health, relationships, boundaries, advocacy, health and safety, basic hygiene, cooking skills, etc. We prioritize the first three weeks to class time where we enhance each of these skills before entering the workplace. We also ensure the youth are housed or have housing set up prior to attending the program to eliminate any barriers while in the work field. With this wraparound support from Employment Coordinators and Transitional Workers, we are able to ensure the success of each youth after the eight-week mark of completing our employment program.

 

What is one thing you wish the community knew about youth who access YESS?

Juwayriya: The youth who access YESS did not choose to experience the barriers they face. They are survivors who are fighting to break the cycle of violence and trauma they have been entrenched in. They are inspiring because of their motivation to help improve their circumstances. They are resilient because they are persistent in their resolve despite setbacks.

The youth at YESS have experienced trauma throughout their lives, yet they are tenacious in their pursuit of healing, community integration, and reaching their full potential in life.

 


 

Thank you so much to the Youth Education and Employment Program work experience partners!

Atlantic Fence
Bottle Depot Windermere (Windermere, 3515 Allan Drive)
Bottle Depot Winterburn (West End, 21410 100 Ave)
Evergreen Recycling
FIND Edmonton
Habitat for Humanity – ReStore North
Habitat for Humanity – ReStore Sherwood Park
Habitat for Humanity – ReStore South
Habitat for Humanity – ReStore West
Little Caesars (McConachie Edmonton)
Pita Pit (104 Street NW, Whyte Ave)
YESS Kitchen

The Youth Education and Employment Program is funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy

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Recipe for a Legacy: Find Your Passion, Share What You Love, Enrich a Life

Captured in the rhythm and warmth of the YESS kitchen is the heart and soul of a wholly talented and imaginative culinary team focused on the delivery of daily healthy meals for young people seeking respite and comfort.

Moments of gentle conversation and spontaneous laughter mingle together with the many sounds and nuances of this hub of activity: the rhythmic whisk and crunch of vegetables being peeled and chopped; the tap-tap-tap of aromatic herbs being minced; bubbling pots; the sizzle and bounce of oil on the grill; the clinking of cutlery and gentle clatter of dishes.

A beautiful medley of old, new, and shared experiences, mingle together to craft a beautifully delicious legacy of food, nutriment, and welcome.


MEET THE KITCHEN TEAM

“Legacy is defined as ‘something that is left or handed down by a predecessor.’ And so, what knowledge has been passed on to me that I am now bringing to YESS? Hello, I’m Ryan Little and I have been with YESS since January 2021. This past March, I assumed the role of Kitchen Team Supervisor. This is the story of my legacy and how I’ve applied it during my time at YESS.”

As a child, I was gifted with a love for cooking from my dad. He was always willing to try something new and recreate the meals that he had seen on one of his cooking shows. He loved sharing with others what he thought was good. I can remember big family meals that he had cooked for everyone, and it brought us together regularly. These values were ingrained in me from early on. When I started to help him, he would encourage me to “play with flavours” and “try everything at least once”. You never know that you do or do not like something unless you try it. It is a standard that I hold many people to, even to this day. Growing up in a rural Manitoba community allowed me to also learn a wide range of cultural foods from our neighbours. We would have perogy and cabbage roll making parties; we would share the Bannock that we made with others; and our community potlucks were another staple that grew my passion for food and cooking.

That is where it all started for me. Then, as a teen, I took a job in the kitchen at our local small-town diner and that passion continued. In my early 20’s, I went to culinary school and further refined my skills, focusing on flavours and playing with new and existing cuisines. Once I had finished there, I worked in steak houses, catering, hotels, Mexican, southern, east coast, fine dining… You name it. I have done it. All of this expanded my knowledge and continuously kept me passionate about my job. With the pandemic, I found myself – along with countless others – looking for a job. Then, YESS came along.

