If you happened to be walking by the West End Cultural Centre a couple of weeks ago and heard the raucous thunder of cheers and chants, you might think the hottest new rock band was playing a rare concert in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
In actuality, the venue was filled with more than 150 tweens and teens from around the city enthusiastically celebrating each other’s success as graduates of the 2023 Rotary Leadership Circle program.
“I’m loving the energy,” said program coordinator Alexandra Selby, between rounds of ear-splitting hollers and hoots. “Please keep it up. It’s amazing!!”
Established in 1996, the Rotary Leadership Circle is run by Youth Agencies Alliance—an organization comprised of 15 youth-serving agencies across the city and supported by United Way Winnipeg donors.
The RLC program gives kids a chance to learn life skills, make relationships with role models, and take on leadership tasks at their neighbourhood community centre over six weeks in July and August. Participants can earn up to $250 by completing 60 hours of volunteer work, which they can spend on school supplies, clothing, shoes, and more.
Ten-year-old Kalia was one of a group of young people from Evermore Gather Grow Lead in the city’s West Central community to take part in RLC this year.
After starting off as one of the quieter kids, Kalia came into her own through the program and ended up being chosen as one of two valedictorians to illustrate her transformation from shy to centre stage.
The chorus of cheers was deafening as she made her way to the podium for her speech.
“Rotary helped me realize that leadership and helping the community is a really big part of my life,” Kalia said. “We went to the zoo, swam, debated, learned how to write resumes, and how to budget. We had guest speakers, we built computers, and we ran a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer research.
“My favourite part of this summer is the great relationships that I made.”
Kalia’s mom Jacquie attended the grad, along with Kalia’s dad, grandfather, and 12-year-old brother—another participant in the program. Jacquie said it was a proud moment to watch her daughter address the auditorium and share the positive impact the leadership circle has had.
“I’m very, very proud that she did it … Kalia usually is very quiet at the beginning, and then when she feels comfortable and included and welcome, she definitely opens up,” Jacquie said, adding as a parent, she loves RLC for “the sense of community, and just (kids) realizing their potential and what they can do with life.”
“A lot of the time, they do slip through the cracks … So, we love to give them a chance.”
Programs like the Rotary Leadership Circle are designed to create opportunities for kids to learn job skills while staying connected and safe as they grow into their teenage years—a critical fork in the road for many young people.
Currently, in Canada, youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are more likely to experience mental illness or a substance use disorder than any other age group. As many as 60% of people with a substance use disorder across the country are also between the ages of 15 to 24.
According to a 2019 City of Winnipeg report, supporting positive social alternatives for children and youth in their communities contributes to an environment where kids are empowered to make healthier choices.
Further, the report states a lack of gainful employment can lead to poverty, alienation, and vulnerabilities—and offering work opportunities for youth is particularly important in the summer season when they would not otherwise be engaged in school.
As RLC site coordinator at the Broadway Neighbourhood Centre, Gabe said he understands that all too well. He knows the importance of helping kids shape their own self-worth and envision a future for themselves before negative influences possibly take hold.
“When they start going to high school—at 15, 16—that’s when … problematic things that affect them really start … A lot of the time, they do slip through the cracks. I’ve seen it, you know, I’ve seen it in this demographic,” said Gabe.
“These kids, when they are in Rotary, and they’re 10 to 14, they have that structure, and it makes them very much leaders in their own right, and they find themselves … So, we love to give them a chance. A lot of these kids, their first job or their first real volunteering experience is here.”
Gabe said becoming a member of RLC is strikingly similar to a real-world job: kids fill out an application form and are asked to list a reference and any previous work experience (often it’s delivering flyers or babysitting). He then conducts interviews, asking youth questions like ‘What do you think responsibility is?’ ‘What does safety mean to you?’ and ‘What does it mean to be a leader?’
Once the RLC kids are chosen, they take on various leadership tasks—organizing community fundraisers like car washes and popcorn stands, acting as mentors on field trips and outings, and more.
Gabe and other site coordinators continue incorporating job skills into the program throughout the summer, too—cover letter guidance and resume building workshops, and mock interviews.
“It helps them be prepared,” he said.
“I love these kids … and I love this place.”
Yoseph, 14, became involved with the Rotary Leadership Circle when he aged out of another donor-supported summer youth program facilitated through BGC Winnipeg.
He said during his time in RLC, he learned how to be a responsible volunteer, fundraise for field trips, and interact with people from all walks of life.
“It was just a chance for me to continue along the path of getting right and helping the community,” he said. “I want to go to university, and I’m interested in stuff like math and social studies, so maybe I’ll become a historian or (go into) engineering. Or I could focus on athletics like basketball and soccer.”
Yoseph said the most valued leadership skill he’s grateful for is gaining the confidence to share his thoughts and listen to others’ perspectives.
“Being able to voice your opinions is probably one of like the better elements (of the program) because … you need to have a voice,” he said. “If you believe in everything that you think, then you won’t get anywhere in life. But if you’re able to take input from other people, then when you mesh in your own opinion, it’ll make a lot more sense.”
Kalia has already asked her mom if she can apply to be part of the Rotary Leadership Circle again when she’s in Grade 6, and Gabe plans to return for his fourth year as site coordinator at Broadway Neighbourhood Centre.
Though they’re on opposite sides of the program, they both agree that even though RLC 2023 has just ended, they can’t wait to get started again next summer.
“I love these kids,” said Gabe, “and I love this place.”