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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Thank You to The Orange Door Winter 2021 Campaign!

In December 2021, The Home Depot Canada Foundation hosted their annual winter Orange Door Project Campaign in support of youth-focused charities across the country! The Home Depot Canada Foundation is committed to preventing and ending youth homelessness. Together with community partners across the country, they work to break cycles of inequity and enable at-risk youth facing homelessness achieve positive development outcomes and realize their full potential.

Making donations $2 at a time, Canadians made this Orange Door Project Campaign extremely successful! In honour of the hard work of their in-store associates and the ongoing difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Home Depot Canada Foundation decided to grant an additional $5,500 to each store’s campaign partner for a total investment of $1,001,000!

In the Edmonton area, nine The Home Depot stores selected YESS as their charity of choice for their winter Orange Door Project Campaign. In total YESS will be granted $105,789.52 as a result of the successful campaign!

We are so grateful to these local stores for their initiative to support youth in their community! Thank you to:

Home Depot Clareview
Home Depot Westend
Home Depot South Common
Home Depot St. Albert
Home Depot Edmonton Strathcona
Home Depot Skyview
Home Depot Sherwood Park
Home Depot Edmonton (Westmount)
Home Depot Whitemud
Home Depot Edmonton Windermere

Home Depot Clareview

Home Depot Sherwood Park Home Depot Skyview
Home Depot South Common Home Depot Strathcona Home Depot Westend

Home Depot Westmount

Home Depot Whitemud

Home Depot Windermere

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Community Spotlight: Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE)

This article was originally published in our May 2021 newsletter, themed around “safety.”

This month we want highlight the work being done at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE). May is Sexual Violence Awareness Month in Alberta, and May 5 the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

We talked to Meital Siva-Jain, Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Initiatives Team Lead at SACE. Meital shares the programs and resources SACE offers as well as the impact she sees their work having on the community, from youth to older generations.


Tell us about your organization and your role.

The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton’s mandate is to support people impacted by sexual violence and to change the attitudes and values that lead to sexual violence. We offer counselling services to ages 3 and up, support and information lines, police and court support, public education, and community and institutional support. We offer these services to all genders and backgrounds at no fee. We also have a Diversity and Inclusion program that works to ensure our services are accessible to anyone that might need to access them.

I joined SACE in 2014 and have been leading the Diversity and Inclusion program since then. Under this role I focus on building relationships with other organizations and community members to address barriers to services. This role has allowed me to learn from community members about how systemic barriers impact their access to support. I also learned that addressing those barriers is often the support that folks need to do their own healing.

One way to address barriers is to offer tailored content and services. Last summer, a group of SACE staff started creating a resource for newcomers in Canada that provides information on consent and healthy relationship in accessible and inclusive language. This work included many community consultations with partner organizations, and it resulted in the creation of Landed. We are very happy to see how well Landed has been received by the community.   


Is there anything new or innovative your organization is currently promoting or focusing on?

We’re excited to soon be offering the WiseGuyz program to our community; WiseGuyz  is a school-based program for grade nine boys that addresses the issues young men face and gives participants tools to engage in healthy relationships.

We’re also now offering training for professionals and care providers working with older adult populations. The trainings seek to provide those in the elder care sector with the skills and knowledge necessary to be able to recognize sexual violence in their places of work and supportively respond to older adults who have been recently or historically impacted by this issue. We’ll be releasing a one-pager handout and learn article that summarizes key information from the presentation and that service providers can use as a reference and to promote awareness and competency in their workplace around elder sexual abuse. We hope this information will be a reminder to folks that it is never too late to start healing.


How do you see your organization’s impact on the community?

I see our impact in twofold: the impact on survivors of sexual violence and their families, and on the community at large. In terms of survivors, it is important for people of all genders and backgrounds to know they can be heard and accepted. As a survivor, I remember that just the mere existence of a sexual assault centre made me feel acknowledged. So I think that the first impact of SACE is that survivors know there is a place dedicated to support them. Being believed and accepted helps with healing and ultimately contributes to a healthier community.

The second part of our impact is in the community level. Like others in the anti-violence sector, we work hard to promote consent and show that violent behaviours are linked to specific attitudes and values. Our approach is centred on non-victim blaming education, and we use an anti-oppressive lens when working with communities. I am an optimist and see a positive shift in how the public understands sexual violence and addresses it.


What is one thing you wish the community knew about the realities that youth currently face when it comes to sexual health and safety?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, youth are more dependent on social media to connect with their peers. Many of us did not grow with social media and we need to remember that beside social connection it can also offer great resources and support for kids. For example, I hear from my daughter how youth use social media to promote inclusiveness and “cancel” people who use offending behaviours. It is our responsibility to teach kids about sexual health and healthy behaviours, and to provide them with this toolbox to better navigate the digital world. But we also need to trust them when they use it and not blame them if they experience any kind of violence.

