The noise hits me like a brick wall when I walk into the room. The after-school program is at full speed already. Children are running around and little voices are bouncing off the yellow walls.
“Am I doing it right?”
“I need help!”
And then a girl who might be ten years old looks straight at me, eyebrows raised: “And who are you?”
After School Matters
“After School Matters” is a United Way initiative that brings free programming to neighborhoods that don’t offer a lot of activities for kids to be engaged in. A number of local agencies are involved in facilitating these programs, including the YW. While our Skills Development Team brings workshops to schools all throughout the region all week, After School Matters is a great way for our social workers to support kids once they are back in their own environment, away from the school context.
A stream of water beads is rolling off the table at the end of the room like a colourful waterfall. Myles, who I learn is a regular at the program, sports a cheeky grin that spreads all over his face. He sits away from the other kids because Myles, I learn this too, has a mind of his own.
“Jenna is taking all the beads!!!” A small girl with beautiful big, brown eyes and an even bigger voice is outraged at her friend’s sins and is making sure everybody in the room knows about it. Noella, one of our Skills Development Workers, gives a faint smile and tries to mediate. Today, the kids are making stress balls. The boys are sitting at their own table because who wants to sit with the girls when you’re ten years old! They’re trying hard to look too cool for the arts and crafts but when they don’t feel watched, I see them gently funneling the beads into the plastic bottle and blowing up the balloon with great care to get it to just the right size before pouring the beads into it.
Myles has somehow gotten a hold of the scissors and is cutting his plastic bottle in half.
These kids live in what we call a “stressed neighbourhood”. I’m not a fan of labels but what I think it is trying to describe is that this neighbourhood is not the kind that has basketball and hockey nets in every driveway, along with a truck and an SUV. The townhouses are small and I have no doubt that if one family decides to crank up the tunes while doing the dishes, their neighbours will know it. It’s a neighbourhood that might be “stressed” but also one where kids create a special bond, speak their own language and whether by choice or not, are independent in a way I barely see in other kids their age.
My thoughts get interrupted when Myles walks past me making a big point of a) not looking me in the eye and b) obnoxiously chewing on something. I watch him stride through the room to the garbage bin where he spits out the balloon he has been chewing on. He is trying to look indifferent, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary to see here, but he doesn’t quite manage to cover up the smirk when he sees the shock on my face.
Turns out, kids are just kids
When I decided to check out what this After School Matters program was all about, I was nervous. I don’t know what I was expecting when I heard “stressed neighbourhood” – an eight-year old boy pointing a gun at me? A little girl smoking a joint? Whatever it was, it dissipated the second I walked into that crazy loud and busy room and reality hit me as hard as the sound of their high-pitched voices: they’re just kids.
Maybe they’re a bit louder than the average kid their age because their families tend to be bigger. Maybe they have a bit more “sass” than other kids, maybe their eyes look like they’re carrying more than they should but then again, maybe that is just what I think I am supposed to see rather than what I do see.
Their problem is not that they are growing up in that particular neighbourhood.
What their problem is is that more than half of the kids in the room will be discriminated against all throughout their lives simply because of the colour of their skin. Their problem is that half of the kids in the room are going to have to work that much harder to get that promotion when they grow up, simply because they are girls. Myles is a black boy with a learning disability. Are we ready to give him equal opportunity? All of their barriers will double and triple if a single kid in that room decides to not identify with their gender or if they make choices around their sexuality that society doesn’t agree with. Their problem is that in only a few years, we will stop caring because they won’t be small and cute anymore.
When Noella asked Jenna what she wanted for Christmas at the end of last year, she answered: “That my daddy will stop drinking.”
Are we still going to be there for Jenna in five years? When perhaps daddy’s drinking becomes too much to bear and she decides to leave? Will we ask her then how she got here or will we just see another lazy, dirty homeless person playing the guitar outside the Farmer’s Market?
Let’s do better.
When I tell people where I work, I can physically feel some of my friends and family members suppressing the want and need to judge the women and families we serve.
That has to stop.
And I include myself in this because challenging our own bias is an on-going, never-ending journey, for you, and for myself.
When the program comes to an end, another unthinkable thing happens: the kids just pack up and go home! No parent is waiting in their car, or texting or calling, they just head out in little groups and go back to their lives. As for myself, I can’t help but think of my own kids on my drive home. They have not earned to be better off. I don’t work harder or try harder than Jenna’s dad. I just happen to not be struggling with addiction. At least not today.
Childrens’ homelessness does not happen in a vaccuum. Children are homeless because parents are homeless. As we are striving to become a compassionate city, a compassionate Niagara, we have to care about everyone, regardless of colour, age, appearances. I am not perfect and neither are you, so my request is simple. Let’s just try. One judgement at a time. Let’s try harder, care more, assume less. If we want kids to have a home, we need to start with their parents.
Community and Public Relations at the YWCA Niagara Region