YESS has been a great learning experience for me. I have gotten to share my knowledge of food with the youth. I’ve even gotten to experiment with foods and flavours that I have not had the opportunity to work with before. In the kitchen, the food pantry is donation based, and we plan our menus according to what donations we have. We do purchase small amounts of food to supplement what we need to finesse the meals. We are open to all feedback, and regularly get feedback from the youth in attendance. There are times the youth do not love the food we offer, and that is okay. For me, the takeaway is that they tried it! We have also been able to do special requests for birthdays and other celebrations, and that allows us to get to play with food that we would not otherwise cook.

The legacy I bring to YESS is my knowledge of the different styles of cooking that I have done; the home recipes that my dad taught me; and the dishes taught to me by neighbours. I want to share all of that, and I want the youth to get to enjoy the foods I love. I want them to talk about the meals that we make, and for them to give us their opinions. Their opinions are very important to me and help me to continuously grow as a chef.

When the youth or I move on from YESS, I want my legacy to simply be that I shared what I loved. My hope is that the youth loved it as well and want to share it with others.


Greetings! I’m George Richter and I have been a YESS Kitchen Team Member since September of 2021. I feel that my defining legacy will be found in relationship building. I recall many favourite memories of food experiences that I have woven into meal preparation and cooking, so that it becomes one full experience for the youth.

Just recently, I had a steak dinner with my friends to celebrate a success with his work. There were laughs, smiles and great times. There are also those times where food is associated with bad memories. Memories of making ends meet, struggling with isolation, fearful of change or new experiences.

I think that our job as cooks is to create a positive space where the youth can be themselves and be able to get the essentials that they need to thrive as human beings.

Some foods may be triggering to youth or may be off limits with religious or dietary restrictions. We must face those challenges and be prepared for all kinds of curveballs we might face.

A personal story, linked to food, was when I first came to Edmonton. With no social circle and feeling isolated, I got a job at a Mexican restaurant. I made some great friends and learned how to make great tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas. All those became the foods that brought me comfort.

From that job, I started having a social circle and started thriving more as an individual. I associate the process of my discovery of Mexican cuisine a lot with where my passion began, and I wish that to be my legacy to the youth. It could well be that they experience something similar – an unexpected friendship and connection when in a dark or unfamiliar time – and are able to turn that into the start of something positive.

Outside of food, I foster a culture of collaboration, positivity, and fun – which cannot be said for many places in hospitality. I find that the team we have here supports each other well and there is a comradery that I have not seen before joining YESS. It is my wish that this culture continues even after any of the kitchen team moves on and that we continue to strive for creating an inclusive space where we encourage everyone to do their best every day.


Hello, I am Damodar Manikyala, known as Reddy by everyone. I have been at YESS for the last three and a half years as a kitchen team member. Before joining YESS, I worked with many hotels, and restaurants, in addition to 10 years on cruise ships. Altogether, I have almost 20 years of cooking experience ranging from fine dining to batch style cooking.

My passion is cooking. I enjoy cooking food for others and playing with flavours, while at the same time, making nutritious food to keep us healthy. I believe in eating healthy food rather than spending money on medicine when we get sick.

Legacy for me is taking what I have learned through my experiences and sharing them with my colleagues. Teaching them the simple and easy methods of cooking that save time and energy while at the same time being delicious to eat.

Though we never get to meet youth directly, our prepared meals will make them talk about our food and the passion that we show towards the food to keep everyone healthy. That is the legacy I want to leave for them.

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D’Arcy’s Meat Market Shares the Love with the YESS Kitchen

We want to give a huge thanks to D’Arcy’s Meat Market for supporting youth in their community amidst all their other giving initiatives!

The partnership we have built with them continues to support our kitchen and provides nutrition for youth who access our programs. We talked to Kyle Iseke, owner of D’Arcy’s Meat Market, about why their team chose to give to YESS.


