Five Years of Youth Mentorship by Becca Vandekemp (@beccavdk)

In January of 2009, I stepped through the doorway of a rather unspectacular building on Colborne Street, not really knowing what I was doing or why. There had to be something, though, something that could awaken me from my stupor.

For a year, I felt bogged down in every sphere of my existence. You know that feeling? When life feels so disappointing and frustrating that every footstep is heavier than the one before? You don’t know who to trust, and have no faith in anybody caring about you. It’s not a very fun place, but that’s where I was.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I jumped with a start as a young man completed an impressive back flip right in front of me.

“HEY!” someone yelled at him. “Stop doing that inside!”

I could hear the telltale clacking of billiard balls on the pool table in the far corner of the room.

An angry-looking girl in synthetic fur boots stomped past me, unlit cigarette in hand. “I’ve had enough of you!” she yelled at some acquaintance behind her.

The pregnant girl at the table looked up from her painting to roll her eyes before settling back to her art.

My comfort zone lay behind me, 15 feet back on the other side of the youth centre’s entrance, to be exact, but my comfort zone had done me little good that last year, so deeper into the youth centre I went.

A foosball table lay to my right, enticing me to find an opponent. Maybe this place wasn’t so bad after all.

That place had a way of drawing me in. I began to crave the dim light, the funky smells, and the hodge-podge of company, even when it wasn’t open. It got me out of my own head.

As I sit writing this, faces from these past five years keep passing by on the street. The wacky mosaic of personalities I’ve encountered during my time as a youth mentor have shaped me in so many ways. Investing in other people helped me to get over myself, and being invested in by other volunteers gave me the encouragement I needed to kick start a better version of myself.

Showing love, consistency, and appreciation for street and at-risk youth has allowed me to better understand the complex issues of poverty, abuse, esteem, promiscuity, and crime.

While I worked to instill values such as self-esteem, confidence, hope, and forgiveness in these youth, I got doused with patience, understanding, grace, and admiration. The youth inspired me.

And how could they not? When you meet sisters who have more or less raised themselves, and you find out that they share one pair of winter boots, how could you not be affected and moved to action?

When you meet a guy your age whose life has been so tumultuous that he never got around to learning the months of the year, how can your mind not be blown?

Seeing the fierce love that the youth have for one another, and the way they rally together when they lose one of their own, wow. They amaze me.

It has broken my heart when we’ve lost some of our youth to suicide and accidents. It rocks our community to its core.

And how could your heart not break when a 16-year-old girl leans her head on your shoulder and tells you that you should be her mom instead of her birth mother because she’s so frustrated that she would choose crack over her yet again?

For five years, this kind of mentorship has been part of my life, and it has absolutely changed me. My eyes have been opened to the absolutely crazy things that people in our community have lived through. I’ve been encouraged beyond measure in meeting the people who have generously supported programs like Why Not’s youth centre and others like it by giving their time, skills, and energy to see youth have a safe place to go.

January is full of new beginnings.

Five years ago, a new beginning was something I desperately needed. If you’re reading this, and you need something to change, go do something. Has there been something on your heart that you just haven’t done yet? Do it. Try it. Break free.

In the worst case scenario, you could be helping people. That’s not so bad.

I wouldn’t trade the memories of 8-person foosball games, the group karaoke, the tears, or the countless hot dogs for a minute.

Cheers, Why Not, and all of the other places that have allowed me to pour into other peoples’ lives. It’s been a great 5 years of youth mentorship, and it’s sure not going to end here.

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