Many services to support local youth can be found under the roof of the Heartland Youth Centre.
“We are home to the Boys and Girls Club and the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Stettler. Both of those programs are national, so my role is to look after the administration of the fundraising, working with the board, policies and the operational part of things,” said Winnie Bissett, executive director of the Centre.
This is a landmark year for Bissett, who marks her 30th anniversary with the Centre this year as well. She was also honoured last fall with the Female Citizen of the Year award.
Meanwhile, both the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers, Big Sisters certainly meet a critical need in the community.
“One of the things that we always want to let people know about is that the (program) is very accessible, it’s affordable – we are never going to turn a kid away due to lack of funds,” said Sara Wengryn, program director of the Boys and Girls Club.
“We have lots of options to help those families that do have a funding issue, too.
“Our most basic type of program is our drop-in program, which typically is where kids start. They drop in, see what it’s like. We do a lot of connecting the kids to new friends, giving them role models, teen and adult volunteers – most of our families come to us because they don’t have that connection.”
Beyond drop-in, depending on the child’s age, there are plenty of other avenues to explore.
“At eight years old, they can join some structured programs like a cooking program, or a specific physical activity program. We’ve had art and craft programs as well. The reason they are different every year is because they are dependent on the grants that we receive,” she added. “Kid Food Nation is a good example – it’s a nationally-recognized program that the Boys and Girls Club has created and we are lucky enough to run it.
“It teaches the kids about different cultural foods and some of the basics of cooking, things like that.”
Ultimately, over the course of the year, Wengryn said the Club sees about 300 kids take part.
“Each day, in the school year, we see from 20 to 25 kids, depending on the day.”
As the kids get a bit older, they have more say in what kinds of programs might be provided.
“The focus shifts from just giving them something to do to helping them find more purpose and meaning. They find those leadership skills. They work on building community service – just a lot of different things.”
For Wengryn, her position brings a strong sense of joy and fulfillment.
“Every day brings something different. Also, it’s just about getting to know what they are doing in the long-term, seeing them succeed and knowing that we played a role in that.”
Christel Shuckburgh, case worker for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, said that she herself volunteered as a big sister several years ago before she ever became employed with the organization.
Later on, after formal studies, she landed her post at the local office and it’s been a rewarding stint ever since.
“Any youth can use another person in their life who cares about them,” she explained, pointing out that Big Brothers, Big Sisters isn’t just geared towards single-parent homes.
Any child can benefit from a mentoring relationship.
“This is a formal mentoring, and the cool thing is that people come in here and they want to be mentors,” she explained of the volunteers who sign on to help.
“The program works well because we also match based on common interests and personalities, so hopefully, these matches last right into adulthood or as long as possible. These kids are having a mentor who is coming in and being a part of their lives.”
Meanwhile there is always a need for more mentors.
“We have 20 boys on our wait list for mentors,” she said.
As to those who do sign on to be a big brother or a big sister, they tell Shuckburgh how fulfilling it really is.
“Basically, almost every single person says they get more out of it than what they put into it,” she said.
“We have had two male mentors over the age of 70 come in. They both said, ‘We aren’t sure we have much to offer’, but they have done phenomenally. They have so much to offer – their whole life experience! They have been amazing.
“I feel like mentors teach kids how to give back to the community.”
For boys on the wait list, there is Community Boys’ Group where youngsters can try their hands at community businesses and organizations such as Stettler GM, ATCO, the police station and the fire department.
“The thing that I love is that the community is so engaged and they are so excited to do it. It’s always an incredible experience for the boys. We love that our community is so involved.”
For more about the above organizations, check out Heartland Youth Centre on Facebook.