How do we connect with youth in a time when they are constantly plugged into technology? What does success in community youth development look like? How do we ensure youth are supported? These are questions professionals working with youth are constantly considering. This article will discuss how the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation (VPB) and its Community Youth Development Team have been working with community partners to address these questions.
While one can argue that society is more connected than ever, VPB Community Youth Workers have seen considerable changes in their youth’s ability to connect and engage with peers and caring adults. The importance of relationship building, accessibility, inclusion, cultivating critical thinking and providing opportunities for youth to create and be involved in all aspects of program, event, and initiative development has become critical. It is no longer enough to plan a program, advertise it in a brochure and expect that youth will attend. Relationship building must occur and interactions need to be place based. To ensure we are meeting youth where they are at, the VPB employs 18 Community Youth Workers to work out of neighbourhood based community centres. These Youth Workers provide outreach services in the community and are connected to local schools and other youth serving organizations.
Accessibility and inclusion are significant factors that affect whether youth will connect to services. For youth, accessibility means something different than what is normally considered accessible. Youth need to be met where they are at, connections need to be developed and then we can begin encouraging youth to come and access opportunities provided by our agencies. In order for youth to feel welcomed and want to be in our space, these spaces need to be ‘youth friendly.’ This means that the plain multipurpose spaces that are so convenient for programming will not get youth excited about coming out. ‘Youth friendly’ spaces are spaces that youth can take ownership of, spaces that are available at times when youth want to access them, have equipment, furniture and decorations that they choose and that have staff that are friendly, approachable, relatable and show a genuine interest in everyone who walks through the door (Senderowitz, 1999).

Another significant barrier for youth is program and drop-in fees. Families who are struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table are not able to pay for youth services no matter how beneficial these services may be. Until basic needs are met, the effectiveness of counselling, capacity building and leadership development will be minimal (Rotheram-Borus, 1991). With these accessibility principles in mind, we have attempted to ensure that there are ‘youth friendly’ spaces in our VPB community centres, that our youth workers have the time and flexibility to get out into the community and build relationships with local youth, that we have friendly approachable staff and that we offer drop-ins and programs as reasonably priced as possible.

Marpole-Oakridge Youth Leadership Camp participants.

Another effective technique for connecting with youth is to empower them to initiate programming and to have a voice on issues that affect them. Youth know what they want, they know why they will or will not attend a program and they want to be heard. In 1999, De Rosa et al, reported that 78% of their sample of 296 street youth in Los Angeles, used drop-ins because the youth perceived them as providing greater flexibility, less paperwork, and less necessity to disclose personal information. This is the type of insight needed to provide meaningful direction on facilities and programming. Not only will youth ensure that programs are focussing on numbers as outcomes could inadvertently alter the nature of youth work by diminishing relationship building and contact time with youth. For the VPB, success in community youth development is evaluated partially by quantitative data but also by qualitative data such as testimonials, increased involvement of youth at decision making tables and by feedback from participants and community partners.

RISE Leader Research Project at the Vancouver Public Library 2017

To ensure that youth have a voice, VPB Community Youth Workers provide a spectrum of opportunities for youth to develop their leadership skills. A few examples of these opportunities include local youth councils, the City Wide Youth Council (CWYC) and the Responsible Indigenous Strategy for Empowerment (RISE) partnership. Local Youth Councils empower youth to develop program proposals, implement programs and events, seek funding for space improvements and tackle issues affecting their community. The CWYC has youth from across the city meet monthly to take on issues that affect Vancouver youth and to provide youth voices in decision making. RISE is a partnership between the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement together quarterly to develop and implement a community process based on the principles of accountability, engagement, inclusivity and place-based. Some issues being addressed include, confidentiality between organizations, ensuring accountable processes, engaging community in identifying systemic issues, ensuring wrap around services, and youth housing.

Transition in Resources, Relationships and Understanding Support Together (TRRUST), is a collective impact formed to address youth aging out of care. Meetings began in April 2014 in an attempt to achieve system-wide improvements in the outcomes for youth transitioning out of foster care in Vancouver. TRRUST’s vision is to invest in youth by creating equity of access to meaningful experiences, caring connections, and opportunities for growth based on individual needs, wants and readiness.
VPB Youth Workers Suzy Parker and Matt Charan 2016

The VPB Youth Workers initiate monthly Youth Service Hub Meetings across Vancouver. The intent of these meetings is to get youth service providers in a geographical area together to look at community trends, identify service gaps and problem solve ways to address these gaps. By coming together regularly, we reduce organizational silos, minimize duplication of services and have an opportunity for knowledge sharing.

In conclusion, community youth development is ever evolving but there are a few constants. Youth need to be involved in decision making; spaces need to be ‘youth friendly;’ staff need to be friendly and non-judgemental; programs need to be low cost or free; services need to be flexible and inclusive; and service providers need to work together to ensure that there is a safety net of services that support all youth.

(1) De Rosa, C. J., Montgomery, S. B., Kipke, M. D., Iverson, E., Ma, J. L., & Unger, J. B. (1999). Service utilization among homeless and runaway youth in Los Angeles, California: Rates and reasons. Journal of Adolescent Health, 24, 449–458. (2) Rotheram- Borus, M. J. (1991). Serving runaway and homeless youths. Family and Community Health, 14(3), 23–32. (3) Senderowitz, J. (February 1999) Making Reproductive Health Services Youth Friendly. FOCUS on Young Adults (4) Smith, M., K. (2003) From youth work to youth development. Youth & Policy 79, p46-59

ERICA MARK is the Community Youth Development Recreation Coordinator for the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. Erica has been working with children and youth in several capacities out of multiple communities for the past 19 years. She is a passionate advocate for youth services and spends considerable time training staff to support youth. Contact