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iHuman Youth Society

This article was originally published in our March 2021 newsletter, themed around “art.”

iHuman Youth Society is a non-profit that believes all young people have gifts to share. In partnership with marginalized young people, they amplify their creative expression, address their needs, and support goals that privilege their voices. They support youth impacted by the negative outcomes associated with poverty, intergenerational trauma, addiction, mental health, abuse, racism, discrimination, and exploitation. Over 500 youth between 12-24 years of age access iHuman every year, 80% of whom self-identify as Indigenous. While iHuman provides free access to their services and programs, they are not a drop-in centre—youth actively engage in determining their individualized journey through iHuman’s resources and guide how they can be supported.

We talked to Steve Pirot, Artistic Director of iHuman Studios, about their mission to invite young artists to use acts of expression to transform their experiences of trauma into experiences of self-worth, purpose, identity, and belonging. 


Tell us a bit about yourself and your work with iHuman.

My name is Steve Pirot and my job title is Artistic Director of iHuman Studios; prior to working here I was an actor, writer, director, and producer of theatre and festivals. My function at iHuman is to provide direction and oversight to our studio system. I work for a large collective of artists who happen to be between the ages of 12 and 24. My job is to organize schedules, budgets, materials, staff, volunteers, spaces, and shows so that members of that collective have opportunities to express themselves. Sometimes that opportunity for expression will be personal, quiet, private; sometimes that opportunity will be public and effusive. Sometimes my job is to ensure a studio has a gentle vibe for an artist to work undisturbed, and sometimes my job is to bark into a microphone as iHuman’s hype-man.

In coming to iHuman from a mainstream artistic practice, I have had to recalibrate. My definition of art used to be informed by the idea that art was a commodity to be consumed; in that paradigm the idea of The Artist was necessarily elitist, because there needed to be an audience (the majority) that would consume the work created by the artist (the minority). In my practice at iHuman I have transformed to a perspective that art is not a product, but rather it is a process of expression. If you have the capacity to express, then you are an artist, and therefore all people are artists because it does not matter if your artistry is public, or even if it is ever viewed by another person. 


Why is art/creativity an important experience for youth to cultivate and have access to?

The essence of art is expression, and it is important for ALL people regardless of age to have the ability to express themselves. Cultivating the tools and habits of self-expression is essential for scores of reasons: to be sound in one’s mind, to build solid relationships, to foster a balanced society. It is especially important to cultivate these habits when younger because the skills one learns through the process of producing beats, or organizing chords, or composing a photograph, or beading earrings, or sewing a ribbon skirt… these are all transferable skills. In essence we are talking about pattern recognition, project planning and execution, communication. At iHuman we don’t look at art as being a product, but rather it is a tool to promote other outcomes. 


What is something you wish the community knew about youth who are healing from trauma?

I wish that the community at large was better informed about our brains actually function. How do our brains behave when hijacked by the amygdala? Can we identify the symptoms of an individual in shock? How is an individual in the grip of a flight/fight response able to interact with the world? If the general public were better informed about how human brains work, then we could have a better foundation to have meaningful conversations about more complex issues like multi-generational trauma, addictions, etc.

On April 1, 2021, iHuman is hosting a drive-thru donation event! Drop off donations without leaving your car and enjoy live art and music from iHuman artists!

For more information visit ihuman.org or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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Keeping Our Neighbours Safe During Extreme Weather

The original version of this article was published in our November 2020 newsletter. Information has been updated to reflect the current Sector Emergency Response, as of January 2022.

When temperatures drop, most Edmontonians can keep warm inside their homes. But where do you go when you don’t have a home? For those experiencing homelessness this is a frightening reality that can be dangerous without contingency plans in place.  

Every winter, members of Edmonton’s homeless-serving sector—comprised of Homeward Trust, the City of Edmonton, and more than 25 system partners and agencies—coordinate an emergency response to reduce the risk for people experiencing homelessness by getting them into a safe space as quickly and as easily as possible. The current public health crisis has exacerbated the risk for people experiencing homelessness, highlighting a need for an emergency response that goes beyond extreme weather to address unforeseeable challenges. 

This coordinated response has resulted in a shift in focus to a broader Sector Emergency Response (SER) to reflect the year-round need to ensure networks are in place and active in order to support individuals when shelters are at capacity and the weather takes a turn for the worst.

“We know people experiencing homelessness are already at increased risk. The compounding effects of extreme cold weather and COVID-19 exposure and restrictions only adds to those dangers,” explains Matthew Ward of Homeward Trust. “Our Sector Emergency Response, which builds off existing control measures to keep the COVID-19 virus from spreading, are important steps to help people experiencing homelessness stay safe.”

