Investing in youth-advocacy groups

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YAA youth council opens door for 36 youth from 18 agencies to inspire change, break down ‘barriers and stereotypes.’

By Jessica Botelho-Urbanski for the Winnipeg Free Press. 

For 20 years, the Youth Agencies Alliance (YAA) has advocated on behalf of children and teens. Now they’re letting the youth speak for themselves.

Earlier in October, a new youth council was established at YAA, boasting two recruits from each of the alliance’s 18 member organizations. Thirty-six teens aged 14 to 18 will meet four times per year to discuss how they can improve their communities.

Since their representative organizations span several neighbourhoods, YAA director Karen Ferris hopes the council will forge friendships across the city.

“Because we’re bringing kids from different agencies together, that will hopefully foster some relationship-building as well, and ideally break down some neighbourhood barriers and stereotypes,” Ferris said.

Dakota Woitowicz (left) a Youth Council member with the Youth Alliance Agency poses with Karen Ferris, YAA Director. PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dakota Woitowicz (left) a Youth Council member with the Youth Alliance Agency poses with Karen Ferris, YAA Director. PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dakota Woitowicz, 18, attended the first YAA youth-council meeting in October.

She represents the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, which also has a youth council that has organized North End neighbourhood cleanups and community dinners, among other activities.

Volunteering at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata helped Woitowicz land a part-time job at a nearby drop-in centre. It’s work she finds rewarding.

“Especially when the little kids start seeing (the work the youth council does) and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re going to copy them.’ It’s great,” she said.

Discussions at the first YAA youth-council meeting mainly revolved around setting goals to stop homelessness and to raise awareness about the LGBT community, Woitowicz said.

“We talked about what we want to see in Winnipeg that the youth can do and what Winnipeg can offer us as we offer them (help),” she said.

United Way Winnipeg provides core funding to keep YAA and its new council afloat, including annual allocations for camp programming and summer art shows.

The charity invests in 36 youth-related agencies in the city and serves more than 75,000 young people.

YAA also helps tens of thousands of youth and could help even more, Ferris said.

“Our goal is to strengthen and enhance the capacity of (youth) agencies… part of fulfilling our mandate is to make sure that we’re listening to youth and making sure that we’re meeting their needs however we can,” she said. “So having a direct outlet for that now (with the youth council) will hopefully make that process a lot smoother and allow for a lot more direct interaction with the youth.”

Woitowicz said she’s excited to make new friends at the YAA youth council and keep busy doing fulfilling work.

Without youth councils like Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata’s and YAA’s, she’s not sure what she’d be up to in her free time.

“I honestly wouldn’t know. They gave me so many opportunities already. There are so many people I’ve met. It’s amazing,” Woitowicz said.

If you would like to help, donate to United Way Winnipeg online at unitedwaywinnipeg.ca/help or by calling 204-477-UWAY (8929).

REPUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS PRINT EDITION OCTOBER 31, 2015.