THUNDER BAY – To build better communities, you start with the youth. Having opportunities for young people is a key component to a successful start for young people. Experts share that those critical after school hours are a key to success. That is what makes the decision to close down the BIWAASE’AA Outreach Program such a concern in Thunder Bay.
Does it matter? Yes! Closing programs like BIWAASE’AA mean that Thunder Bay’s young people and all our city is weaker as a result.
BIWASSE’AA is an Ojibway word that refers to the first light of the early morning and the promise of a new beginning. For almost ten years, this program has been doing, as its name says, bring forward new beginnings.
To get personal, for years, in our city, seeing how young parents, often struggling need help has changed me. I am not seeing this as left, right, or even political, but rather as common sense. We have many people in Thunder Bay who need a little hand up to become strong enough to cross some of life’s bridges over troubled times and troubled waters.
This program is one of the bridges that helps.
(Our video as of 8PM on May 11 is still processing – We have the drumming, the opening, the statements)
One young man I know, faced with real challenges, took the seeds that were planted in him during his time as part of this program, and while it took him time, and support, before they fully sprouted and started to grow they have changed him. His life is on the path he was meant to be on.
Here are the words of a young man I am proud to know; Josh, a former Thunder Bay teen who now lives in Alberta. “I am furious, so what, they take away the only thing the kids got, so after school they can resort to following in their older cousins, brothers, and sisters foot steps and drink & do drugs? Then resort to breaking into houses and cars to eat, and pay for all their needs”.
“I am sure if they stop this program, we will pay twice as much sheltering, transferring kids from youth facility, to youth facility because Thunder Bay’s jails will become over populated. And feeding the kids once they go to jail, without those personal support workers, who will they have? Drug addicts and alcoholic as parents?”
Josh has moved to Alberta, after growing up in Thunder Bay, and going through problems as a teen. Staying personal, when I first got to know this young man, he was still troubled, his home life was hard, his mother was in an abusive relationship, and when Josh would try to defend her against attacks, he would often end up hurt and in pain.
His path forward came when he started believing in himself, and then the seeds planted in life during the time he was in the BIWAASE’AA Outreach Program started to sprout and grow. It took work, it took role models, and it took courage on this young man’s part to make a difference. Josh shares that it took having heroes, people who would offer him better choices. But the start was in the BIWAASE’AA Outreach Program.
Josh shares, “I don’t think they realize how much the kids need this, the kids don’t even know how much they need it. But from my perspective, my mom is a needle junkie, no dad, no nothing, resorting to trouble to fit in to my community, until this program started at Forest Park. Then we had lunch everyday, we had food for once, without stealing or selling drugs. We had productive people to look up too”.
“I am getting tears in my eyes just thinking how much those kids will go without because of this, I think the most essential thing I have learnt from that program, was when I won a writing contest, I even beat my older sister, about how the program helps me. “I was a broke, poor, dirty kid, in a rough neighbourhood, I felt accomplished, I felt this poor, dirty, broken kid had achieved something, I felt like I could do anything, just from winning that contest, I worked my ass off on that.
It was from the base of the BIWAASE’AA program that the path to where this young man was supposed to be started. One almost can wonder, had it not been for this program, now likely to vanish as governments set different priorities, like building new prisons, and purchasing new fighter jets, how many other young people have been saved from a life of despair, or crime, because of programs like this running across Canada.
“What about the spirit? What about the culture? My brothers & sisters & children are already going down hill, why take away the only helping hand they have?”
In Thunder Bay, we are an emerging community, and one with challenges.
Meeting those challenges should come with help and assistance to those in our community who need it the most, even if, as Josh says they may not even fully realize how important that help really is.
Earlier today, Jim Peters-Chicago, who while he doesn’t like to be referred to as an Elder offered words of wisdom. Jim prefers to be referred to as Akiwenzii.
Jim shared with me how the words, the deeds and the seeds planted in the BIWAASE’AA will go on no matter what happens to the program. Jim shared how for the Aboriginal people there have been many times that the path has meant adapting to challenges.
While I can not argue with Jim, because he is right, the hope is that the BIWAASE’AA Program will find in the hearts, and in the wallets of people a path forward that will let this important project continue.
There are over five hundred young people in this program every year in Thunder Bay. It is a critically important part of making a positive difference in our city.
It should continue. The question is will the government step up and realize it is cheaper and healthier to make a difference now, or will they spend more later to attempt to close the barn door after the horses have got out?
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