We had been looking for a few places that we could donate some meats as we had been very busy during this pandemic. Our team was staying safe and customers were very supportive. Earlier in the year we had donated a large order of ground beef to the St. Albert Food Bank and thought about finding a different place to send some meats and sort of spread the love around, especially because we have a location in Edmonton. When we started looking for a place, we found some were not accepting donations because of the pandemic. It was around this time YESS had reached out to us looking for help getting proteins and obviously the timing was great, but also YESS does wonderful work and has a great reputation for making a difference, so it was an easy choice to get on board.

I think in general D’Arcy’s Meat Market is giving back to the community by serving as a bridge between local livestock producers and consumers looking to purchase local meat. So much of what we consume these days comes from so far away and we believe that simply by using the amazing agriculture we have in this province we can support our economy, improve our food security, lessens the environmental strain caused by long haul trucking or flying in foods, and provide a more natural product that undergoes less processing. Of course, we also try to support causes like YESS, the Food Bank, SAIF (Stop Abuse in Families Society in St. Albert), and as many shelters, sports organizations, and silent auctions that we can afford.

Giving back to the community is very important because when we have a strong and well-supported society, I believe my business thrives. I also have two young children and I’d like to set a good example for them that, when possible, taking care of your neighbours is an important thing to do.

 

Photo credit: D’Arcy’s Meat Market team after they won the best sausage in Edmonton award / Photo courtesy of Kyle Iseke

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YESS Celebrates Indigenous History Month!

by Shantell Martineau, Programming Coordinator

 

Can you tell us about the Ceremony you just went on with the youth?

YESS was invited to bring Youth to the land for 6 days of Ceremony. It was a Fasting Ceremony. There was an opportunity to be of service and help. Helping roles looked like dishwashing, cooking the feast, chopping wood, set-up/take-down, and supporting the lodge helpers. The roles to fill provided access to knowledge, companionship, leadership, and growth opportunities for both the Youth and Staff. Entering the lodges, singing the songs, feeling the drums and rattles, feasting together, and hearing the teachings of the Ceremony were all accessible for Youth. Seeing Youth connect with Elder, be inquisitive, receive helper protocol, explore the land, and support each other along this journey was a gift. Learning along the way that Ceremony can be explored. Not everyone is ready to enter the lodge, but maybe sitting around the lodge and hearing the singing and prayers and teachings is enough. I personally learnt that meeting the needs and readiness is enough. 

What do you wish more people knew for Indigenous History Month?

I wish more people knew about the sacred connection Indigenous Peoples have with Mother Earth, with Creator, with Spirit, and with all Creation. Connection to ancestral lineage that gives strength and resiliency. I wish more people could see us as we see them, our relations, our brothers, our sisters, our equals. I wish more people could witness the natural learning we enter while we connect on the land. We gather with the land, we pray with the land, we celebrate and hold Ceremony for the land. I wish more people could understand and respect this truth. I wish more helpers step forward and support Indigenous Peoples right to advocate and to create spaces for this connection to grow stronger. I wish this help could be witnessed and felt every day of the year but starting with a Month is still a good way to grow.

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YESS Celebrates Pride Month!

by Tessa Mulcair, Manager of Shelters

 

This month we held a youth Pride event with some of our community partners. We won’t lie, we’ve been missing the Pride parade around here. The majority of our youth are 2SLGBTQ+ and many have faced isolation and rejection from their families for it. The Pride parade was a time where we could not only celebrate our youth, but also surround them with thousands of people flying rainbows and letting them physically see that they belong in the community.

While there was no parade this year, there was a block-style festival held at Grindstone Theater. These types of events, though they are inclusive and accessible in nature, can be intimidating for people who are not quite sure where they belong in society. When you hear “You’re not a paying customer, go away” the other 364 days a year, it can be hard to suddenly trust that if you sit down to watch a free drag show or concert you won’t be shooed away. So, we created an event just for marginalized youth to kick off the festival and set them up to know that they belong at Pride too.

