Mother Teresa once commented that spiritual poverty in North America was “much greater” than material poverty in India, calling North America’s the “poverty of being nobody to anybody.” The poverty of feeling forgotten, unwanted, unloved or uncared for. All poverty is devastating, but the poverty of being “nobody to anybody” is soul crushing.
Even before the pandemic, many people in North America were suffering from a crisis of meaning. We still have yet to fully understand the harmful ramifications of the pandemic on our mental and physical health, but it’s safe to say we are living in a time defined by the type of poverty Mother Teresa referred to. Across the city, there are apartment buildings and condominiums full of people who feel as though they are “nobody to anybody.”
Where do we even begin in addressing such deep, human issues? Feelings of purposelessness do not discriminate, and aren’t bound by socio-economic status or ethnicity. We all are susceptible to this type of poverty. This is a question that has been in the back of my mind often, and sometimes can feel a little overwhelming. But I do see hope, and I want to invite you to think through this question with me: where do we go from here?
Being “Somebody to Somebody”
At Promise, children learn that they matter. Here is a place where someone knows their name, asks them about their life, celebrates their successes and empathizes with their struggles. If they don’t show up, someone misses them here. Here is a place where they are not forgotten.
As kids grow older, they start to crave more deeply a sense of meaning and purpose; merely receiving care, though still important, is no longer enough for them. They begin to realize that they have more to offer than what our society expects of them. Maybe it’s our lack of expectation from young people that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
In the West, the bar is often set so extremely low for teenagers, isn’t it? We teach them as if their only goal is to resist substance abuse or shoplifting. We try to entertain them just enough so they keep showing up for school or programs. But when all we do is try to manage teenagers’ behaviour and get them to avoid certain activities, we miss the opportunity to truly empower them to make positive contributions towards their community. Young people long to make a difference and live a life of meaning and purpose.
Raising Up Young Leaders
What would happen if we guided our young people to use their energy constructively rather than merely avoiding poor decisions? What would happen if role models came alongside them and helped them see not only that hope exists, but that they can actually be a part of it? It could be that we as a society have been missing a significant opportunity.
This year at Promise Vancouver, we launched the Young Leaders Program. Local high school students are equipped with leadership skills, paid an hourly wage, and given the important responsibility of investing in the lives of younger kids during After-School Programs. Each Friday, the cohort of eleven Young Leaders come together to share a meal, grow as a team, and study key leadership concepts, such as integrity, self-awareness, and communication.
The Young Leaders Program is rooted in a desire to build up leaders from within the Downtown Eastside, but also address that poverty of meaning. It’s our hope that the kids can see themselves in the Young Leaders and aspire to one day be in their shoes. Kids have already been expressing an eagerness to be a leader at Promise one day, which is very exciting for us! The Young Leaders have a unique ability to connect with kids in a different way than adults can, and it’s so beneficial for the kids to have role models from their own neighbourhood to look up to. Here, we see a part-time job become something that addresses deep needs in our community.
The Path to Community Transformation
Here at Promise, young people are catching a vision of transforming their own neighbourhoods. As they pour themselves into the lives of younger kids, not only does it transform the lives of the younger child, but it also transforms the lives of the teenager who’s doing the investing. They’re giving something back, they’re not just taking.
When we hire teenagers from the neighbourhood, it’s so much more than simply supplying jobs and keeping kids out of trouble. We invite them to belong to this family of ours and be active participants in building each other up.
At our metaphorical dinner table, we say to these youth, “There’s a seat right here for you. Come join this family at the table.” And instead of just consuming, they’re invited to contribute, like how a member of a family would help with cooking a meal or doing the dishes.
One of our Young Leaders said it like this. “This is unlike any other youth program, because instead of just having programs for us, we actually get to participate and lead. It feels way less condescending, and much more dignifying.”
When our young people are thriving, all of society wins. We hope to see communities restored in the Downtown Eastside, through a movement of children and teenagers understanding that they are not “nobody to anybody,” but rather “somebody to somebody”. At Promise, these Young Leaders belong to a second family that loves them and calls them to something greater.
Graeme Fowler is Director of Youth Programs at Promise Vancouver.
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