They recommended foster homes, therapy and meds but they never tried ball hockey

I have spent the bulk of my career working in the Provincial Child Welfare System where the mandate is to ensure the safety of children.  I have worked in many offices in various roles with hundreds of ‘at risk youth.’  Regardless of my position or my office space what I have kept is a clipping from a YMCA advertisement that I found in a newspaper years ago.  It is yellowed now, full of pinholes from my various bulletin boards and has been moved into a frame for safekeeping. 

Ball Hockey 1

The image shows a typical teenage boy running through a gym wearing an expression of pure joy and concentration.  He is in his body.  He seems to feel strong, powerful and a part of something.  Something bigger than his academic performance.  Something bigger than the capacity of his family to care for him.  Something bigger than his behaviour.  

Everyone has problems.  Some youth have parents who suffer from opioid addiction.  Others are being sexually exploited and are addicted to drugs themselves.  Some have nowhere to live because their behaviours keep getting them kicked out of their homes and foster care.  Regardless of their circumstance, I have never met a youth to whom I did not feel that this YMCA ad applied. 

Ball Hockey Boy

Over the last number of years, those of us who work with youth have turned our attention to something we call OUTCOMES.  They describe predictors of how a youth will grow into adulthood.  Concerns for youth at risk are predictable; poverty, addiction, homelessness, mental illness, criminality.  It is bleak. 

When we think of these youth it is a natural thing to assign them a victim status in our minds which are conditioned to categorize people.  In child-serving systems such as child welfare, health and education we are experts at such categorization.  We offer one to one 'workers' who are paid to take kids out for coffee to get to know them.  We offer anger management groups or worst of all counselling in sterile offices. 

What if we take a different approach using a different mindset?  What if we stop talking about offering charity and empowerment and start talking about providing youth with opportunity by leveraging their natural supports?  They, after all, already have the power.  It is not ours to give.

Ball Hockey Boy 2

It is time for us to try something new.  What if we turned our focus to providing kids opportunity to follow an old passion or discover a new one.  I don’t mean fundraise the registration fees to join a soccer club.  Anyone who has a child in sport already knows that paying the fees are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to participation.  It takes serious time and financial commitment.  What if we got all of the stakeholders involved with the youth on board?  I mean everyone - from the youth, the caregiver, the team, association, board, counsellor, teacher, social worker, grandparents...  What if the mental health counsellor met with the youth on the drive to the game or practice?  What if the teacher came out to a practice to cheer the youth on?  What if the coach invited the youth to dinner on Sunday nights?  What if this network prioritized the funding required? 

Volleyball girls

Participation in sport can change OUTCOMES.  It provides lifelong friendship, physical health, mental wellbeing and a purpose.  As adults we are able to make significant differences in kids lives.  We need to stop pathologising youth who do not come from optimal circumstances and start being creative by leveraging the power of sport.

In March 2015, Harvard's Center on the Developing Child released a study saying, “Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”

I have seen this play out through the coaches that I know now and have known as a child.  I believe that there are many others involved in the sporting community who would be happy to provide this relationship to a child given the chance.  

Mandela said in 2000: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.

I believe Mandela had it right.  Of course he did.