Breaking Cyclical Poverty One Child at a Time

Cyclical poverty is a real thing in Calgary.

Urban ghettos are very real.

Thousands of our city’s kids have limited exposure or access to opportunity and fight to survive.

The reality is that these youth and their families in Calgary struggle, through no fault of their own: medically, economically, socially, and academically. 

Many experience trauma, chaos, food insecurity, moving from home to home or couch to couch, addiction, social isolation, deprivation of basic needs, and violence. 

Some children aren’t safe, and many others don’t feel safe at home or even at school. Many are only fed one real meal a day—the one they get at our centre. Food is a gateway that welcomes kids in and allows us to make a positive impact.

We want these kids to be able to “unsee” what they have seen, but the real issue goes beyond that. 

Kids who live in unhealthy environments don’t build healthy brains.

The reasons for their struggle are completely outside of their control.  

Toxic stress occurs when someone is subjected to frequent, and/or prolonged adversity.  Under this stress, the part of the brain that governs behaviour control does not develop properly.  

This toxicity creates a physical and permanent outcome.

Chronic exposure to toxic stress and trauma can alter gene expression and brain architecture, leading to increased vulnerability as well as physical and mental illness and substance abuse later in life. 

Science now tells us that toxic stress causes unhealthy brain development that is a significant cause of cyclical poverty. 

This poverty cycle does not just exist because kids learn bad habits and don’t know better.  It is because these kids grow unhealthy brains.

Kids do not just acquire bad habits, but they are destined to live lives of chaos and uncertainty, unhappiness, unfulfillment This is all because of their exposure to toxic stress in childhood.

The future of our society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation. 

We all live with the consequences when these problems translate into social and societal concerns.

Mental illness alone in Canada costs our country $50 billion a year, and this does not even consider the cost of human suffering. 

Luckily, we can intervene in a very simple way. Our centres make up an important part of the solution.

Meet Michael and Joanne

Michael, aged 10, is one of the kids who frequent Youth Centres of Calgary.  He is third in the line of six children.  His biological father is “two dads ago.”  Although he thinks about his real dad every day, he never sees him.  Michael’s mom is 28 and alone, raising her six children and is currently pregnant with her seventh child from “Dad number three.”  The family lives in a tiny Calgary Housing low-income townhouse—like many of the other children who drop by the centre.

When Michael is at the centre, he sticks close to our volunteers, clearly needing so much more attention than he gets at home.  His teachers tell us that he is angry at school, but at the centre, he is a different kid.  His eyes shine bright the entire 3 hours a day when he is with us.

Another girl, Anna, is in grade 9.  She is whip-smart and hard-working, despite her abusive stepdad who takes care of her, her siblings, and his own children as well.  He is quick to remind her that he has no biological connection with her.  We had a chance to meet him. He is a mean man. But she is a lovely young lady who is kind and lacks confidence and wants to go away to college. For 3 hours a day, we reduce the cortisol in her brain and give her a chance to be with loving and kind people who care about her present and her future and can offer a listening ear and compassionate advice.  She has become a star basketball player under our centre’s volunteers’ watchful eyes and coaching.  

We have many stories like the ones above. 

YCC exists because we know what it takes to change these kids’ potential outcomes at school and in life

What Kids Need

Ages 10-15.  These are important years.

Nimbly and adaptively, we do whatever we can to help plump up these brains and teach them healthy behaviours. 

These years are a critical time for brain development, especially the executive function of the brain, which is responsible for decision-making. This age is the most important period in brain development, second only to infancy. 

For the kids who come by our centre, we are part of the solution—a simple and inexpensive means (costs are kept low through volunteering) to make a significant impact on these kids’ lives now, when the needs are great and in the future, when they will be living their best adult lives.

We model good and healthy behaviour and kindness and offset the effects of stress on their brain development by giving them an opportunity, for a period of time every day, where their cortisol levels and exposure to toxic stress are reduced.  

Studies are clear about what kids need to thrive:

  • Basic needs – to be fed, kept warm, safe, and given comfort.
  • Safety and security – kids that do not or cannot trust the adults around them are inclined to develop anxiety, health, and learning issues.
  • Love and praise – kids need to feel good about themselves and make friends, which allows them to become more settled.
  • Being heard and understood –and learning to listen.
  • Learning and experiencing new things.

YCC is a place where kids are fed, kept warm and safe, where they receive love and praise, are heard, understood, and learn to listen. 

It’s a place where kids get what they need to thrive and to develop into healthy, productive adults. 

What We Do

Our proven model is to provide a home away from home, a little oasis, and an accessible place for “kids to be kids.”  We are located right in the heart of their highly underserved neighbourhoods, , on the beaten path from home to school, where kids would otherwise tend to wander without purpose. 

Our afterschool centre is for kids 10-15 (grades 5-9), at the ages when they are malleable in this critical stage of development.  It is the perfect time. 

We meet needs, one kid at a time, with 25-40 kids dropping in daily, with a neighbourhood registration list of about 200 kids.

We operate from 3:00 to after 6:00 during the time of day that police say is the most likely time for this age group to commit crime.

And it’s free. 

It is not a complicated model and it is very inexpensive relative to the cost of not doing it.

Kids register once and can come anytime from then on. The house offers areas for reading in bean bag chairs, eating hot and healthy food, playing games, doing homework on refurbished laptops, formal music instruction, art, playing basketball, and foosball. We also run free summer day sports camps.

