“By focusing on the entire student, it means that social and emotional learning is just as important as scholastic academic learning.”
– Karla Heinz, manager of Children and Youth Initiatives for United Way of Calgary and Area

Calgary’s youth are in uncharted waters. As we explored in our last article, school, mental health, and youth-focused professionals are realizing a serious and unprecedented gap in social, emotional, and educational learning across all ages. According to Amelia Larson, director of Clinical Practice at Trellis, milestones for academic and social learning are much harder to achieve due to the pandemic gap.

“How they were presented developmentally five years ago is very different than today. It seems the milestone has decreased in terms of biological age. Grade 12s are presenting more like grade 10s were five years ago.”

The public health restrictions from 2020-2022 led to a dramatic increase in student anxiety, difficulties in concentrating, and mental health challenges that are overwhelming educators and support staff. This lack of maturity in both skill and emotional development has the potential to create problems if ignored. However, as a community, we can support our youth to rise above anxiety and stress to become confident and resilient adults in the years to come.

At United Way of Calgary and Area, we invest in community-based initiatives and agencies that take a collaborative, integrated, and holistic approach to Calgary’s youth. One of those solutions is natural supports, the relationships that are developed in our day-to-day life that include family, friends, partners, neighbours, and others in our social networks.

Susan Brooke is the vice president of Community Impact and Partnerships for United Way. She says that the building blocks to success begin with adults willing to act as natural supports in a young person’s life.

“We know that there’s an immediate need in the community for youth to receive natural supports. These adults are willing to be there when a youth needs support. Adults who make sure that natural supports are there and available and are the type of care that the youth needs in that immediate moment.”

As youth explore their mental health and identify challenges they may face, adults can be prepared with the understanding, knowledge, skills, and language to support them.

Natural supports can start with offering community and culture to young people. Joanne Pinnow is the director of Akak’stiman, United Way’s Indigenous strategy. She worked with the Seven Brothers Collaborative Circle to build community and connection during the pandemic shutdowns and afterwards.

“We created videos for youth, showing kids how to do smudging, a traditional spiritual practice to help people feel positive and good about themselves because not all have that connection. It was a way to show them how to do that in an accessible way. We also created videos on the importance of getting outside and being on the land. We had an Elder walk through her home community and showed young people the positive impact of being outside.”

United Way invests at the foundational level to support Indigenous youth through initiatives like Braiding Sweetgrass at Hull Services, the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY), and Miskanawah.

Meghan Finnbogason works as a program lead developer for Indigenous youth with Diamond Willow Youth Lodge, an initiative offered through Miskanawah. After seeing young people struggle to access supports during lockdowns, she’s glad they are finding footing through natural processes.

“I’ve been creating more natural learning environments rather than structured teaching. An elder came in to cook a traditional meal for their family and community. While it was intentional, it was also an informal way to learn a life skill and a piece of important culture.”

Diamond Willow Youth Lodge serves as an Indigenous hub for young people between the ages of 12 to 29. It is a place to access programs, cultural supports, computers, and support workers, but it also allows space for youth to guide and inform programming and activities. Finnbogason and her colleagues encourage participants to take their leadership one step further and act as natural supports for their peers. She says that to truly engage with young people and offer them support, you must meet them in their spaces and timeframes.

“There’s a lot of power in peer support. So, I’m teaching them in stages how to do outreach to connect with other youth. We go to them. They don’t just come to us. It’s not how they work.”

The examples from Diamond Willow Youth Lodge and other Indigenous-focused agencies clearly show that finding strength and resiliency takes time. United Way’s Community Impact Framework seeks to tackle systemic problems by changing the system. Programs like All In for Youth (AIFY) do this by applying innovative solutions to help youth stay in and complete school and successfully transition to adulthood.

All In for Youth has three main buckets. The first is helping provide academic support to students, such as tutoring. The second is self-care and building skills and resiliency to help them overcome barriers that they may face in the future. Finally, the third bucket is helping youth build those plans to successfully transition out of high school into post-secondary, employment opportunities, or skill and career development.”

Karla Heinz, manager of Children and Youth Initiatives for United Way, says AIFY’s success comes from its approach.

“By focusing on the entire student, it means that social and emotional learning is just as important as academic learning. Maybe they need counselling support, maybe they just need someone like a success coach they can lean on and have as a mentor in their life, or maybe it’s financial support. All In for Youth tries to take a multi-faceted approach.”

As we discussed in our previous blog, Generation COVID: The post-pandemic mental health crisis in Calgary’s youth,” it is very difficult for learning to take place when a student is struggling with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Trellis’s Larson sees more students coming into AIFY wanting to talk about mental health issues, something that wasn’t happening as often pre-pandemic. However, she still sees a lot of work to be done to break stigmas around seeking support, especially around mental health.

“Many youths present with valid concerns and genuine issues that therapy can support. We struggle with engaging with some family members of different cultures because there can be an element of shame. Encouragingly, kids that experience a cultural disconnect at home are still reaching out for support at school.”

Another AIFY partner helping young people on the path to success is YMCA Calgary. The Tutoring Table Program offers free tutorial services to vulnerable youth who can demonstrate the financial need and motivation to attend weekly sessions. The tutors are volunteers; many are existing medical and engineering students at the University of Calgary or retirees with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) backgrounds.

Christina Pape is a Table Tutoring supervisor. She saw an upswing in service demand as public health measures became less restrictive and the school year resumed.

“Students are struggling with math and science, and those two subjects build on each other… tutors are expressing concern for basic math concepts that students are really struggling with. There are certainly significant gaps.”

Pape shares similar stories from her peers and colleagues at other youth-focused agencies.

“We try to engage students with little activities at the beginning of sessions; we include ice breakers or play a board game. It’s been successful in creating that community among youth and their peers. Once they’re chatting with other youth, you just hear laughing. You hear them having a great time. It’s really rewarding to see that difference in the students. You see, they are feeling more confident. They are asking the right questions. They realize that ‘hey if I put a little bit of work into this, I have a person there that is supporting me, that is backing me up.'”

She describes one student’s story as an example. “They joined our session, shoulders hunched, very quiet, very pessimistic when they were talking about their learning and abilities- they really struggled in the beginning. We paired them up with one of the tutors, who is a retired engineer, and he worked tirelessly with the student. It was amazing to see the difference. They went from 40% on exams to 90%.”

There is no single, easy solution to bridging the gap created by the COVID pandemic. Still, through the work of United Way-supported initiatives and funded agencies and organizations, youth have a much better chance at a brighter future. By providing foundations for natural supports that help develop tools for resiliency, young Calgarians will ultimately emerge as stronger, well-developed adults.

United Way of Calgary and Area is examining the social, emotional, and educational gaps in the youth experience across Calgary. Check out part one of this series for more information on this issue. Stay tuned for our upcoming story from the front lines of the mental health crisis facing Calgary’s youth.