Children and youth who are at risk require the kind of supports that a caring relative would provide, unconditional and non-judgmental.
Unfortunately, many services require young people to prove that they are worthy of supports; for example, youth may have to be substance free or fill out complex paperwork to access resources.
When looking to serve Indigenous children and youth who are struggling under the weight of poverty, intergenerational trauma, addiction, racism, and grief and loss, services must be created with prevention in mind. Prevention means providing children and youth with the skills required to be well and to live independently in the future, but no one can learn when they are hungry or cold or they don’t feel safe. The basics of life must be attended to first in order for Indigenous children and youth to flourish.
For our Winter practice spotlight, the Indigenous Child and Family Services Directors are taking a close look at the Carrier Sekani Child and Family Services (CSFS) Sk’ai Zeh Yah “Children of Chief’s House” Youth Centre.
Sk’ai Zeh Yah opened during the pandemic
Sk’ai Zeh Yah was opened in November of 2020 in Prince George in the midst of a pandemic. This was no small feat but so necessary during a time when resources for children and youth were already stretched thin leaving our most vulnerable to fall through the cracks of social systems. The opening of Sk’ai Zeh Yah marked the culmination of years of work, grant proposals and advocacy from people dedicated to its creation.
“In the development of Sk’ai Zeh Yah, we created space for risk taking and for staff to step out of the traditional practice box; it was a total paradigm shift from work that is often overshadowed by the fear base of liability” said Mary Teegee, Executive Director of Child and Family Services at CSFS. “As a result, our staff built the program based on the feedback from youth who were accessing service. There was no road map or template to follow; but innovation was supported, and the team continues to adapt and change the programs. We always keep our children and youth in the centre- they are reason we are here.”
Sk’ai Zeh Yah serves children and youth age 8 – 29 and works to fill huge gaps in services for Indigenous children and youth, mainly from the surrounding Carrier communities, living in Prince George. The primary funder is Indigenous Services Canada, but the community of Prince George has been generous in their personal and business donations over the last year, including Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource operations, Rogers and the Victoria Foundation.
Sk’ai Zeh Yah Centre aims to be a place where children and youth can try new skills, make mistakes and still be welcome.
At the Centre opening, Teegee shared an anecdote about a study in which youth who had escaped addiction and homelessness were asked how they were able to come to wellness.
Teegee recounted how the youth involved in the study consistently replied that, “they had one person who could be counted on, someone they could always go to and not be judged.” This is the exact void that Sk’ai Zeh Yah aims to fill by providing a family-like atmosphere for the children and youth who have lived experience of being in care or unstable households. The Centre aims to be a place where children and youth can try new skills, make mistakes and still be welcome.
Work is carried out the Dakelh Way
There are programs facilitated out of the Sk’ai Zeh Yah Centre: the Youth Care prevention team, which provides a variety of 1:1 services and youth groups and the Youth Drop-on Centre which provides services 7 days per week to some of the most vulnerable people in Prince George.
Walk Tall was one of the first programs facilitated by Youth Services in 2011. The afterschool program is grounded in Carrier values and customs for children and youth aged 8-18: junior (8-12) and senior groups (13-18). In the Walk Tall program, Indigenous children and youth participate in programming in the areas of culture, recreation, prevention, life skills, education, youth leadership and development.
CSFS youth programs ensure that poverty and food insecurity are not barriers to participation in programming. Youth Care workers provide transportation, picking children and youth up from school and sharing a meal together before programming begins. Participants can take leftovers home and make a lunch for school the following day.
Elder and Youth Mentorship was developed based on the need of many children and youth in foster care who are living away from family and home community. Yekooche Elder Henry Abel Joseph walks alongside the youth and says “The challenges of unhoused Brothers and Sisters after aging out of government care, must be addressed. Sk’ai Zeh Yah is truly a big family and embodies what a Dakelh Way entails; kindness, respect, caring, sharing, and togetherness. We are guiding and building the desire for a healthy lifestyle and I commend the actions by staff and young participants.”
The Sk’ai Zeh Yah Youth Centre is open 7 days a week. Youth aged 15-29 can come to the Centre and access basic necessities such as a meal, a shower, laundry facilities or new clean clothes. Because many of the youth who access the drop-in have aged out of foster care and have experienced multiple precarious placements, these youth have had much less opportunity to gain the skills and resources needed to live independently. We recognize that for many youth post-care, they are in survival mode, just looking to have their basic needs met. Youth who access Sk’ai Zeh Yah have a warm place to hang out and watch a movie without expectation of change. They can take ownership of the space, which is important for youth who have lived in multiple placements and have always felt as if they were in someone else’s home. The Center also provides a place to store their most prized possessions, crucial for youth living on the streets.
Further, much like a family would provide skills and advice, youth can take in weekly programming such as drum-making, life skills, or employment and skills training. Youth can also access their cultural teachings and practices that they may not have access to otherwise. Youth who grow up with stable family are able to become independent over time, receiving guidance and support along the way; however, many youth who age out of care are estranged from family and community, meaning they are not able to access familial supports and no longer receive government funding or support from foster parents past the age of 19.
Decreasing Staff Turnover to increase Connection
For youth who have experienced multiple transitions, relationships can be slow to build. Many have had numerous caregivers and multiple social workers. This means that consistent staffing at Sk’ai Zeh Yah is important to trust-building. High staff turnover is common in front line positions, so CSFS invests a lot of effort into creating a work environment that feels safe and supportive for staff and to boost retainment. The staffing strategy also focuses on hiring, where possible, people who have similar lived experiences to the youth that they serve.
Amy Merrrit, Director of Practice, Child and Youth Services, CSFS said “Youth Care work is often undervalued and underpaid. There is a history of high turnover in the field, and the work can be challenging and draining. At CSFS we truly value the role and responsibilities of our Youth Care team. We ensure staff have a voice in program development and delivery and that they feel supported by their colleagues and leadership. A change in staff is another disruption and loss for a young person. By valuing our staff, we are in-turn valuing our children and youth.”
“…they’ve taken really good of me”
Lastly, care extends outside of the Center doors as if a service cannot be provided at Sk’ai Zeh Yah, rather than send the youth out the door with a referral, staff will drive or walk with the youth where they need to go, much like a caring relative would do. Outreach services are provided, which has been essential over the last year with soaring summer temperatures and frigid winter conditions.
Shane is a youth from Takla who has accessed Sk’ai Zeh Yah since its 2020 inception. Shane has been homeless for most of his (young) adult life, and in 2021 – with the support of Sk’ai Zeh Yah staff – he secured stable housing for the first time in his adult life.
Shane says that “Sk’ai Zeh Yah means a positive future…staff are really great; I don’t know where I would be without them… I’ve eaten here, I’ve showered here and they’ve taken really good of me.”
So many Indigenous children and youth have been denied the stable and safe homes required to build the confidence and skills required to live well. By providing a low barrier family-like setting and by providing the basic necessities of life without judgement, Sk’ai Zeh Yah aims to create a place where Indigenous children and youth can build their skills, connect with culture and gain the confidence to Walk Tall into the next phase of life.