A collaborative and proactive problem-solving approach is taken to address arising challenges, which involves partners working together in sharing timely data and resource information between shelter providers, emergency services, transportation services and other service providers across the city to deliver supports to those who need it. 

Triggers that activate the Sector Emergency Response in winter are temperatures of -20 or below (including windchill). The response would typically involve lifting bans at shelters under the discretion of providers, opening overflow spaces, increasing current shelter capacity where possible, and providing supplementary transportation services. Edmonton Transit Services has also operated additional buses to serve as a warming space and transport people to shelters.

And in the summer, extreme heat or poor air quality are conditions that could activate a Sector Emergency Response. The response looks at weather warnings from Environment Canada, existing capacity of the city’s emergency shelters, and other emerging concerns expressed by the group.

While the best solution to homelessness is permanent housing, the Sector Emergency Response ensures that people experiencing homelessness have access to life-saving services in times of immediate crisis and are protected from the risks of COVID-19 and cold weather.  


For a current list of shelters available and/or latest updates on the Sector Emergency Response, visit homewardtrust.ca

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Breaking Barriers in Mental Health Support

This article was originally published in our February 2021 newsletter, themed around “empathy and understanding.”

In January, Africa Centre and The Alberta Black Therapists Network launched their new counselling program! This program not only provides free counselling services, but is also part of breaking down barriers and stigma that still surround accessing mental health supports.

We talked to Noreen Sibanda, Executive Director of The Alberta Black Therapists Network, about this new program and its impact on the community.

Tell us about the new counselling program in collaboration with The Africa Centre.

The clinic is funded by the United Way and a collaboration between Africa Centre and The Alberta Black Therapists Network (ABTN). We are proud to offer free counselling support to the African descent community through licensed therapists who have a cultural understanding and offer trauma and healing centered approaches. Our services provide formal, 50-minute, one-to-one counselling sessions in the form of short-term intervention, utilizing solution-focused therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. The services are available over a secure video platform and can be accessed as an individual, group, or couple. We also had secured a donation from Ikea to furnish an office space that we look forward to utilizing when restrictions are lifted.

Why is now an important time for this resource to be available?

We have seen a rise in the need for mental health resources because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now more than ever people need professional support. Unfortunately, despite this desperate need, the barriers to accessing support (cost, long waiting times, stigma), still exist. This service allows people who are struggling with their mental health to connect and not have to worry about costs, as most people cannot afford to access therapeutic support. It allows our community to access services from the organizations that they already know, at no cost and from individuals that share similar lived experiences.

What is something you wish the community knew about youth mental health?

I believe mental health needs to be a part of our overall wellness. Supports services need to include healing, otherwise we are merely treating the symptoms which leads to an overuse of services.

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Message from Margo – Youth Homelessness

In the October issue of our newsletter, we bring a focus to youth homelessness. Why? It is not just because we love our jobs—we believe that this is the most strategic focus our city, province, and country can take to address some of our deepest community issues. Here are two arguments for focusing on youth homelessness separately from adult homelessness:

  1. Youth are The drivers that brought them into homelessness are not just about housing. In 2020, YESS served approximately 642* young people between the ages of 15 and 25 who had experienced housing instability and trauma (see YESS 2020/2021 Annual Report). These young people did not choose to experience homelessness. Instead, they are fighting to survive their experiences with trauma: abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation, violence, discrimination, and more. Living in survival mode comes from trauma in the home, trauma within families, and trauma within their communities.
  1. Focusing on alleviating and preventing youth homelessness is true prevention. It is our belief that if these traumatic experiences are left unaddressed in young people, they will most likely create cyclic barriers to healing and moving forward with their lives in a positive way in community. But 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. Youth agencies in the city focused on intervention and support of youth in crisis are actually deemed “late prevention” services, based on the definitions in A Way Home Canada’s Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness. “The homeless youth of today become the homeless adults of tomorrow, given that Canadian Point-in-Time Count data indicates that 50% of homeless adults had their first experience of homelessness prior to the age of 25. It is time for a preventative approach. If we could do a better job of preventing youth homelessness in the first place through a focus on well- being, we might have a bigger impact on chronic homelessness amongst adults in the long run.” (Gaetz et al. 2019. We Can’t Wait: The Urgent Need for Youth Homelessness Prevention. Parity, 32(8), 6.).

And here is the most important shift required. IF we can agree that youth are different and that focusing on the prevention of youth homelessness is much more strategic as a true preventative effort (early prevention is even better), then the system of care that addresses youth homelessness must have the capacity for the intense time, expertise, infrastructure, and people capacity required to do such complex work. In short, support for youth homelessness needs to be much more than the afterthought it currently is. In this issue, you will hear about the incredible strategic and collaborative work of the Youth Agency Collaboration and their Coordinated Youth Response, celebrate the leadership of The Home Depot Edmonton stores in their support of YESS for the summer Orange Door Campaign and The Home Depot Canada Foundation in their commitment to supporting initiatives that prevent and end youth homelessness in Canada, and you will hear about our valued partners at Southview Acura and their incredible support of youth in crisis.

