As the oldest of 14 siblings, Jocelyn McKay has always been a natural at taking care of kids.
When a friend suggested the 27-year-old enrol in the youth recreation activity worker program through Red River College, McKay knew she would have the experience to succeed. What she didn’t expect is how many opportunities it would open up.
"I grew up raising so many siblings so I already knew I’m good with kids; I went into it just knowing this is something that’s going to come naturally for me," McKay said.
"I came ready with any idea possible — I have a million of them because of my siblings — it wasn’t that part that was hard, but it was more so about discovering myself."
On a sunny afternoon in May, McKay joined 12 other graduates, their families and professors on a familiar Zoom screen for a celebration — opening with an honour song and prayer from elder Paul Guimond — to mark the end of the Boys and Girls Club program.
Funded by the province, the City of Winnipeg and the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development, the nine-month program is tuition-free. It provides employment for inner-city youth who face barriers to accessing post-secondary education. It gives students skills they’ll need in the workforce by including 300 hours of practicum experience, and offering a $300 bi-weekly incentive to show up on time every day.
Students completed the program through in-person classes at the college in the midst of the pandemic, sitting spaced apart in a large theatre classroom. During the ceremony, students described facing mountainous challenges including positive COVID-19 tests and the death of family, friends and loved ones.
Randy Wagner, director of employment services for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg, said the program — in its 19th year — develops graduates with "not only the education but the life experience" to support young people in their communities.
"It’s a big stepping stone for a lot of things. It doesn’t just open one door, it opens a lot of doors," he said.
Each year, 16 students study psychology, Indigenous studies, history, non-violent crisis intervention, CPR and first-aid.
It helps students secure a driver’s licence before landing a job, Wagner said.
Most graduates get a job within a month of graduation, he said, some at local Boys and Girls clubs.
Kristen Hotomani, 29, came across the program on social media. Having just moved to Winnipeg from Saskatchewan, she saw the program as an opportunity to try something new and pursue her passion for youth care. Having grown up on a small reserve in Saskatchewan and leaving home of her own volition at 15, Hotomani decided she wanted to learn how to provide the supports she wished she had as a youth.
"I was a youth myself so I wanted to learn more about youth, children and what I can do to make a difference," she said.
"I want to be able to be that person to change that youth, that woman or that girl or boy in their life, even if it’s a little bit of guidance on life."
Hotomani said she learned valuable skills about how to engage with children and youth, plan effective activities and interpret Manitoba’s Children’s Service Manual. After graduating on May 27, she started working with Manitoba’s Child and Family Services on May 31.
"It’s opened a lot of big doors," she said. "You have that program, you have that knowledge behind you and know what you’re capable of."
McKay, on the other hand, wasn’t always looking for a career in youth care. She had considered law, dentistry and social work, and after completing her mature student diploma last year, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. The youth recreation activity worker program, she said, only expanded her options.
"You can do anything you really put your mind to; I’ve learned in the last couple of months that the possibilities are endless," she said.
McKay said her biggest challenge — a psychology course — became her greatest learning opportunity.
As a child, McKay said she was diagnosed with a learning disorder that shaped her educational experience; without positive supports and resources to help her in school, McKay dropped out. She resumed her degree years later.
"This label had been thrown on me at such a young age so I kind of grew into it," she explained.
In the psychology course, McKay said the class examined childhood learning disorders. It sent her into a "downward spiral," where she worried she might give up. She pressed on, though, and in the next course — this time focused on child and adolescent development — she remembers gaining a clear understanding of her potential.
"I discovered a lot about myself and what I’m capable of and what it is I can do and how that can’t define me anymore," she said. "It was a huge self-discovery."
McKay has a job lined up at a group home, supporting youth who are transitioning out of CFS care and into independent living. She’ll start at the end of June, when she’s done helping her seven-year-old daughter with remote learning. After that, she knows she wants to further her education.
"Whichever direction I go, I know I would excel at," she said. "What (the program) has done for me, opening doors and changing my perspective, goes beyond what I can even put into words."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.