We offer consistent care from qualified and attentive volunteers and staff, which is so important.

How We Know It Works

One of our kids (we will call him Brent) came every day for three years. 

His mom and dad were separated.  His dad lived in Texas, too far away for a relationship.  His mom was very sick, in the late stages of cancer, and died a little while after.

Brent looked after himself without siblings or a dad in a meager home.  He had every reason to go off the rails with the hand that he had been dealt in life.

Five years after Brent stopped coming to the centre, one of our got a call from a colleague.  A college kid in Texas was looking to track her down.  Brent went through the effort to find her and thank her for his time at the centre.  He was enrolled in a University of Texas social work program and said that if it hadn’t been for the centre and one important adult’s consistent care and attention over the course of a few important years of his childhood, he did not know where he would have landed.  

Fast forward to today: we see three siblings (Raz, age 13, Yao, age 11, and Simon, age 10) from a family in Calgary Housing who come every day and always stay to do the chores.  They are diligent and attentive and have been with us for three years now.

Our centre offers a relatively simple and inexpensive antidote to the problems that ripple out of the troubled lives of our kids.

From a societal perspective, whatever we choose to do or do not do will have an impact on the world that we live in.  We are going to spend the money and the hours at some point. Whether it’s $100,000 to incarcerate a single youth for one year or roughly twice that amount to operate an entire youth centre serving hundreds of kids for a whole year.  The choice is yours.  The choice is ours.

We can spend a modest amount now, preventing predictable outcomes, or we can spend much more later, trying to rescue the situation when the train is already off the tracks and the cycle of poverty claims another suffering victim. The data is clear – the problem is not easily rectified later. AND this does not account for the enhancement in the lives now, and to society later.

Our choice is to act in positive ways NOW.

What COVID Taught Us

Throughout the pandemic we had an opportunity to get to know communities in Calgary more broadly.

Our centre closed during lockdown, as did other essential services. Our decision was simple. We quickly began opening pop-up sites to give away food and essentials.  Seven days a week, our teams gave away commercial-kitchen-made lunches, groceries, refurbished sports equipment and books to kids in 12 communities for the entire duration of the pandemic. 

It started when schools and social workers, our colleagues, called us to ask “Who is going to feed our kids?” It made sense that we would be part of the answer and it was easy enough work.  We were already in the community, trusted and known, very well situated to do the work, take up the torch and feed kids and their families.

The result was over 150,000 lunches given.

The unintended effect was that it afforded us a broad and intimate reach into 12 communities.  We now know exactly what needs to be done in these communities and are developing and solidifying plans for the future in these neighbourhoods. This anecdotal data of need, by location,  is supported by the Calgary City Police, the Calgary Housing social workers and the school administrators with whom we work closely. 

It was an amazing opportunity as we were poised and ready to reach and feed families where they live, and with dignity. Kids read books and played, met new friends, while parents took the food.  Sometimes, the kids loaded food in their backpacks to take home with them. 

It’s not always easy for people to receive. It was humbling and we considered ourselves guests.  What a gift. It was an honour to serve and remains so. 

That experience gave us a broader reach into the city’s vulnerable districts where we saw that the need is considerable. People have lost jobs that have not come back. We know so much more from working closely with the residents in these regions.

This time also demonstrated that we have a nimble, highly functional, well-connected and unstoppable engine that can make things happen—staff, volunteers, practicum students from MRU and U of C, and a strong and engaged board.  We have a fluid team of creative, determined, educated advisors and supporters who are behind the organization that serve to keep it going and do what needs to be done. Our time of lockdown informed the next steps that we will take as an organization.  We have become stronger and even more capable of identifying and meeting the needs of a population of youth and families who desperately need what we have to offer daily. 

Next Steps

We will open a new site in Dover (South Forest Lawn) in mid to late 2023. We are currently actively engaged in planning and fund-raising to make this a reality.  This will require support from the larger community—we cannot (and should not) do this alone.

Would You Help Us?

Running a single youth centre costs $200,000 annually.  This cost is kept low because of generous volunteers and donors who provide supplies.

To expand and impact more communities, here are a few of the things we need:

  • Financial donors to walk alongside us, weighing in as they wish. 
  • Food donations are always needed, as are musical instruments, homework supplies, art supplies and kitchen essentials.   
  • We need to spread the word of this measurably impactful model to others who care about kids and who believe that strong and attentive stewardship of their funds is important.
  • And of course, we need a second centre in 2023, a house, under our very capable operational umbrella. 

A new centre is tangible, and we have a proven, working model. We welcome anyone who wants to be a part of the growth. 

Would you help us?  There are many ways you can get involved.  Learn more here.  (link to our expansion .pdf)

The Problem is Everyone’s Problem

Whether we do anything about it or not, we all share in the grief and the cost of kids raised in chronic toxic stress. Drastically. 

What YCC is doing works: cozy and modest houses, kids with access to safety, nutrition, academic enrichment, fitness coaching and healthy relationships with adults who truly care.

We know even one caring adult in a child’s life can make the difference.

And, this work is fun. We love working with you.  

“Never Doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that has” – Margaret Mead

Make a Difference

Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Join others who have made a significant difference in Ogden with the youth we serve every day!

Some of the ways you can be involved in changing real lives: