It all started on a box of prayers. Sue Kopczyk saw a need in the eyes of the people of Brantford. She set up a little table with a sign that said “need prayer?” and one after the other people came with tears in their eyes. What began as a small outreach project turned into an organization. She soon built the Why Not Youth Centre with her husband Charlie Kopczyk, making a mission to reach, help and encourage the at-risk youth in the city of Brantford. Little by little, they started holding drives and barbeques for the neighborhood. Their goal was to provide compassion and empathy to the people of this town.
Today the organization is managed by a small staff, including Becca Vandekemp McLellan, a graduate of Laurier and Nipissing here on the Brantford campus who continues to carry out that mission with the help of an enthusiastic volunteer team.
The centre provides many services including team mentorship, crime prevention, suicide prevention, esteem and leadership building, as well as life skills development. These services are rarely presented formally, but are incorporated into semi-structured activities and ongoing mentorship. The centre’s target age group is among 13 to 18 years of age, but they have created such a sense of community that youth below or above that age range feel comfortable enough coming to the centre with their issues as well.
As soon as one walks through the door of the centre, you can feel that sense of community and fellowship among the youth, the staff and the volunteers. “Sometimes they’ll come and show us their grades, and their grad dresses and their babies before they show their own parents because a lot of them don’t have the greatest relationships with their parents,” says McLellan. “Generational poverty is big. It’s been a huge blow to the portion of this community … we don’t have very high graduation rates among the youth that we attract. We have a lot of teen pregnancies right now and some of the kids are criminally involved. But our goal is that by the time our youth leave, they will feel infinitely better about themselves.”
The centre has seen significant change and development among the youth in their community from the time it began to where it is now. The confidence that Brantford youths find at the centre transcend beyond those four walls. “I’ve worked really hard to create another layer of mentorship. I’m trying to create an opportunity for blossoming professionals to learn how to engage and understand the needs of street youth,” says McLellan.
This education seems to be paying off, as during their dinners the volunteers are so well integrated among the youth that you can hardly tell them apart. Laurier volunteer, Krista McCarney explains, “The benefit of volunteering here has definitely been getting to know these guys and their experiences. I really didn’t know what they went through before I came here.” McCarney says one individual walked to the centre one day without any shoes on. This was an experience that took McCarney completely off guard, “I had no idea growing up what it was like to walk without any shoes on my feet,” she admits.
Throughout the dinner youth and volunteers socialize in a way where you cannot observe the differences or the advantages one was given in life over the other. “They provide a great environment for you. You got something to eat if you’re hungry … but they also teach you things you should be doing,” says Kodi Adams, a youth from the centre.