Today, I had the privilege of attending the graduation ceremony at YOUCAN for the two programs they offer. YOUCAN is set up for youth, aged 16-21, who have fallen through the cracks for a variety of reasons. Over the past year, I have developed a growing appreciation for the incredible work that is happening there (it operates out of Westmount School). They run two programs, one called Peacebuilders, which trains youth in conflict resolution. Once trained, the youth go out into schools to share their knowledge. The other program is called Verto and helps youth who have been involved in the Justice system learn the necessary skills to enter the workforce or continue their education. In both programs, the youth are paid to participate in the 16 week program.
At the graduation ceremony, each youth delivered a short speech outlining what the program had meant to their lives. Their stories were very powerful.
Here's some of what I heard about their lives before YOUCAN:
Before I came to YOUCAN, I was homeless, living out of my car... and it was winter. Really cold.
I was fighting with my Mom all the time and I didn't like that.
I got kicked out of my group home and then I got kicked out of school.
I was a drug addict and drinking every day. I was going nowhere. And I had no motivation.
I was stealing, breaking into people's homes and selling drugs. I never thought I would be anyone.
Here's what they said about how YOUCAN had changed their lives:
This program taught me so much. I learned how to respond instead of react.
I learned about how to resolve conflicts without using violence.
I love the circles. Everyone should use circles.
I learned how to write a good cover letter and a resume and now I'm ready to apply for some jobs.
I got my first aid.
I am going back to school and I've got a job.
I will succeed and I want to be a good father to my son, a good person and a taxpayer.
I have been sober for three months and I feel good about myself.
I haven't had any problems with the law.
The people here have treated me like a friend and they have helped me so much.
(One of the YOUCAN staff) here helped me through some really bad times, because he knows what it feels like. He was a gang-involved youth, too, like me. He doesn't need to look in a book about it... he knows.
One graduate said:
Before I came to YOUCAN, I couldn't read much. Maybe a paragraph. Yesterday, I finished my first book.
It was completely remarkable to me.. that so much growth can happen in only 16 short weeks. How does it work? How can they transform lives in such a short timeframe, when so many others have failed? Part of the credit goes to the youth, who are truly ready to make changes in their lives. But clearly, a good part of the success comes from the incredibly dedicated and skilled staff who work at YOUCAN. In their words, they are engaged in "relentless youthwork": they just refuse to give up on these kids. They treat them with respect and engage in egalitarian problem-solving, active listening and open dialogue through the use of circles. They spend the time to understand, to listen, to be honest with the youth and with each other. What I felt in the room was genuine warmth and caring, between the staff and the youth and amongst the youth themselves. It was like family. It was love.
I think the work at YOUCAN is truly outstanding. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more to contact the director Kyle Dube. I also encourage you to find out when the next graduation will happen. Do yourself a huge favour and plan to attend. It will open your eyes.