By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – With piercings, a sleeve full of ink, and an office full of pop culture images and quotations from people she finds inspiring, it is easy to see Morinville’s new youth worker is comfortable in her skin. It’s an appropriate level of confidence for someone whose job is to make sure Morinville’s youth are comfortable in theirs and comfortable in the community they live in.
“I’ve been working with youth since I was a youth, so I was really excited to come into the role,” Richards said, adding she started with the Town of Morinville two days before motivational speaker Ian Hill came to town to talk about youth last October. “It was really good to start then. I kind of hit the ground running a little bit. I got to meet a lot of people in the community that probably would have taken a couple of months to meet.”
Since that time, Richardson has been meeting more people in the community as she molds the new position to one she feels will best serve the community and its youth. One direction the job is taking her is making sure youth have a voice.
“I think that there’s definitely need for a lot of mentorship with the youth, and to give them a voice,” she said. “I think that there are a lot of kids that don’t think they’re being heard or they don’t think some people care about their issues.”
Richardson said it is a situation common to many communities in Alberta, but she feels Morinville has an opportunity now that it has a youth worker to have someone meet and connect with youth. “That’s what I’ve been doing the last couple of months is getting to know them, going to their events, meeting with them for coffee, meeting with them at lunch time,” she said, adding she’s discovered more programs for youth are needed. “There’s quite literally nothing for youth to do in the community. There are some great things with the youth group on Fridays and at Higher Grounds, but there is not a lot of youth-focused recreation or youth-focused programming on a weekly basis.”
Working towards something for youth to do
The youth worker has not been idle in her goal to create an active calendar for Morinville’s teens and tweens. Over the past four months she has set in place a number of initiatives and programs.
One initiative has been expanding the Youth in Action Committee, started last year at Georges H. Primeau School, to Morinville Community High School. Richardson meets with the Primeau committee on Tuesdays and usually has 10 to 12 students participating; however, meeting with the high school version of the committee has drawn as many as 35 students to the lunchtime sessions.
“These high school kids – their scope of the world is so much bigger than we think it is,” Richardson said. “A lot of people think that these kids only see school and their friends, but they really see global issues as well as community ones, too.”
In December MCHS Youth in Action members conducted a vow of silence in support of youth around the world who have no voice on issues like child labour or lack of education. Richardson had anticipated seven or eight participants but wound up with approximately 35. “It was really powerful to see these kids who didn’t even know about it pick up that duct tape and pick up that pen, and put it on their mouths,” she said. “That was spontaneous.”
Richardson explained the Youth in Action Committee is composed of a diverse group of students, allowing her to get a handle on what both athletic and artistic students are interested in doing in the community.
On the athletic side, Richardson said after school dodge ball has been an effective program that is returning to Primeau on Fridays beginning in February. “One day I had 67 kids there, which was pretty awesome,” Richardson said of the popularity of the program.
A new program Richardson is organizing, open to all Morinville youth and their families are movie nights at the Morinville Community Cultural Centre. The inaugural event was held in early January and with little-to-no promotion other than a few posters and word of mouth, it attracted 90 youth and their family to see two movies, one geared towards high school students and one for younger students. “There was nothing but positive feedback from parents as well who thought it was a great idea,” Richardson said. “That’s something we’re going to try every month.” Richardson has scheduled another double feature movie night for the Family Day weekend.
Bigger picture at hand
Whether it is a movie night for youth and their families, dodge ball for junior high students or an opportunity to try sledge hockey, another event Richardson brought to town, the cumulative effect of multiple youth-focused activities is designed to build community while involving youth in that sense of community.
“Seniors who have grown up here their whole lives and who have their children here know what community is, but these youth – they don’t know what it is. They don’t understand community necessarily,” Richardson said. “They don’t see the importance of being involved in the community and by having these programs; they’re subconsciously being involved in the community which I think is really important.”
Richardson said in a few years Morinville youth will have the opportunity to remain in Morinville or move elsewhere. It is her belief by getting them rooted in their community now, there is a greater chance they will remain in Morinville to help maintain and grow the community as adults. “I also think it show the kids that we’re really making an effort to provide them with things to do,” she said.
The youth worker said she has noticed a substantial increase in public engagement since motivational speaker Ian Hill came to town last October to speak to volunteer groups, business leaders, educators and youth themselves about the importance of youth in the community and the contribution they can make. “Since Ian Hill there have been a lot of people in the community who have been so supportive,” she said. “I’m impressed and I’m so grateful. I’m really looking forward to working with all these different people. It’s good that they see the need, and by providing all these things for youth it’s only going to help people.”
Richardson explained it is important for people to realize today’s youth are a lot smarter than people often give them credit for, particularly given the fact they have the entire world at their fingertips. “They can experience anything they want to whenever they want to,” she said. “With the advances in technology, social media, and media in general, kids are exposed to so much more. There’s a good part to that. Kids are more educated. They’ve got a bigger scope of the world. These kids know about what’s happening in Africa, and they can see in real time what’s going on.”
The youth worker said a drawback is youth are exposed to an overwhelming amount of media, information that can sometimes hinder their self-esteem, particularly when billboards and commercials portray a specific image of what the ideal person looks like. Richardson said body image is a major issue facing youth today and one she and Morinville’s Community Service Department is hoping to address. “It’s both females and males,” she said. “It’s a huge standard that they have to live up to. These kids watch TV and every single cast member is a size 2, perfect hair, wake up in the morning with makeup. Kids feel that.”
Richardson said she believes it is important to help youth understand the importance of individuality and diversity in order to show youth that it is ok to be different. “Let’s show your peers, the community, the world how you’re different and how that makes you who you are, and how that makes you special,” she explained. “I think by giving kids that confidence, then they’ll be able to hold their head a little bit high and realize the way they are is ok.”