April was a tense time for Jill Taylor, the founder of the massively-successful Lights On program.
After years of federal funding to the tune of $40,000 a year, the money was cut off as of March 31 and the future of the four-year-old initiative was in jeopardy.
After reaching out to everyone she could think of, Taylor was rewarded with a donation of a truckload of copper, worth in excess of $50,000, by a mine in the NWT. There was, however, one catch: the valuable metal in a variety of wiring and cables had yet to be separated from its protective covering of rubber and plastic.
“We were going to keep it quiet,” said Taylor in reference to the valuable nature of the copper and the ease with which it could be hauled away in the night. “But we’ve already put more than 600 hours of labour into stripping it all down so we can sell it in the South and we’re not even close to done. We need help.”
While simultaneously calling for more volunteers – especially children who take part in the various Lights On activities and their parents – she said she was “flabbergasted” by the willingness of people in Hay River to help the cause.
“You would not believe how much people have already helped, from getting it trucked here, to providing the space for us to process it,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Lights On, originally conceived to give young people in Hay River a place to go on a Saturday night, has grown into a multi-location and weekend-long phenomenon, with activities taking place at both Diamond Jenness Secondary School and Princess Alexandra School.
From its first appearance as simply having the ‘lights on’ in the high school gym, it has expanded to include cooking, video games, table tennis, and simply a place to hang out. The initiative has also been copied in Yellowknife and Inuvik, and has gained recognition across the country as an innovative way to keep kids – even the ones deemed to be less at risk – away from drugs and alcohol.
“These are highly-supervised events, and we’ve promised that to parents,” said Taylor. “We have to keep it safe for everyone and running regularly. If you say you’re going to have the doors open, you have to have the doors open and the lights on.”
Taylor estimated the program saw 230 kids last year and employs between 10 and 15 staff. In previous years, the shortfall between the $40,000 from the federal government and the operating cost of close to $60,000 was spanned by fundraising initiatives.
While Taylor is more than grateful for the donation of copper, she said that it will only keep the program up and running another year. She has sought other funding from the territorial government, but will only know the success of the application in September.
“Lights On creates this really safe space for kids to come and do whatever,” said volunteer Simran Lehal. “It brings that sort of youth centre vibe to the school, where they can just hang out with their friends in a community atmosphere.”
Patrick McNeely, a recent graduate of Diamond Jenness Secondary School and a Lights On participant turned volunteer, said he thinks the program has been effective in keeping youth away from drugs, alcohol and dangerous behaviour.
“Kids are going to do what they’re going to do, right?” he said. “But if you give them a safe environment to hang out in without all of that, lots of them will show up.”
— Sarah Ladik