Did you know that in Waterloo Region, almost one in five students will not graduate from high school within four years’ time?
It’s a statistic that stayed with me as SVP Waterloo Region staff and partners toured the Chaplin YMCA in Cambridge this March. Our region is known for its innovation and academic excellence, so why is it that 19% of students need more than four years to graduate or do not obtain their diploma at all?
I asked the question as we toured, and learned there are many reasons: as simple as students failing to complete the required volunteer hours, or more nuanced issues that range from language barriers to repeat suspensions.
What matters even more than the numbers, here, is what organizations like the YMCA are doing to address these challenges.
While some might think that the YMCA is just a rec centre, we learned on our tour that it is that – and so much more.
We started in the community resource hub, framed by employment resources and public-access computers, where we connected with YMCAs of Cambridge & Kitchener Waterloo CEO, Peter Sweeney. He opened the night by sharing stories about the Y, how it has evolved since its founding in 1844, and answering questions.
Central to Peter’s introduction was a focus on the “YX” or “YMCA Experience” for all of its members: a wraparound sense of belonging and positive purpose through inclusive programming, leadership development opportunities, and genuine connection with YMCA staff and other members.
Our next stop was the Wellness Program area, where staff and specialists incorporate exercise, small group support, and healthy habits into custom programs that range from Diabetes Fit to Rock Steady Boxing. Interestingly, the boxing program is tailored to folks living with Parkinson’s disease to build their strength and coordination.
In 2018, 750 participants took part in the Wellness Program’s central courses, a 10% increase from 2017. As our population continues to age, programs like these are vital to helping members of our community live healty, connected lives.
En route to the Teen Drop-In Zone, Beth King, the General Manager for Child & Youth Outcomes, illustrated how this brightly lit space with comfy couches, lively games of pool, a kitchen, and a TV area where some of the teens were happily sprawled to play Fortnite, can potentially lower future Wellness Program attendance: by providing a safe, free, and welcoming space. In this environment, teens can grow up less stressed and with the skills they need to graduate on time and be ready for adulthood.
The Teen Zone is loved Region-wide: on a weekly basis, teens bus to the Y from Cambridge and Kitchener to hang out with their friends, get help with their homework or job search, or enjoy a family-style meal every Wednesday. We were inspired by how Jaymee, a recent graduate, talked about how participation built her skills and confidence, while also being a way to meet new friends.
Our last tour stop was at one of the YMCA’s newest programs: Alternative Suspension. This program was inspired by the success Quebec YMCAs saw in reducing recurring suspensions, and launched locally in 2018.
Program coordinator Luke Moyer, Director Youth Outcomes spoke with care about how the program facilitators work with students from two Cambridge Catholic high schools to set each student up for a successful return to school. So far, the program has given one-to-one guidance on addressing issues that led to the suspension, paired with homework assistance, to 55 students, and there are plans to work with more schools and students as the program grows.
The team at the YMCA are hopeful that this program will give students both a listening ear when they need it, and skills that will help them long after their three or five days of suspension have ended.
By reducing repeat suspensions and using the suspension time constructively, Alternate Suspension helps students stay in school – and ultimately helps to change the odds on high school graduation rates, giving our youngest generation their best chance to succeed.