A local youth drop-in centre has passed a major milestone, and staff and volunteers are celebrating how far they’ve come.
Youth for Christ has been in the community for 20 years now, and Executive Director John Rempel said there is still work to be done.
“20 years is a little humbling,” Rempel said. “So much has happened, but we wanted so much more to happen. We have bigger hopes, we have bigger dreams than what these kids even feel entitled to.”
For many organizations, 20 years in the community is a milestone to be celebrated and bragged about. For Youth for Christ, the 20 year mark can be a bit more bittersweet.
While the organization provides an obviously needed service to youth in the area, the fact that they are still so needed speaks to the hardships being faced by youth in the area.
“I have job security and it sucks,” Rempel said. “At times it feels like we’re just getting momentum. There’s so much left to be done, and if you just took ownership of that part it could be very deflating.”
Youth for Christ Morden had been operating for about four years before current executive director John Rempel came on board.
Originally a kitchen designer at Decor, Rempel said he walked past the Youth for Christ building every day and had never really taken note of it until his boss suggested he try working there.
“I went into a kind of culture shock the first couple of nights,” he said. “I remember coming in to work and it’s drop-in, and it was chaotic in my opinion. I was like, ‘What did I sign up for here?’”
Rempel said many of the kids that come through their doors come from homes that wouldn’t be considered “solid” by most.
“So often it’s going to be a home where there’s a single mom, probably has two or three part time jobs, does not want to go on any type of social assistance,” he said. “Probably 75 or so per cent of the kids here won’t have an active dad in their life.”
In the 20 years Youth for Christ has operated in the area, Rempel said the centre has seen big victories and his own ways of thinking have been challenged.
“When a kids says, ‘I stopped doing meth, I’m only smoking weed now,’ back then my mindset would have been why are you not stopping with the weed?” he said. “But if you take away all of their coping mechanisms, they’re liable to make even poorer choices. You just celebrate what they’re not doing.”
“It’s so easy to judge when you have no idea about their reality and how hard they are trying to work,” he added.
Youth for Christ is about the kids and helping them with whatever they need.
“A lot of people want us to have a plan from A to Z,” Rempel said. “If from [age] 12 to 18 we help to get them from A to D, that’s already huge. We have to take the little victories, and we celebrate them.”
Sometimes all that takes is playing a game of tag, or running a race around the building. Sometimes that means advocating for youth in court.
“We are called to take next level steps,” Rempel said. “We are not looking just to be buddies, we are not looking just to have a 7-11 concession counter.”
“If we say, ‘Use your words, how can we help you?’ they have no clue,” he added. “Some of them will, but most of them won’t. We have to meet their needs.”
Rempel said the 20 year mark is a strange acknowledgement that the centre is seeing second and third generation kids. “When a 14-year-old kid has a kid and then their 14-year-old kid has a kid, suddenly you are seeing the grandkids of the kids,” he said. “That’s been a little sobering at times.”
Of course, it isn’t all victories and good times for the organization or the kids that frequent it.
Rempel said a number of kids over the years have taken their own lives, despite Youth for Christ’s best efforts.
“Each one you remember pretty clearly,” he said. “You remember some of the last conversations. You want to take some inappropriate ownership of it, and kids want to do that for their friends too.”
One of the most important things Youth for Christ tells kids that walk through the door is don’t lie. “When you come through that door, come in completely,” he said. “If you’re going to blow a gasket, blow it in here.”
Rempel said he read a quote not long ago that read, “We shouldn’t strive for balance, we should strive for the knowledge of being unbalanced.” Rempel said he connected with the words, especially after experiencing an extreme bout of burnout about eight years ago.
Despite the ups and downs and the difficult stories that come in with the kids, Rempel said he’s glad the service exists. “I don’t know of any other agency that would be able to embrace it like we should,” he said. “We have a responsibility, it’s not just the national mandate. We look at it and see there’s hurting kids in every community.”
“Often we’d like to paint the picture that this kind of stuff only happens in Toronto or in Winnipeg,” he added. “That’s not true. Hurt happens everywhere.”
The centre itself has seen many changes, including renovations to the space and the addition of a gym across the back lane.
They also had to deal with water damage some years ago.
“When you find out that your roof doesn’t work, the walls are suspect and you find out that your sump pump was installed reversed and the water is being pumped back under the building…” he said. “We found out that the total cost was going to be roughly $200,000.”
At the end of those renovations, Youth for Christ paid about $20,000 because the community jumped on board to help.
“If you expose some of your hurt, some of your infrastructure issues, it gives people an opportunity to rally around you,” Rempel said. “We did not have to approach anyone. We did not say to anybody, ‘Can you give us this?’ People came to us and said, ‘Do you need?’”
Rempel said they never thought agencies would be interested in the work they do, but Youth for Christ has found support among many organizations and businesses in the community like United Way, Morden Community Thrift Shop, Giant Tiger and others.
“They really do want to know how their money is working,” he said. “It’s an investment, we handle it as an investment. They are some of our shareholders, and so are the kids.”
Sometimes when staff feel defeated, Rempel said they will sit on the couches by the front windows and watch people and cars go by. He recognizes many of the faces that pass.
“We just look at the corner and go, ‘That’s a supporter of ours,’” he said. “They love us, they support what we do. Get out of that funk John, it’s going to be okay.”
In the future, Rempel said the centre wants to develop the green space behind the building. “Some of the kids have really expressed an interest in gardening,” he said. “We want to do a salsa garden or an herb garden or a flower garden.”