Together with CHEW, OSYS, and iHuman we created a space where youth could get their rainbow on – literally, with a Pride swag station. They could get decked out in free rainbow gear and glitter, or simply grab a flag, either way the goal was to make sure they would fit right in at the festival. We had Fox Burger swing by with their food truck and generously provide an amazing meal, so they would not feel left out if they could not afford the festival food options. Kind Ice Cream provided us with their rainbow “Gay OK” ice cream, of course it was a big hit too. Youth could create their own patches and buttons on the spot so that they could reflect their identity exactly how they wanted to. We had a selfie station where they could get an instant-print picture with friends or our fabulous guest drag queen, Karmic the Kween. We also had guest appearances by local queer icons MLA Janis Irwin and MP Randy Boissonnault. And finally, we held a “reverse parade”, making signs and waving our flags on Gateway Blvd to celebrate with those driving by our little event, pulling in a hint of that community support we know is so strong.

We’d like to give a huge thank you to all those that worked to pull this event together, our youth felt the love and support.

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Spotlight on No Period Without

No Period Without was founded in 2017 when an Edmonton homeless woman asked Scarlet Bjornson for change. Out of curiosity, as Scarlet gave her some money she asked the woman what she planned to spend the money on. The woman replied, “Well truthfully ma’am, I would like to buy some booze, but I need to buy some tampons.” In Scarlet’s words “This hit me like a brick. I went to my car and grabbed my emergency stash of tampons from the car and gave them to her.” She took to social media to ask her friends if anyone was interested in helping with a tampon drive and the response was overwhelming both from those that wanted to help, and from charitable organizations in the city hoping to be a recipient of the donations.

The overwhelming community support and requests for support from local organizations highlighted the ongoing issue of period poverty in Edmonton. It was clear there was a need for continual and consistent support as well as advocacy. This led to the evolution of No Period Without.

How do you see the impact of your organization in the community?

By providing free menstrual hygiene products to key stakeholders like YESS, NPW is able to address period poverty in a meaningful and eliminate the burden of that cost for our beneficiaries. NPW also played a key role in getting free menstrual hygiene products added to City of Edmonton washrooms and continues to advocate for increased access for those experiencing period poverty.

What is one thing you wish the community knew about your purpose for the community that you serve? 

NPW believes everyone has the right to a safe and healthy menstrual cycle. Period poverty is also a manifestation of the wage gap, it is more expensive to experience homelessness if you menstruate and one of our goals is to remove that financial burden for those experiencing period poverty.

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Donor Spotlight: Sheila McCarthy

Sheila and Grant McCarthy first started giving to YESS in 1999. With their commitment to supporting youth in our community, they wanted to ensure that their legacy of giving could continue on for many years to come through a family endowment fund. Hear from Sheila about why giving back to the community was so important for her family and how they chose to share those gifts.

I am a recent widow with a fairly large family including 4 children, 9 grandchildren, and 4 great grandchildren. My husband had a successful manufacturing business and I was the accountant. We were both fortunate to have supportive families that allowed us to follow our chosen careers.

My husband, Grant, and I started giving to charities many years ago because we thought it was time to start giving back to the community. We felt very strongly about helping the less fortunate. We were especially interested in the homeless, which included the homeless youth.

We know that the teen and early 20 years are very difficult for many young people. Many of them have experienced trauma in their lives and can no longer live at home. We have seen first-hand the problems of alcohol and drugs and the havoc it can cause in families. We started giving to YESS because YESS provided a safe place for youth to stay and food to eat while they figured out what they will do next with their lives. When we visited YESS in 2015, we were very impressed with the workers who were so genuinely interested in providing support and guidance for these young people whether it was in continuing education, job support, health issues, or building positive relationships.

We set up a family fund with the Edmonton Community Foundation so that there would be continued support for our chosen charities after we have passed away. We hope that our family will also contribute to this fund in the future.

I hope that all the young people living on the street know that YESS is an option for them.

 

Endowment Funds:  Longevity and Effectiveness

When you commit to an endowment fund, you give the gift of a lifetime and positively affect the lives of thousands of youth. Your gift to the fund is held in perpetuity, with the principal invested. A portion of the income generated is used to support YESS’s vital programs, with the remainder adding to principal growth. As a result, your gift continues to give, year after year. 

