Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Loss, Hope, and Reaching Out - Justin Slade Youth Foundation

As many of my readers know by now I have a strong interest in a few things - community, and people, and vision, and passion, and youth. I had heard of the Justin Slade Youth Foundation years ago, but it wasn't until last year that I learned a bit more about the foundation. It all began when I met Cassandra Slade, Justin's aunt, at a local event. Cassandra is not only beautiful but a true Fort McMurray powerhouse, and when she told me a bit about the history and mission of JSYF I knew I had to learn more about it and write about it, too - because it touches everything I think is important in this world.

Justin Slade was a young man who sounds, from all reports, like a wonderful person. Sadly no one will ever know what Justin could have been or done, as in 2004 a tragic car accident took his life - and he was only 21. As a parent I can only imagine the kind of pain and grief his parents, family, and friends endured. I imagine they felt some degree of hopelessness, too, which almost can't be avoided when experiencing such a terrible, unexpected, untimely loss. But, as so many find, out of loss can come hope. Out of loss can come change, and it can lead to reaching out. And, in the case of those who loved Justin it led to the formation of the Justin Slade Youth Foundation, a group that reaches out to our community's youth every single day.

JSYF has a clearly stated mission, and it is this : Our mission is to empower young people to make better life choices and to express themselves in positive ways through music, drama, art and sports. And that mission statement resonates with me on many levels, because it touches some of the key things I happen to believe, too.

Between my time spent with my own Intrepid Junior Bloggers, their friends, and students in local schools I see phenomenal potential in our youth. They have this way of seeing the world that is so different from most adults. They see open doors where we see locks, open avenues where we see roadblocks, and possibility where we see nothing. They come to this world with an enthusiasm that is as yet untouched by cynicism and skepticism, and they can be the most incredible joy to spend time with - if you take the time to truly listen. And even more they have such potential, the potential to change the world - but potential sometimes needs to be encouraged. It needs to be nurtured, and it needs to be valued.

JSYF is directed to young adults aged 12-18, probably considered one of the "toughest" age groups to work with - but also the most rewarding, I think. This is the age when anything is possible, when dreams can be formed and steps taken to achieve them. For some youth, though, these dreams can be tough to even visualize, and they need a place where they can start to explore them - and JSYF provides it.

JSYF is designed for all youth, but often finds the youth-at-risk demographic drawn to them. And this is the group for which I feel there is both the most worry and the most potential, people. I have met very young people who are living on our streets, and I look at them and think about the loss of their potential. They are often bright and funny and kind and warm, and it hurts me to see the harshness of their young lives. I wish someone had been there to reach out to them, to offer them the kind of hope and encouragement they needed, and maybe help them to find their true potential. And that is what JSYF does for all youth.

JSYF runs a lot of different programming, from their very successful Youth Empowerment Day to drop-in centre programming at the Haxton Centre (and in a very positive development it looks like that centre is on the verge of becoming the permanent home of JSYF, providing stability and consistency to the youth it serves). They do a lot of outreach programming, too, all free of charge and open to all youth. And they work very, very hard to remain relevant to the young people they serve, and to engage them in determining that programming.

Haxton Centre, Borealis Park

JSYF also gets involved in volunteerism, working on things like graffiti and community clean-ups. Lesley Pearcey, the Executive Director of JSYF, told me that those clean-ups often have the best attendance, and that the kids love them - and I love that. I think those sorts of things instil a sense of community ownership, and when you have spent hours cleaning graffiti or cleaning up a park you feel a much closer connection to it. You become protective of it - and, by extension, of your community and the people in it. And that's the true beauty in all of this.

When groups like JSYF reach out to local youth they show them that they are valued and that they have meaning in our community. They show our youth that there are people in this city who care, and who want them to feel a part of it. And in return the young adults begin to care, too, about the people who run the program, and about the place it is held, and, eventually, about the community, too.

The work of JSYF is far from done - it will never be done, in fact, as long as there are young people in this community. They have dreams and plans, too, things like neighbourhood based youth centres, and things like youth-friendly designations for local businesses. They are constantly coming up with new ideas to better engage our younger demographic (Extreme iPoding on YouTube, anyone?!?), and they are always working to improve their services. And there are challenges, too, like ensuring people understand that despite a tragic event last summer Borealis Park (where the Haxton Centre is located) is safe. There is the challenge of ensuring that they are making true change, serving the youth well, and adjusting programming as necessary by staying current with what is popular with youth (and as a parent of said youths that can change daily, trust me).

So, the Justin Slade Youth Foundation was founded because of a tragedy that stole the life of a vibrant young man. I know nothing will ever take that loss away, and nothing will ever replace him - but the work of the JSYF is changing the world of dozens of young people. From a terrible event has come reaching out - and hope. From one family's horrendous loss has come the gain of dozens of families, and of our community as young people can find a place to grow and dream and hope and achieve their potential. I wish I'd met Justin Slade, people. I wish he could know how his life inspired those around him, and how his name lives on in this foundation, and in the achievements of those who have had their lives changed by the JSYF. This young man, despite a very brief life, has had a tremendous impact not only on his family, but on many other young people who never met him, either, and on our entire community. So while we may never know what Justin could have been or done I know this - he has changed the world, with the help of those who loved him and started this foundation to honour him. And that, people, is something wonderful to witness. That is a profound legacy for anyone to leave behind.

My sincere thanks to
Cassandra Slade for
telling me about JSYF,
and to Lesley Pearcey,
JSYF Executive Director,
for meeting with me! :)

1 comment:

  1. An amazing story!! Thanks to Justin's selfless giving family. His memory has inspired a very worthy cause.