Impact Stories

The Wachiay Friendship Centre Schools Out

The Wachiay Friendship Centre is a hub of support, advocacy, and encouragement. When walking into the foyer, you are welcomed by an array of posters offering assistance with legal aid, elder support, and children’s programming.   

With an “all peoples are welcome to friendship” mandate, the Centre is often at the core of serving a variety of individuals and families. Located in the Comox Valley, Wachiay delivers over 40 programs and services to those most in need, including children. This now includes United Way British Columbia’s School’s Out program. 

Bringing School’s Out to the Island 

“For more than a decade, the School’s Out program has proven to be a huge success in the Lower Mainland and surrounding areas. The benefit to children’s mental and physical wellbeing is clear, and we’re seeing them thrive and grow,” says Julie Rushton, Community Initiatives Manager for Central and Northern Vancouver Island. “Last year, we were really excited to launch this vital program in our region. So far, three programs have started, including the Wachiay Friendship Centre in Comox Valley. I’m looking forward to seeing the benefits of the program to our children and youth.”  

Like the 37 other School’s Out programs across the province, the Centre’s program offers a lot of social and emotional support and development.  

United Way School’s Out Programmer, Sarah Keeler-Dugas works closely with colleagues at the Wachiay Friendship Centre to meet the varied needs of youth participants. From whale watching excursions and rock climbing to baked clay sculptures and cultural learning, Sarah tries to offer participants and opportunity to explore activities that they may not normally have access to discover.

Helping youth to express themselves 

“I’d say about 85% of our kids are of high needs,” says Sarah Keeler-Dugas, United Way School’s Out Programmer for the Centre. “They are on the autism spectrum, or they have neurobehavioral disorders. Each day is kind of a bit of luck of the draw – we have some days where the kids are very active and they’re very communicative and then some days where they’re maybe not; maybe they’re having a bad day.” 

While some of the participants are good at communicating how they’re feeling, many are not. “Depending on how everyone is, I will do a thing at the beginning of the day where I will cut out little faces and stuff, especially for the younger ones, and I’ll say, ‘How you doing today?’, ‘How was your weekend?’, ‘Why did you pick this one?’, ‘Can you explain to me how you picked this one?’” 

The key to communicating with the participants is a responsible amount of flexibility and meeting the children in their emotional space. For example, sometimes a participant doesn’t want to be bothered with questions about how they’re feeling. As Sarah says, “They’re not fully there when they don’t know how to express themselves. There can be mental health issues but they won’t openly say because they don’t know how to express that they’re struggling. And we’re constantly working in a way that makes them comfortable.” 

To help younger participants express how they’re doing, Sarah uses cut out characters they can choose from. She can then open a dialogue about why they chose that emotion and character to gauge how they are feeling.

Creating a flexible space for participants 

In conjunction with two other programs (Bears for 6-12 year olds and Eagles for 13-18 year olds), children and youth programming at Wachiay Friendship Centre is offered over three days of the week, providing a stable and safe space for the participants after school hours. As one guardian said about a participant, “If she could come here every day to the Centre, she would! She loves this place so much.” 

Another aspect of the program is the blending of activities. A balance between activities that are craft-based with more physical activities is necessary as the School’s Out program strives to both engage the brain and allow the participants to burn off energy. 

“I think just being able to have a space where there’s openness, there’s flexibility, there’s freedom; the freedom to be who you want to be. We have a set of rules and structure obviously but we also know that too much structure might be too overwhelming for some of our kids so we tried to find a blend and offer programming that they will enjoy.” 

That flexibility has included Sarah bringing in a therapy dog one day to see how the participants would benefit from the dog’s presence. “We were going to do a low-key activity like making friendship bracelets. Moka, a therapy dog from St. John’s Ambulance, came in with her handler to see how it would go. We had a new registration who came in with his grandmother and mother. He is quite significantly on the spectrum and has boundary issues, some communication issues, and doesn’t like to stay still. We’ve been working with the family to find a good blend to help him out, so we were waiting to see how he would take to this. He sat down, pet the dog, and then for the next two hours did his activity sitting down and calm. His mum came up to me and said she’d never in six years seen him so focused like that.” 

A parent of a 6-year-old participant also commented, “What you guys have here is incredible. Never in a million years would I see my child be able to focus on an activity in front of him. His every day challenges makes it tricky to adapt but I’m so happy to see that he’s found positive outlet with this program.” 

Connecting with their culture 

Since starting in August, the programming has been a mixture of craft and artistic activities, physical recreation, and cultural learning activities, like drum making. In September, an Indigenous craft therapist offered learnings about how to make tobacco ties, smudging, and singing a drumming song. Not surprisingly, the cultural learning has resonated more with the predominantly Indigenous participants.  

“I’d say 90% of our participants and families are Indigenous. We find that they really connect with the cultural aspect. A lot of them have a little bit of disconnect with their cultures so we’re always trying to incorporate that in our programming. Any time we do something that’s culturally relevant, they love it. Some have also been taught by their family too about their culture and they’ll share what they know.” 

Participation by Elders has also been an important part of programming. Quite often former alumni or staff, Elders have offered a variety of cultural learnings, including from former staff member Darryl who has taught the children a variety of cultural activities like how to make shelters and survival guides. With an evenly split male to female ratio amongst participants, having male mentorship can be challenging but a vital benefit. “It’s always good to have men there talking about how they feel, especially as a lot of the boys that we have don’t know how to fully express themselves yet,” says Sarah. 

Helping youth develop and thrive 

With an increasing number of families facing financial constraints as the price of food and rent increase, programs like School’s Out are becoming even more fundamental to local communities. Providing a safe space available to children regardless of socioeconomic standing, the program provides educational support, physical activity, mentoring, and social and emotional support to help participants develop positive social behaviours and lifestyles. 

“We’ve had a couple of kids who deal with anxiety. Early on, we had a girl who couldn’t really connect with a lot of people. She used to stick with me a lot of the times like a little duckling,” says Sarah. “Now she’s branching off and doing other things with kids.” 

It is connections like this that help children discover themselves and how to fit into society. Making friends and developing interests are vital to becoming well-rounded individuals. In it’s September 2020 study, “Impact of School Closures on Learning, Child and Family Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control highlighted the importance of connectedness amongst youth: “School connectedness is associated with numerous benefits for students including higher self-esteem and life satisfaction, lower rates of substance use and violence, participation in fewer risk-taking behaviours, increased likelihood of completing secondary school, and greater feelings of positive mental health.” 

With three programs running in Central and Northern Vancouver Island, almost 180 children are able to access quality programming. The Mount Waddington Family Literacy Society offers United Way British Columbia’s School’s Out programming in Coal Harbour, Port Alice, Port Hardy, Woss, and Hyde Creek for 50 children. Meanwhile, Hiiye’ye Lelum runs programming in Duncan to around 60 participants. The Wachiay Friendship Centre supports close to 70 in their programming. 

As Julie Rushton enthuses, “School’s Out coming to the region is such a huge positive for us. We’ve known that there are children and families that could benefit from this initiative, and to see it expand and create safe spaces for these children to develop is quite special. I am excited to see how School’s Out expands and grows on the Island thanks to the agencies who run them and our donors who support us in these endeavours.” 

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