Helping youth in St. Thomas and Elgin County see a brighter future
United Way helped youth navigate challenging times during the pandemic by providing funding to help Ignite Youth Centre deliver remote support to young people. As restrictions begin to ease, the Centre is starting to welcome youth back.
Cancelled classes, missed graduations, lost time with friends. Plans for school, sports and work postponed so much it seemed there was no point.
The COVID-19 pandemic took a devastating toll on youth mental health, robbing them of rites of passage during a time many expected to be the best years of their lives.
At Ignite Youth Centre — which serves nearly 500 Elgin County adolescents yearly through its free programs and vibrant drop-in centre in downtown St. Thomas — staff recognized early in the first shut-down that they needed a new way to help youth in the community.
“We started to do virtual programming as soon as we could,” said Spencer Mederios, a youth engagement co-ordinator at the St. Thomas-based organization which receives funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex.
“We knew they were struggling because of all the uncertainty. We knew we needed to focus on mental health, and on doing fun things.”
Keeping in mind Ignite’s underpinning theme of “smart decisions for success,” the staff put together new virtual programs that included paint nights, stressball-making workshops and movie nights. Not only did the youth sign up immediately, in some cases Ignite had to start wait lists because registration was full.
“It was so exciting,” Mederios said. “We had youth participating — laughing. It just made all the difference.”
In fact, it was a game-changer for teens and tweens from smaller communities such as Sparta, Union and Port Stanley, who participated in programs they could never attend in person, Mederios. Ignite plans to continue a mix of virtual and in-person programming after the pandemic.
But while the internet provided a lifeline, the team at Ignite knew the importance of helping youth build community connections and didn’t want to lose that during shut-downs. So with funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex, Ignite partnered with local agencies and businesses to launch a virtual farmer’s market, which gave teens experience in everything from online ordering to packaging to customer service.
The market fit into Ignite’s goal to help youth contribute to their community, while providing “connections to other peers and caring adults,” said Executive Director Jackie Van Ryswyk.
When COVID-19 restrictions were lifted this summer, staff launched two new programs—one to help youths gain self-confidence and appreciate themselves and the other on team work—designed to address the needs of youth who’d experienced isolation during the pandemic.
“We know there are more vulnerable and at-risk youth than there were before the pandemic and as we start to recover, many are anxious about what the future holds for them,” said Van Ryswyk. “It’s important for youth to learn to build connections again.”
“We are ready to serve those youth and to meet them where they’re at.”