Every Care In The World: The New Generation

September 12, 2019 / By: Nancy Harper, United Way WRC Editorial Content Creator

Young people want what all of us want — they want to feel like they belong.

Increasingly complex needs are sending thousands of young people in Waterloo Region into a downward spiral.

Many are struggling with unprecedented mental-health concerns. Self-harm rates are higher than ever. Homelessness, poverty, isolation and addiction are a huge part of the picture. And access to recreation and physical activity are at such low levels that this generation is not expected to live longer than the previous one.

Perhaps the most shocking reality of all, though, is that one in seven* young people here won’t graduate from high school.

“When you think of us being in the tech hub, it’s almost unimaginable that this is happening,” says Beth King, General Manager of Child and Youth Outcomes for the YMCAs of Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo.

“There are a lot of different reasons why youth drop out of high school. Some of it has to do with mental health, poverty and substance dependency. Trauma impacts how the brain is wired and changes a person’s ability to cope. Newcomers face the extra burden of an unfamiliar language and customs. But every youth has a story and each story is different. The challenges are unique to each young person. They’re complex and they’re not isolated.”

Adds Debbie Engel, Director of Community Services at Carizon, what’s really lacking is the support system that helps young people develop coping strategies.

Adults, she says, are a huge part of the puzzle.

“Adults in our community make a lot of assumptions about youth that are not actually correct,” King explains. “We assume that youth are lazy, that they don’t want to be engaged, that they choose not to work. The reality is this is the phase of life where they are the most innovative and creative they will ever be. When we provide them with opportunities to be engaged, they want to be.

“One of the things that’s consistently identified is that youth need adults to help them solve their problems. They want real relationships with adults who care about them and who want to invest in building a relationship with them. And they don’t want to be treated like children.”

Engel says most people struggle with mental health issues at some time in their lives, and that everyone has some level of anxiety. Coping strategies (or lack thereof) make all the difference.

“It’s the strategies and tools we have been given that allow us to function in a more healthy and productive way,” she says. “Every family has some level of self-regulation issues or depression. The level of intensity can manifest bigger when you’re going through divorce, a death in the family, unemployment — any one of those things can tip you into being unwell.”

Engel would like to be able to tap into the region’s significant business and tech sectors to educate them about the challenges in this community.

“I think there’s an appetite to help but if we only keep it in the non-profit conversation and don’t make it a broader issue, we’re challenged,” she says. “We need to educate people on what it really is like in Waterloo Region. A lot of people say ‘we don’t have a homelessness problem here.’ Once people are more aware of what’s happening, they’re more open to helping.

“The children and youth in our community are our biggest asset and the biggest investment we need to make. When we work with them and listen and hear what they want, they deliver tenfold. People need to see them as assets and allies. They need to see that they’re going to transform how we work and what we do in our community. If we give them the chance and walk with them on this journey we’re going to learn from them.”

Julie Friesen, Director of Programs at Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) Waterloo Region, echoes those beliefs. And she says that for young people involved in the criminal justice system, where lives often hang in the balance, intervening early is critical.

“We are really seeing youth on the edge of things,” Friesen says.

“We work with youth at risk of homelessness and a lot of them are involved in the court system. There’s couch surfing, there’s conflict at home, there’s drug use. Young people are really struggling with attachment with their families. There’s disrespect, sometimes even violence in the home, and because of these things they find themselves on the street where the chance that they’ll interact with a police officer is much higher. It’s either violence, theft, addiction or all three.”

Known globally for creating the first modern restorative justice program, CJI is heavily involved in harm prevention and restorative practice in local schools. The goal is to equip students with the tools they need to manage a problem before it escalates.

Young newcomers to Canada, for example, are often so baffled by what’s unfolding at school and all around them that they feel utterly lost. And it’s not just because they don’t speak the language.

“The language barrier is for sure an issue, but it’s complicated,” Friesen says.

“Culturally there’s a lot of different understanding of what’s appropriate in the school setting, and in very busy schools it can be difficult to deal with the behaviours that result from that. When young people have lived in refugee camps, for example, it’s tough for schools to deal with. The youth themselves are asking: ‘Where do I belong? I don’t understand the customs and how to work through things.’ ”

It’s why having a voice is so critical.

“When there’s been a situation — bullying, miscommunication amongst friends, misinterpretation — we help those students sit down and actually work it out,” Friesen explains. “So instead of saying, ‘You’re going to be removed from school or moved to a different one,’ we ask: Can we help them work it out?”

A huge part of the problem is that newcomers are expected to simply fit in. There’s no expectation that the wider population should go out of their way to welcome them or to understand the challenges they’ve faced.

There are positive signs, however.

“Every day we see that youth have incredible resilience,” Friesen says. “Even those who are really on the edge are still surviving, and even in the most difficult circumstances they’re finding a way to be kind, contributing members of our community. Really, they want what all of us want — they want to feel like they belong. They’re not looking to hurt people all the time. If they do have addictions or other issues, it usually relates to trauma they’ve experienced.”


All across Waterloo Region, poverty, isolation and mental illness are creating a ripple effect that is devastating young lives. It’s why United Way built a Supporting Youth Fund to help its partner organizations stem the tide. Community members will have opportunities to give directly to this and other targeted funds during the 2019 fundraising campaign.

For more information please contact: 519-888-6100 | info@uwaywrc.ca

*Fact Update: High school graduation rates in Waterloo Region have improved from 82.2% in 2016 to 84.7% in 2018. As a result, we have updated this stat from “1 in 5” to “1 in 7 youth won’t graduate from high school” to reflect this change. (2018 School Board Progress Report – Ontario Ministry of Education.)


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