By Keela Keeping and Sydney Tilstra
In Mission, BC, since COVID-19 emerged, Scott Guitard has been working around the clock. A Youth Unlimited outreach worker, Guitard is part of the team that runs MY House—a house for homeless youth. During these extraordinary times, Guitard and the team have been dubbed, The Social Work Power Rangers.
When pandemic response began, MY House’s service delivery quickly pivoted to become a contactless pick-up point for much-needed groceries, and continued to offer access to showers and laundry. It then evolved to include a temporary youth shelter. Thanks in large part to Guitard’s heroic efforts, MY House also went mobile, bringing food, supplies and check-ins to struggling youth.
Guitard is one of sixty Greater Vancouver Youth Unlimited youth workers (also known as YFC, nationally) who made a remarkable pivot mid-March, figuring out how to be the hands and feet of Jesus to youth who need them more than ever, while being physically distanced.
And while everything has turned upside down, YU’s Executive Director Mark Koop explains that in the end, much remains the same. “The needs of youth come down to consistent connection and mentorship,” he says. “How we bring that has changed for now, but by God’s grace, our presence and impact remain. It’s been tough, but we are committed to being here for vulnerable youth, not matter the circumstances.”
Here’s a tiny peak into the post-COVID world of youth work from the eyes of three YU youth workers.
Q: How are you holding up?
A: It’s exhausting. It feels like it never ends. There’s no nine to five anymore. Texts come in constantly. During the day, I’m at MY House or running drops, then I’ll eat dinner with my family and after try to be present online, for the requests for gaming or to talk.
Q: What’s going on at the street level?
A: The number one need of these kids is food and check-ins. A concerning number of youth all moved into one house – I’ve never seen so many living together. Many youth in foster care are ditching that and going to this house. We check in three times a week with food hampers and counselling.
Vulnerable youth are at high risk of exploitation. Sometimes I wonder if all these kids are living terror and putting up a front when we show up. There were four overdoses in this house in one weekend that police responded to. Please pray for these youth and wisdom for us.
Q: What are positives of all this?
A: An extra layer of trust has been built with us and youth are being more open.
Andrew oversees YU’s work on the North Shore, which until COVID-19, was primarily the Mobile Drop-in Centre, afterschool programs, and mentoring meetings in coffee shops.
Q: How are the youth doing?
A: It’s a mixed bag. Mental health issues have intensified for some – things like isolation, anxiety and depression.
Q: What do youth need right now?
A: Someone to process their feelings with; someone to initiate and ask, ‘how are you doing with all this?’ Many have lost the motivation to reach out to anyone. In terms of practical needs, CERB has definitely helped some struggling families, but others need help with groceries and rent.
Q: What positives have you seen?
A: There has sometimes been an increase in depth of conversation, actually. Youth can sometimes feel more comfortable on video chat from the safety of their room.
In the first week, I was talking with one of our longer-term youth, and we had the deepest conversation we’ve ever had by far. We talked about her brother and why he loves Jesus and what happened when he went to Keats Camps. We talked about her questions and I shared my testimony. I promised to get her Mark Clark’s book, The Problem of God, to address some questions on science and faith.
I’m also so proud of two of our older boys (who met through our program), who have both been stuck – socially and mentally – for a long while. Progress is up and down, but I see such hope for both of their futures, especially with how they are supporting each other through COVID and beyond.
Sandra works with YU in Maple Ridge, known for their robust school breakfast programs and mentorship. Sandra’s work hit home during COVID.
In March, I got a call from one of my youth, I’ll call them Sam [Sam prefers non-gender specific pronouns]. They were in distress. They had left home several days prior and didn’t know where to go. Sam had only a school bag, a phone and the clothes on their back. “God, what do I do?” I prayed.
As we chatted, it became clear that home was not safe and COVID had diminished most of Sam’s options. After talking with the Ministry, it became obvious that my home was the only real option. Four months into marriage with a new baby on the way wasn’t the ideal time to start fostering a vulnerable teen – let alone the challenge of suddenly having to homeschool my other children – but I knew it’s what God had for us.
The good has far outweighed the challenges. Sam shared that living in our home was the first time experiencing regular meals at the table together. It’s also a safe space to talk about emotions, receive empathy, feel appreciated and be given the freedom to ask about faith. Sam is thriving.
Youth Unlimited is a Christian charity that meets vulnerable youth where they are at in communities across Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. We’re about genuine, caring relationships, without judgement, with the goal to love like Jesus loved.