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National Philanthropy Day: John Brooks Company Ltd.

For National Philanthropy Day 2021 we nominated 5 Days for the Homeless, ATCO, and John Brooks Comapny Ltd., to recognize their incredible support of YESS!

Youth Empowerment & Support Services (YESS) is honored to recognize John Brooks Company Limited as a true pillar in the Edmonton community. By way of their philanthropic leadership and their commitment to the community, they have championed YESS for nearly a decade. Founded in 1938 and a national leader in Industrial pumps, spray products, filtration equipment, valves and complete system solution expertise, John Brooks Company Limited has been tireless with their encouragement and strength of confidence in the youth and our organization. John Brooks Company Limited firmly believes in giving back to affect a real difference in the community. Major donors since 2012, YESS is so grateful for the leadership, dedicated team members and vision of John Brooks Company Limited. Altogether, their generosity has helped to support programs and resources that help youth experiencing trauma and homelessness achieve goals for their relationships, their health, and their futures. Their generosity has profoundly impacted the lives of countless youth. Thank you for being a part of creating a community where we can heal together!

“Here at John Brooks Company we put a very high value on people and have been very happy to be a consistent supporter of organizations such as YESS that directly support some of our more vulnerable Canadians. Particularly in challenging times as these, it is important to support those who strive to make a positive difference.”

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National Philanthropy Day: ATCO

For National Philanthropy Day 2021 we nominated 5 Days for the Homeless, ATCO, and John Brooks Comapny Ltd., to recognize their incredible support of YESS!

Youth Empowerment & Support Services (YESS) is honoured to recognize ATCO for their grassroots initiative with ATCO EPIC (Employees Participating in Communities) and leading the way with their philanthropic commitment over the past 10 years. The vision and dedication of ATCO EPIC has made a pivotal impact on the programs and resources that support youth experiencing trauma. ATCO continues to lead with an enhanced sense of community through their countless hours of volunteer leadership with their Days of Caring and numerous employee-led campaigns. ATCO EPIC has helped to strengthen the futures of our youth through their creative fundraising initiatives and generous avenues of support. YESS has been selected as their feature charity in 2020 and has been instrumental in raising awareness of the challenges our youth face.  Even in challenging times of the pandemic, ATCO EPIC’s passion for community is exemplified through creative virtual giving and their annual EPIC Golf Tournament. ATCO’s devotion to making a difference and employee engagement has raised over $325,000 through pledging, events and the corporate match. ATCO has been a champion for YESS with their enthusiasm to build community, provide safety and enhanced responsibility for our youth. Thank you to the ATCO EPIC team for their tireless long-term support and encouragement of our youth as they grow and empower themselves to become independent and break the cycle of homelessness.

Community investment isn’t just a corporate initiative—our employees are passionate about supporting their communities. ATCO EPIC (Employees Participating in Communities) is a long-standing employee-led program, combining volunteerism, fundraising events and individual donations. We listen carefully to what our communities tell us is important to them, and then look for opportunities to provide support that will make the greatest difference. Supporting youth, sports and Indigenous initiatives all have a special place in our hearts.”

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National Philanthropy Day: 5 Days for the Homeless

For National Philanthropy Day 2021 we nominated 5 Days for the Homeless, ATCO, and John Brooks Comapny Ltd., to recognize their incredible support of YESS!

5 Days for the Homeless is a university student initiative designed to raise funds and spread social awareness in support of the issues faced by traumatized and homeless youth. The event, founded in 2005 by students in the Faculty of Business at the University of Alberta, has since become a national event in which 21 universities and colleges across Canada support their local homeless shelters. The 2021, 5Days group, faced the additional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented almost all of the normal events of the 5 Days campaign. The students of this group, however, were very innovative and motivated, and moved the campaign almost totally online. Their campaign was highly successful and Youth Empowerment and Support Services is proud and honored to have such a group supporting our youth.

“The 2021, 5 Days for the Homeless campaign, was able to fund raise over $25,000 for Youth Empowerment and Support Services. The campaign was able to exceed its goals of raising donations and general awareness towards youth homelessness support in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic. 5 Days has reached campus wide appeal with volunteers from different faculties helping deliver our message in their respective networks. Our awareness content, educating students about the challenges associated with youth homeless, was able to reach hundreds of followers through our social media and events. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted youth experiencing homelessness as multiple Canadian organizations have struggled to stay connected with them due to a loss of funding, a decrease in staff, and an increase of health concerns. While the 5 Days campaign was typically conducted in person, we decided to pivot online to continue contributing to YESS during these challenging times.”

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