“Growing up, we didn’t have many places where we could hang out as kids. So when I became a teenager, I kind of strayed away from my culture and the good things in my life,” he says.
Today, Johnny considers his cultural upbringing one of the main reasons he turned his life around.
“I feel like I benefitted from my cultural upbringing, because it helped me get back to a good place. Now I see the path I’m on, and the paths my peers are on—and we’re on two different plains,” he says.
The path he chose led him to the Diamond Willow Youth Lodge, a welcome and inclusive gathering place developed for Indigenous youth by United Way of Calgary and Area and Pathways Community Services Association. The Lodge is led by a coordinator and a five member youth council responsible for designing and realizing social and cultural activities, and promoting a safe space where Indigenous youth can access vital services and supports. For some youth, especially those at risk of mental health issues or suicide, the Lodge provides a safe space to seek guidance from peers and Elders. For others, it’s a gathering place where they can connect with friends and peers over cultural and social activities.
“It’s really amazing to know that there are youth who are benefiting from this. It’s really bringing a lot of youth together and creating a community,” adds Princess, a fellow member of the youth council. She is happy Indigenous youth in Calgary finally have a positive and welcoming place to go to connect with their cultures—something she didn’t have as a child growing up in a small community in central Alberta.
“In Maskwacis, where I grew up, we didn’t have anything like this. I would’ve loved to join programs and have these sorts of resources available to me as a kid. So when I moved to Calgary, I wanted to get involved in the community,” she says.
“But it’s hard living in the city, especially when you’re not from the area. That’s why it’s so important to have a place like this—a place where you feel welcome, you see faces you know, and connect with other youth. It’s one of my favourite things about this place,” she adds.
Both Johnny and Princess take pride in being members of the youth council, which allows them to not only contribute to the development of the Lodge, but also set a positive example to other Indigenous youth.
“We want to be the example of no drugs, no alcohol. It’s about leading by example. And we’re learning as a group to do that. Being on the council, having input, engaging the other youth, and making sure they’re in a safe space—I find it very fulfilling. To be able to encourage the youth to stay cultural and stay true to themselves, I think that’s the most beautiful message I could give to this place. It’s a humbling experience to make a difference in someone’s life, and I am glad I can contribute in my own way,” says Johnny.