All in for Youth

On a spring evening in north-east Edmonton, Sahra* leaned into the microphone in the Eastglen High School auditorium. In a few weeks she…

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Photo supplied by United Way (Alberta Capital Region)

On a spring evening in north-east Edmonton, Sahra* leaned into the microphone in the Eastglen High School auditorium. In a few weeks she would be leaving with her diploma. For much of the year that prospect had been jeopardized, however, and her future thrown into doubt. She had come to the school that night to share her story of perseverance.

Sahra had immigrated to Edmonton with her mother and older siblings. A series of moves had landed them in unsafe living conditions. She longed to earn a post-secondary degree so she could better support her family, but mounting stress at home was forcing that dream aside. Concern for her family’s safety overwhelmed her. Leaving school to help at home seemed to be the only viable option.

In this condition — anxious, courageous — she walked into the out-of-school-time coordinator’s office at Eastglen. The moment would mark an inflection point in her year, and in her life.

It was only the second year that such a coordinator had existed at Eastglen High School. Part of a pilot program called All in for YouthAll in for Youth, the position is one of several new school-based services for students and their families — and while Sahra’s story is unique, thousands of youth in Edmonton face similar challenges each year. “These kids want to succeed,” says Annette Malin, community strategies manager at United Way (Alberta Capital Region). “But in their environment they sometimes have so many things in the way that they can’t see what’s possible.”

The United Way is one of the organizations that has helped bring mentoring and counselling services, family and nutrition supports, academic help, out-of-school-care, and other services directly into five Edmonton schools through All in for Youth. “We’ve aligned ourselves around creating pathways out of poverty, and this initiative is about prevention and intervention,” Annette says. “We know that graduating from high school leads to better outcomes for youth and families.” The initiative aims to promote students’ overall wellbeing to help them succeed in school.

The U of A’s Community-University Partnership (CUP) has been involved nearly since the program’s inception. “Initially we were approached to do evaluation — to show the story and impact of the program,” says Jason Daniels, evaluation and research specialist with CUP. “But we quickly evolved to be a member of the collaborative team.” CUP has worked alongside the United Way, the City of Edmonton, the Edmonton Catholic and public school boards, and other community organizations for the past three years to ensure the pilot program’s success. “It’s not without its challenges,” Jason says of the collaborative project, “but the end product is way more robust. We can build off each other’s strengths. We can work together to deal with concerns and issues.”

“As academics we also do a lot of the research that shows these types of models are important for students and families to succeed,” says Teresa Mejia, project coordinator at CUP. “This is a beautiful example of putting our research into practice and seeing how it affects people.” With All in for Youth now in its fourth year, she increasingly hears of students and parents self-referring to services and seeking out the assistance that will help them succeed. These services have largely become normalized, she explains: there’s no stigma attached, and the counsellors and other support workers are woven into the fabric of school life.

The results look promising: last year All in for Youth helped more than 2,000 students and family members access supports and services; 67% of families saw their child’s school attendance improve, and 75% felt their child’s ability to learn improved. No statistic quite captures the impact of Sahra’s experience at Eastglen High School, however. “We spend a lot of time on the theory,” Jason explains, “and that brings it right down to actually impacting people’s lives.”

Sahra shared her story at an All in for Youth celebration event last spring, just before she graduated from Eastglen High School (Annette, Jason and Teresa all attended). With the support of her out-of-school-time coordinator — and other support staff at the school — she sought out safer accommodations and successfully relocated her family, enabling herself to stay in school. She also worked with the coordinator to apply for university and secure a significant scholarship. Today, she’s pursuing a degree in accounting.

*Sahra’s name has been changed to respect her privacy.

All in for YouthAll in for Youth was developed by a collaborative team including Boys and Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters, City of Edmonton, e4c, Edmonton Catholic School District, Edmonton Public School Board, Edmonton Community Foundation, The Family Centre, Mental Health Foundation, REACH Edmonton, and the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region.

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