You may designate your endowment fund gift to the mission of the agency, ensuring that the funding it provides will be applied where the need is greatest, or you may specify the program you wish to see benefit from your generosity. Either way, you can make your commitment confident that the value of your gift will be maximized over time by a respected investment management group, guided by the policies and procedures of Youth Empowerment and Support Services.

YESS is working to end youth homelessness by focusing on prevention and diversion out of homelessness. We are extremely grateful to all those individuals and groups who have established endowment funds in support of YESS. Thank you for helping us to thrive and grow in our commitment to serving the youth. Thank you for being that person who changed a life—many times over!

With the support and forethought of people like Sheila and Grant McCarthy, YESS is able to walk beside traumatized youth as they heal through relationships. Your gift can make a huge difference in the lives of vulnerable people and our community, today and long into the future.

To find out more about maximizing your philanthropy and for more detailed information on establishing an endowment fund, we invite you to contact our Senior Development Officer, Eileen Papulkas, at 780.468.7070 x 298 or eileen.papulkas@yess.org

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We Belong Circle: A Collaboration with the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northern Alberta and YESS

In fall 2021, YESS Programming Coordinator Shantell Martineau was inspired to create a girls’ empowerment group where participants could learn and support each other.

“This idea for an empowerment group for girls was sparked after attending the Indspire 2020 National Gathering for Indigenous Education,” says Shantell. “One group presenting was called Young Indigenous Women’s Utopia out of Saskatoon, SK, Treaty 6 Territory. They had created a girls empowerment group, affiliated with Circles within Circles, to support the fight against gender-based violence.

“I felt in my heart that Edmonton youth needed a group like this one. One where they belong, they connect, they learn, they grow, and one day they empower others. Efry’s [Elizabeth Fry Society of Northern Alberta] Youth Services Programming Coordinator, Avnit Dhanoa, reached out to me in the early fall to collaborate and the idea was formalized in a beautiful collaborative program.”

The We Belong Circle creates space for YESS and Efry youth to engage in the learning and developing of life skills, cultural knowledge, and how to empower others and themselves. The goal is to build a culture of sisterhood within the group and to lead them towards social justice initiatives that help to combat gender-based violence.

We talked to Shantell’s collaborator at Efry, Avnit Dhanoa, about their side of the experience in how this project came to be and the impact it has on the youth who access Efry. Efry’s mission is to advance the dignity and worth of all women and girls who are or may be at risk of becoming criminalized.

Tell us about yourself and your organization!

My name is Avnit (she/her) and I am the Youth Services Program Coordinator at Elizabeth Fry Society of Northern Alberta! At Efry, we advocate for women, girls, and gender diverse folks who are criminalized and marginalized in society. As a youth coordinator, I run multiple programs and support youth through the criminal justice system. When I’m not working with the kiddos, I enjoy solo cafe days and film photography!

How did the We Belong Circle collaboration come about? What has the impact of this program been?

When I started my position as a youth coordinator, I really wanted there to be a program where youth could get together and express/get to know their identity, especially their identity as a person of colour. I know how hard it can be to grow up as a minority and this circle is meant for them to feel a sense of connection with themselves, each other, and the land around them. The youth are able to have open discussions where they aren’t afraid of being judged and they are surrounded by people who understand what they might be going through. As someone who primarily works with youth in the criminal justice system, a program like the We Belong Circle has long-lasting effects where youth in our community are exposed to a sense of sisterhood at a younger age, hopefully keeping them away from the system.

What is one thing you wish the community knew about youth who have experienced trauma and homelessness?

Children who grow up in broken homes will gravitate towards the same brokenness as youth. They find comfort in the chaos because they don’t know what life looks like without it. If you are a youth worker, community member, or simply anyone who is witnessing a youth putting themselves at risk, don’t give up on them.

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