Bridge the Gap

Liz O’Neill has long seen a strong need for immigrant children to have summer and after-school programs available to them. The executive director at Boys and Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters (BGCBigs), Liz is also chair of the Out of School Time Secretariat, which has been helping Edmonton organizations plan and administer out-of-school programs since 2006.

She says the goal of the secretariat is helping children feel like they belong here, no matter where they might have started their lives. “The community cares for them, and the community will stand by them,” she says.

It all started when Liz, on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton (now BGCBigs), teamed up with reps from the Mill Woods Welcome Centre and Africa Centre in 2006, to brainstorm how to deliver summer programs to immigrant children. Edmonton only had two programs geared to immigrant children, so the three groups knew the need was there, but they didn’t know how quickly the group would expand.

In 2008, the first year of programming, they served 89 children. In the next year, ASSIST and the City Centre Education Project came on board, and 601 children attended customized summer programs. In 2014, there are 35 groups involved in what is now called the Out of School Time Secretariat.

Annette Malin is a community investment specialist for United Way of the Alberta Capital Region and she’s been part of the secretariat since last September. Annette says she’s delighted with how seamlessly the group operates. “We’ve got great people doing this and our kids have great support as a result of it.”

But it wasn’t always a smooth process, says Liz. In the early days of the program, finding locations was an issue. “We needed to get schools to open up in the summer so kids didn’t have to travel long distances,” she says. “It wasn’t really happening five or six years ago, but now it’s robust.” There are joint-use agreements at anywhere from 15 to 18 schools, with City of Edmonton employees lending a hand throughout the summer.

Last year, more than 1,000 children accessed out-of-school programs, a 60 per cent increase from 2008. With support from the Out of School Time Secretariat, more immigrant organizations are creating their own programs. “They knew their families needed programming, and they knew they needed support to provide that programming. Even though these are all solid organizations, you can work through barriers easier if you work as a team,” says Liz. The Africa Centre, which started without any programming, now provides out-of-school programs 12 months of the year, four days a week.

In the last 10 years, Alberta’s population has grown by a million people, and Liz says half of that increase, either directly or indirectly, is a result of emigration from abroad and within Canada. “It doesn’t always look like immigration,” she acknowledges, explaining that Edmonton often isn’t the first destination. Montreal and Toronto are popular cities for new Canadians, but the increased job opportunities lead many people to jump across the Prairies to Alberta. Edmonton’s francophone school system, for example – which was built around instilling bilingualism in Canadians – now counts immigrant children from French-speaking countries as 90 per cent of its student population, which speaks to the increase in immigrants within the Edmonton region’s demographics.

Positive role models can also be lacking in an immigrant child’s life, and often their parents are busy working to support the family, even taking jobs they are overqualified for. “Sometimes you see people from your home country in your community,” Liz says, “and at home, they might have been an engineer, but in Canada they’re driving a taxi.”

Nancy Petersen of the Edmonton Public School Board recently joined the secretariat, but was involved from the beginning through her role with the City Centre Education Partnership, which had a thriving summer program for inner-city youth. She says many refugee children haven’t had any formal schooling, and coming into a classroom at nine or 10 years old when they don’t know the language, don’t understand the material, and don’t share the same background as their peers, can find it overwhelming.

“They may have been exposed to a deprived or violent lifestyle in a refugee camp, and there might be mental health impacts that we don’t understand,” says Nancy. She adds that families don’t always arrive in Canada intact: sometimes family members are left behind or have been killed in a camp.

Tesfaye Ayalew is the executive director of the Africa Centre, and says most of the kids and teenagers who use the out-of-school programs there are refugee children. He emphasizes that before you start to consider how the programs have benefited the youth, it’s necessary to realize where many of them have come from. “Refugees don’t plan to come to Canada to earn more money; they come because of war, of famine, of displacement. They don’t choose,” he says, adding that many parents have to work two or three low-paying jobs just to make ends meet, so they’re not able to keep a close eye on their kids.

That, says Nancy, is where the danger begins. “Many of the kids would otherwise be at home doing nothing, or on the street with whatever the street has to offer them. They’re more at risk of falling into illegal activity, or getting involved with gangs,” she explains.

Tesfaye recognized this danger in 2006, and wanted to help bridge the gap that was apparent in available programming: there were out-of-school programs in Edmonton, but there weren’t many that were refugee- or newcomer-specific, and there weren’t many that were culturally appropriate.

Tesfaye calls the programs at the Africa Centre a “holistic” approach. “We wanted to help them get caught up in the school system, but add a component of culture, identity and heritage to help them understand who they are, so they can better understand where they’re going,” he says. And the knowledge isn’t just academic-based, either: the children learn about how to make healthy choices and get to play sports. He’s helped introduce many refugee children to the Canadian joys of ice skating and skiing, for example.

The Harvard Family Research Project, a research organization operating out of Harvard University, says out-of-school programs can foster a wide array of benefits for the children who take part in them, but Tesfaye doesn’t need a study to be convinced of the rewards: he sees them every day, in the faces of the children who attend programs there. There are numerous stories of students becoming more confident as they spent time at the Africa Centre, such as a teen girl from Sudan who volunteered to teach a hip hop dance class for other girls. It was an after-school activity for several years, and when the girl left the club, the students ran the club themselves, practising daily and planning performances.

The feedback Tesfaye has received from parents has been encouraging, as well. Parents like the fact that the programs emphasize African culture, and they remark on the engagement level that their children have in school: more reading at home, more homework completed on time and in general, happier kids.

“I hear again and again that they can’t wait to come here,” Tesfaye says. “When the weather is bad, they don’t want to stay home. Now they say, ‘Let’s go to Africa Centre.’ ”