Somebody in their corner again
Young people drop in for a can of soup and get the support they need at Strathroy’s Next Wave Youth Centre
When the lights finally came back on at Strathroy’s Next Wave Youth Centre this summer, it felt like “the world opening up again,” says Skyler Campbell.
The COVID-19 shutdown was tough on Campbell, 20, who receives employment training and other supports at the agency and works in its jam-making facility.
“Being able to be back, it’s relieving because you’ve been unemployed, or you’ve been looking for work since all this stuff has been going down,” he said. “Next Wave brought us back together again.”
Campbell is among 150 young people who access services at Next Wave every year and says the other clients, volunteers and staff have become an important part of his support network. Better yet, they’re his friends.
“It’s like our own little community. Everyone is so nice here and very helpful,” he says. “These guys have been helping me figure things out.”
Meant as a safe space for youth in Middlesex County, Next Wave offers basic needs, housing supports and counselling. It also provides employment experience and training at its social enterprise – Mushed by YOU jam, jellies and spreads.
But for those who access services every year, the support often starts with their basic needs. Many come in because they have heard Next Wave – which is a part of Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) – provides emergency food and toiletries. That’s when the conversations begin that could lead to other supports, such as mental health services.
“Being able to be a one-stop place for youth to get those supports makes all the difference,” says Nick Martin, manager of food services and enterprise at YOU.
“Someone coming in for a can of soup and some pasta, that can lead to them getting some employment support . . . addiction support, learning how to budget, finishing their education all in one space. It (gets them) to where they are able to support themselves.”
Funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex helps Next Wave provide food and basic needs to young people age 12-29 from Middlesex County, including Strathroy, Parkhill, Ailsa Craig and Chippewas of the Thames and other surrounding First Nations.
“Without the support of the United Way, Next Wave wouldn’t exist,” says Martin. “United Way’s support was very vital for our operations (before) and after COVID.”
Since the pandemic, Next Wave staff has seen a spike in need for items such as grocery gift cards that enable young people to buy produce and other fresh food that can be hard to find at emergency cupboards. In Middlesex County, where social services are few and far between to begin with, COVID-19 shutdowns have made finding other sources of affordable food almost impossible for youth in the area who don’t have transportation to get to the nearest city centre, he says.
“We see more people need that support and the youth that we were seeing before are just needing so much more,” he says.
Not that they ever stopped. Like other organizations supported by United Way, Next Wave pivoted services online when COVID-19 forced it to close its doors. During those months, staff did their best to stay connected, even continuing to operate the basic needs shelf for clients who called in a food crisis. But it wasn’t the same.
“It was so impersonal,” says employee Kaitlyn Harvey, recalling how she would leave a bag of food outside the building, to minimize contact. “Most of the time when someone comes in for basic needs, they need to talk about something – they need some emotional support.”
Reopening made a “huge difference,” says Harvey. “For our youth, it definitely helps them feel connected to their community and have somebody in their corner. They can come here and have somebody advocate for them when it’s really difficult to advocate for themselves.”
“I know a lot of our youth are really happy to be back.”