Over to You

AT RISK—OF SUCCEEDING

My image of troubled youth changed once I got to know them better

PENNY MCKINLAY December 13 2004
Over to You

AT RISK—OF SUCCEEDING

My image of troubled youth changed once I got to know them better

PENNY MCKINLAY December 13 2004

AT RISK-OF SUCCEEDING

My image of troubled youth changed once 1 got to know them better

Over to You

PENNY MCKINLAY

I HAD JUST LANDED a new job and it sounded okay—fund development and public relations for a non-profit organization. But there was a catch—Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming Inc. serves “at-risk” youth. Its primary program, the Urban Canvas Project, has a worthy goal: to provide 16to30-year-olds facing multiple barriers to employment with an opportunity to use their interest in the visual arts to develop personal and work-related skills. Through community murals and art exhibits, it gives them a chance to make a positive contribution and gain self-confidence. Still, I was intimidated—

the term “at-risk” conjured up images of juvenile delinquents and drug addicts. I am a straitlaced, middle-aged woman who spent her teenage years with her nose thrust deeply in books. How, I wondered, can I possibly relate to these kids? But a funny thing happened when I started talking to them: they became my friends.

It began with Greg, who greeted me as I walked in the door of the art studio and challenged me to paint (the names of all the youth have been changed to protect their

privacy). I insisted that words are my tools, not brushes. Still, he had broken the ice, and now we chat whenever I drop by.

Soon afterward, Darrell, the project coordinator, decided I should put on a writing workshop for the Urban Canvas participants, many of whom are high-school dropouts. Despite some complaining, they shuffled into the room and listened as I talked briefly about writing techniques and styles before giv-

ing them an assignment. I was astonished. All 10 of them settled in different parts of the room to write about a topic of their choice; none drifted away for a smoke break.

I sat down with each of them to discuss what they’d written. Erik, 19, the group clown, had terrible spelling and grammar, but his creative story about a beautiful toesucking woman was full of unexpected humour. Dave, 20, who is autistic, kept starting fresh drafts of a movie review. But he finished it at home and brought it in the next day for me to look at. It was good— well-organized and interesting. The staff

were amazed because it’s usually really hard to communicate with Dave.

I wanted to know more about these kids. So I was pleased when they agreed to be interviewed and humbled when they were so open about their lives and their dreams. All of them have problems; none of them are defeated.

When Alisha joined Urban Canvas, she’d been on a three-month drinking binge. “Everybody drinks in high school and after work,” she explained. “You think it’s okay,

but for many people it gets out of control.” Alisha, now 22, was one of them. She acknowledges she’s an alcoholic, but she is determined to live her life with a clear head. She’s selling her art and singing and playing the guitar in public—and she’s doing it without alcohol as a crutch.

Greg’s passion is comic books—he loves their combination of storytelling and pictures. “It’s surprising I ever graduated from high school,” he told me, “because while they were talking in class, I was drawing.” Greg, 24, is a single dad whose son just graduated from kindergarten. “But don’t pin a

medal on me,” he insisted. “I’ve seen lots of guys try to outlive the stereotype of the deadbeat dad, and I’ve seen lots of girls who didn’t grow up and take responsibility.” Greg believes the hardest part of being a single parent is trying to chase his dreams without forcing his son to make sacrifices.

Jami, 21, asked me to help her prepare a resumé. When I asked about her work history, she said she can’t remember things that happened before she had seven electric shock treatments that destroyed her shortterm memory. Jami, who is bipolar, had gone into hospital severely depressed—she’d tried to commit suicide 10 times by 10 different methods. Though still bitter about her abusive father, she’s doing better now and wants to become a counsellor or an art therapist. “I want to help really f—ed-up people who don’t know what to do,” she told me,

“because I was that person. Well, I still am, but I’m learning how to deal with it.”

Given the Urban Canvas Project’s track record, she may well succeed. Of the 40 people who so far have completed the eightmonth program, 50 per cent have found a job and 38 per cent have gone back to school. Ten participants have gone on to college or university.

They’re not criminals. They’re not bad kids. They are at risk—

at risk of falling through the cracks, of not receiving the help they are searching for. As Jami says, young people don’t need older people telling them what to do with their lives. “What we need,” she says, “is unconditional love and support.” I’m proud to be a part of an organization that provides a listening ear and caring adults to help them succeed and create the community of the future. “At-risk” youth don’t frighten me any more.

Penny McKinlay is a freelance writer living in Saskatoon. To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca