It’s been a busy summer at the Heartland Youth Centre

Staff reflect on a ‘different’ kind of summer and plans for the fall

There are silver linings to summer programming at a youth centre even in the midst of pandemic restrictions.

At Stettler’s Heartland Youth Centre, staff are pleased with how things have turned out these past few months even in the midst of having to run things a bit differently than normal.

“We had shut our facility down in March when COVID-19 started, and laid off the staff temporarily. Then, as things started to open up, we were able to run day camps,” said Sara Wengryn, program director for the Heartland Youth Centre.

Her focus is the Boys and Girls Club.

“We were able to hire all of our staff back. We were also able to get two summer students which was great. But unfortunately in June, we had to cancel our major fundraiser which is our Awesome Auction Steak and Lobster dinner, which typically brings in about $80,000 a year for us,” she explained. “It is our lifeline.”

Needless to say, the Youth Centre’s programming and funding looked a lot different this year as a result.

“Knowing that the funding is not available, it means that we have to be much more careful with our programming and much more intentional – which we already are as a non-profit,” she said.

Still, four different types of programming ran over the summer including week-long camps for those ages six to 12.

“They would come from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It was also really a variety of activities – they might be doing a craft, they might be going to the park. They played in our gym – lots of group games. And because we formed cohorts, they also didn’t have to distance in the same way that some people would,” she explained. “It all went really smoothly.”

All the safety measures were in place, and staff also couldn’t allow as many children into the camps either.

But this helped those in attendance find a better chance of focusing on themselves and also on building relationships.

“They were also really excited to be back, see their friends and to connect because they really, really missed each other.”

That was all the more true for the younger ones who weren’t having play dates due to the pandemic, and also can’t connect via social media like older kids do, she said.

Another program that was launched for the summer was geared to teens which featured a variety of fun activities twice a week. “We probably had the highest teen participation numbers that we have had in years,” she added. “It was great.”

Initially staff had concerns that some behaviours would surface, but it was quite the opposite.

“The kids just missed being with their friends. They were ecstatic to be here and we were happy to have them! They become our kids too, and we miss them – we build relationships with them,” she said.

Another program which also flourished was Lead Up. “Typically we will have a couple of teens who are interested in volunteering. So not only does it give them some skills for their future jobs or for references or volunteer hours, but it also helps us out immensely because those teens are willing to get messy and be kids again. The younger kids look up to them, too. So it’s a two-way street – they help us and we help them,” she explained.

Another program revolved around the offer of ‘virtual’ sessions with the youth via Zoom with members who weren’t as comfortable about being in the building.

Examples of virtual activities included playing Pictionary, and movement-type activities such as yoga. “The one that they enjoyed the most consistently and that we had the highest participation with was a craft program,” she said.

“We would prepare a little supply kit each week – the parents would come and pick it up on Tuesdays and on Thursdays they would sign on and our staff would lead the activity,” she said. “It worked out really well.”

Fall holds some challenges, in that there are rules in terms of forming cohorts.

“Last school year, we had probably 100 to 120 coming throughout the week – maybe 25 to 30 each day – but different kids each day,” she explained. “Now, we can only have a maximum of 50 in our programs. So we really have to be creative in how we schedule things.”

Program details for the fall haven’t been finalized quite yet because of the provincial guidelines that will be specific to fall programming.

“We’ve got a plan – and if it’s anything like what we were planning for the summer, I’ll probably have four plans that will change! I’m prepared for that.”

Wengryn said that ultimately all the staff were reminded that it’s not about how many kids they have at the Centre, it’s about how the kids who do attend need the services, how they enjoy being at the Centre and how they do get a lot out of it.

“We are building relationships with them. We are that ‘extra person’ to support them.

“So I’m also excited to see what we can do this fall. I know it will be different, but now that I’ve seen the summer be so successful, I’m much less worried!”

For more about the Heartland Youth Centre, check them out on Facebook.

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