A chance to just be a teenager

Circle of Friends gives girls an opportunity to talk, bond.

By Jessica Botelho-Urbanski for the Winnipeg Free Press. 

Jordana Kilgour wheels into a conference room at St. James Collegiate and starts waving excitedly. The life of the party has arrived.

“Hi guys!” the Grade 12 student beckons to her Circle of Friends.

For five years, the support group, organized by United Way agency partner Community Living Winnipeg, has met Tuesday mornings to help Jordana learn social cues and build lasting relationships.

At right, Wendy (mom) and Jordana Kilgour, daughter,18, at the Circle of Friends program at St. James Collegiate. This is a weekly session where Jordana learns to interact with people her own age. WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

At right, Wendy (mom) and Jordana Kilgour, daughter,18, at the Circle of Friends program at St. James Collegiate. This is a weekly session where Jordana learns to interact with people her own age. WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jordana, 18, uses a wheelchair and is developmentally around four years old, her mom, Wendy Taylor, said.

As much as Circle of Friends helps Jordana build bonds, it also gives six other girls a chance to unload about their lives.

What’s discussed in the room during the half-hour sessions, stays in the room, co-ordinator Jolie Lesperance said.

“This is the thing about it being five years (running). The stuff that we’ve all gone through, the things that have been shared and the life that has been lived, there’s a lot of history,” Lesperance said. “The circle is only a model. But then you have to have people wanting to do it and all these wonderful girls have wanted to do it all the time.”

As a colourful talking stick gets passed around the circle, the girls discuss their issues, personal victories and what Circle of Friends means to them. It’s a flurry of fast talk, with roaring laughs and near-constant questions to find out more.

The conversation runs the gamut from why mac and cheese is the best breakfast food to grad dress shopping.

“I can share things that I wouldn’t share with anyone, and I can have a place where I know people wouldn’t go gossiping about me at school,” said participant Jamie.

Lesperance only sees the girls once a week for the support sessions. Hearing them talk about how Circle of Friends affects their lives makes her well up.

“Stop crying, stop crying! No crying here. Breathe in, breathe out!” Jordana reminds herself.

The girls graduate from high school this year and agree they will continue to keep in touch and stay friends.

Recently, Jordana has started practising walking to prepare for their graduation ceremony. She plans to use a walker to accept her diploma.

“I’m going to walk on stage! My mom’s going to bring lots of Kleenex. She’s going to cry,” Jordana said.

Lesperance encouraged others who might be interested in creating circles for people who have an intellectual disability aged 13 to 22 to contact Community Living Winnipeg. The Circle of Friends concept can be tailored to fit each person’s needs, and the group of friends can be invited or volunteer to participate.

United Way Winnipeg has provided core funding for Community Living since 1966 and gives nearly 20,000 Winnipeggers who have a disability opportunities to help them live more productive lives.

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


Helping kids be all that they can be: Art Among Friends.

In the basement of artist Shirley Levacy’s Winnipeg home, the Great Blue Art Studio is abuzz with creative energy and conversation.

Led by Shirley’s enthusiastic suggestions, three teens are painting together. Katie is a bright, outgoing girl who has taken art classes with Shirley since she was a young girl. It’s where she met Avery and Dominic — two teens living with intellectual disabilities.

Although reserved in her interactions, Avery is quick to share ideas in answer to Shirley’s engaging nature. And while Dominic is precise and focused on his work, he regularly exchanges smiles and laughter with Katie.

Art Among Friends

Winnipeggers’ support for United Way and an essential network that includes Community living Winnipeg is inspiring creative solutions for a safer, stronger city by making it possible for teens with and without disabilities to make friends while making art.

“They are learning to connect with other youth,” Shirley says. “The art has become a tool for communication.”

Creating opportunities for young people of all abilities to socialize, collaborate and express themselves through art is the goal of Art Among Friends, says coordinator Lisa Waldner.

Art Among Friends

And it wouldn’t be possible without Winnipeggers’ support for United Way’s partnership with Community Living Winnipeg. As a result, Community Living receives core, sustained funding it can rely on to plan and innovate with programs like this one.

The real impact can be seen in the faces of participants; kids who may never have met their kindred spirits, or discovered a love of art, had it not been for this program.

“Sometimes kids with a disability aren’t included in a group,” says Avery’s mom Carla.

“Here, Avery feels she is part of an art community and feeling part of something is so important. It gives her a sense of self-worth and purpose.

Dominic’s mom Rachelle echoes the sentiment: “These art classes allow Dominic to learn, to excel and create beautiful art pieces in a safe, positive, fun and inclusive environment.”

For Avery, Dominic and Katie, art is also a tool for kids to be all they can be.

In 2012, Art Among Friends participants showcased their work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. And with help from their parents, who’ve formed friendships of their own, Avery and Dominic have begun selling prints; an added source of pride as well as income.

For Katie, art will remain a beloved hobby and source of relaxation as she goes on to university to pursue a career in healthcare.