An International Partnership
By: Tanis Cochrane – VP Children & Youth
Recently, Narmin Ismail-Teja (Board Chair), Howie Shikaze (Vice Chair), and Tanis Cochrane (VP) joined Janet Giles and Nancy Fraser of the YMCA of Northern Alberta on a partnership visit to Bogota, Colombia.
Each day we were privileged to join groups of parents or youth to hear their stories and to learn about their experiences. In one program, we listened to youth share in one word, what the YMCA program has meant for them.
These youth live in a dangerous neighbourhood, rife with poverty and lacking basic services that we take for granted like running water and electricity. A neighbourhood where a walk down the wrong street can literally mean the end a life. The youth used words like respect, accountability, fraternity, family, belonging, wisdom, transformation. “It sends shivers down your spine when you hear young people using words like that, especially once I understood the context of their daily lives”, commented Narmin.
A visit to this YMCA is both inspiring and overwhelming. Inspiring because of what we experienced: the ability of the staff to empower youth and families, the compelling leadership of their Executive Director and executive leadership team; the amazing stories that we heard every day. Overwhelming because of the number of young people struggling to stay in school, to stay out of gangs, of the young, single mothers choosing between working 28 of 30 days in the month to feed their family or spending time with their family.
Despite this context, and because of this context, the YMCA is making real and measureable difference each day. With a team of staff comprised of a social worker, a psychologist, an educator, and supplemented by generalists and a team of volunteers, the Bogota YMCA operates in some of the most challenging environments. They rent or purchase a building (a few rooms that can house group activities and program sessions) that becomes a YMCA in a community. Children, youth, and parents (most single mothers) gather and know it is an inclusive and safe space where they will free to be themselves, to discover more about themselves, and come to believe they can design their own future path.
“It was so inspiring to hear the words “life plan” in the context of the youth setting goals for themselves”, said Howie. When you are struggling to survive each day, it is hard to envision a future. The YMCA believes everyone deserves a chance to believe in themselves and to believe in the potential of others, and to plan for a positive future.
The program interventions focus on youth knowing their rights, understanding their strengths, setting goals, and developing skills that will enable them to stay in school and to seek employment. The YMCA has been operating in Bogota for over 50 years and has slowly built an organization that epitomizes social enterprise in action. The YMCA relies on international partnership support, government funding, and generates their own revenue by operating a cafeteria, a conference centre, a private school for middle class families, and a bakery.
“Transforming Lives” is the tag line for the Bogota YMCA. It was moving and powerful to have had the privilege of witnessing that in action.
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