Giving Youth a Sense of Belonging at the Youth Centre

mikeby Mike Maxwell
Community Director, Jane and Finch

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see what goes on in many youth centres, both within Boys and Girls Clubs and in other organizations.

There are some youth centres that serve particular purposes such as employment services, life skills training, and mentoring.  There are some youth centres that target specific genders, youth in certain situations, or are located in priority neighbourhoods.   I have even observed youth centres that serve no purpose other than to give youth a place to be, socialize and play games.

In our youth centre at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club, which opened in September 2013, we run a variety of programs and services such as cooking, dance, recording music, sports, homework assistance, mentoring, and drug and gang prevention.

Youth CentreIn all the different youth centres I’ve had the opportunity to observe over the years, I have noticed a common thread. Regardless of the size, location, target market, or amenities, there are two components that determine the success or failure of a youth centre;

First, having genuine staff and second, the youth having a sense of belonging.

The first aspect, genuine staff, is the easier of the two.  I think all of us working in this field can attest to the fact that most staff members working with youth are sincere in their interactions and mentoring of youth.   Most people get into this field driven by a true desire to improve the lives of, and increase the opportunities for, youth and their families.

MClarke-web-2The second aspect, the sense of belonging, is the tricky piece.  When people hear “a sense of belonging,” they automatically think of a group with similar interests or a common objective together in one place. They see this image and assume this gives our youth a sense of belonging.  While this certainly is a part of it, we have to understand that a bigger component if for the youth to know that there are people that do not belong.

One of our biggest issues at Jane and Finch is that we have a large population of kids 11 and 12 years old that are always trying to enter the youth centre.  Depending on the staff they catch that day, they are sometimes allowed in for a little while.  While in a community such as ours we never want a kid on the street, we have to understand that if we are to respect the integrity of the youth centre, we should do our best to not have this happen.  See, a sense of belonging can only truly be felt when the youth feel that their being there is earned and welcomed, and that membership is exclusive.

The younger children who come to us attempting to gain access will be the biggest benefactors of a policy that does not allow them in right now.  These kids are, of course, redirected to our programs for 6-12 year olds, which run at multiple locations only minutes away from the youth centre.

Youth CentreImagine the sense of pride they will have when they turn 13 and are finally allowed into the youth centre.  Imagine the “buy in” that will happen when they know they had to wait their turn!  So yes, it is essential that staff is engaging and creative in their approach! Yes, it is essential for the youth to have a common thread with each other, whatever that may be! But the biggest factor in whether or not a youth centre is successful, whether or not the youth have a sense of belonging, is for the youth to truly believe that there are people who don’t belong!

We sometimes find ourselves struggling to keep youth coming consistently.  We often find it challenging keeping them engaged and interacting in programs.  I’ve witnessed staff of youth centres brainstorm on how to make programs more fun, how to engage the youth more, or how to get them to be respectful to staff and each other.  I have seen incentives tried such as providing food, awards, giveaways, and other popular techniques.  Most of the time these are temporary fixes.  While all these attempts are commendable, there is a much simpler way to achieve this goal.  They must have “buy in” to the program.  When we have to work for something or when we feel a sense of accomplishment, we buy in.  Youth centres serve a huge role in our communities.  But in order for youth buy in to occur, they must also know that there are people that haven’t earned that privilege yet.  I’m not saying that enforcing the age requirement will end all our woes, but sometimes we over analyse issues when the solutions are simple and basic.    Thanks for reading…Mike

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