As I stepped up over the course of 2020 and ultimately into the role of executive director at Why Not, I had to work within a context of constant change. These are my reflections on where those changes have taken us over the past year.
COVID made us re-evaluate everything. The question “What is essential?” got us paring back and building up to make sure what we were doing was strategic and intentional.
Here is what we learned from this experience:
Human connection is essential.
When our youth feel connected to supports and relationships, their mental health improves. When they feel isolated and “get in their heads” too much, everything is heavier and harder to manage. Then we deal with spikes in suicidality, self-harm, depression, anxiety, and drug use.
Therefore, we have prioritized maintaining caring relationships. We hope that each youth knows they are loved without condition and who to turn to for support or encouragement.
Food security is essential.
If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you’re going to be very anxious about that. Many of the youth eat one meal a day – the meal they get at Why Not. So we can’t drop the ball.
We have been doing our best to make sure everyone has enough. During the first lockdown, we delivered food boxes weekly to our youth, including ingredients they used to learn to cook a specific meal (with a mentor over Zoom). After we reopened, the youth could again access our food cupboard and daily hot meals were back on the menu. Significantly reduced capacity means we have not yet gotten back to the place where we feed everyone with our hot meal program, but with the food cupboard open we hope that everyone has enough to eat.
Joy is essential.
Joy is a powerful weapon in the battle against despair. That’s why we were so humbled and overjoyed by the success of our Christmas campaign. Because of caring partners like you, we were able to shower our youth with gifts that were handpicked from their wish list! Our youth went from feeling invisible and alone, to feeling honoured, chosen (the power of a sponsorship!) and seen.
While gifts alone don’t change someone’s actual daily reality – at least not in the larger way we wish for – they can speak loudly to the fact of someone’s worth. We got to tell our youth, “Guys, you are worth all of this and more.” And those words had power because they weren’t just our words but those words were backed by the actions of an entire community that showed up to say: “YOU MATTER. You are worth it.” And we all felt the joy of that reality.
2020 wasn’t easy, but it taught us important lessons that we are taking into 2021. We have learned the truth that hardship can refine us, scraping away what we can live without and giving us a better vision – 20/20 if you will – of what is truly important. What is essential. And we feel like that’s a pretty solid vision to build upon.