Nearly 20 kids dropped by the Hay River Community Youth Centre in the first half-hour alone for a grand reopening on May 31.
“More people showed up than I had expected,” said new co-ordinator Ashleigh Haines. “I think it’s the free pizza, but whatever the reason, I’m glad they’re here.”
The youth centre had been closed for several weeks following the departure of the former co-ordinator, and while it officially reopened May 24, Haines said she had only seen two or three kids in the whole week. To remedy the situation and to let people know the doors were once again open, Haines threw a pizza party and invited all the young people in Hay River.
The centre has had its problems in the past and continues to pose a problem for town council as it sits on town land for which it does not have a lease.
However, there are changes to the structure of the board of governors afoot that may see the organization rebranded.
“One of the things we’re going to be working at is re-working the board to get the community more involved,” said chairman Wes Dyck.
The youth centre operates under the Hay River Ministerial Association, essentially a group of religious leaders. Dyck, a pastor with the Hay River Pentecostal Church, is the chair of both the ministerial association and the youth centre board.
“We’re looking at putting together subcommittees that could help us deal with things like fundraising and who would work in an advisory capacity,” said Dyck. “We need to do a better job of getting input from the community on the youth centre and, if we can get those subcommittees formed with lay members, that would be a good step.”
Part of the problem is that, in past years, the youth centre has been seen as a place parents did not necessarily want their children to frequent. In time, programs like Lights On took on part of the role of providing a safe place for young people to hang out during the evening, and gradually the youth centre began to take a back seat in both attendance and financing.
But Kevin Wallington, another member of the centre’s board, is keen to open up the organization and help Hay River see it in a new light.
“We are not only what we have been,” he told The Hub. “Some people support us and some don’t, and we have a lot of work to do too.”
According to Wallington, the perception of youth centres across Canada is that they are hangouts for troubled kids, but the centres need to make efforts to fight that reputation. He also spoke of the role the centre could fill as a safe place for all youth in the community. Although he acknowledged the perception has been that the youth centre caters to “at-risk” young people, he said he wants to break away from that and create a place in which everyone can be welcome.
“Maybe we don’t realize how many kids don’t fit in to hockey and other sports,” he said. “And what about those for whom the school isn’t a place where they can feel safe and comfortable?”
Coun. Keith Dohey, the youth liaison for Hay River’s town council, said he believes the current state of the youth centre is a wasted opportunity.
“I won’t speak for council as a whole, but personally I take matters regarding youth in our community seriously and pretty close to heart,” he said on May 31. “It has untapped potential, as you can see tonight. There were close to 20 kids in the first half-hour. It just takes the right people doing the right things, like tonight. We all want every young person in Hay River to have fun and be safe.”
But the kind of structured programming that can keep young people interested and coming through the door takes money, something the centre is sorely lacking.
“We’re so appreciative of the local businesses who have given and who continue to give,” said Dyck. “But helping these kids takes money and the youth centre doesn’t make any of its own.”
For the time being, Haines plans to run the centre as a drop-in facility more than anything. Although she would like to see programming expanded and more efforts made to reach out to the schools, she is in a difficult position to do so as she is set to return to school in Edmonton in September.
“We’re playing by ear,” she told The Hub. “We’re going to keep the doors open and do things like play sports and watch movies.”
Haines said she is pleased to have taken even those first steps and has already seen a positive reaction from the community. Many young people had been stopping her on the street to ask when the centre would re-open.
“It’s exciting to see so many of them come out tonight,” she said on May 31. “I have a heart for youth in the North and I want them to have a safe place to go.”
— Sarah Ladik