At-risk youth entered dangerous, uncharted territory when the world went into lockdown in the spring of 2020. Luckily, the Orillia Lions in Ontario, Canada, had their backs.
The Orillia Lions felt the need to step up our support.
For more than 20 years, the Orillia Lions have supported the local youth center through both financial and service support, but in the past few years they’ve become more involved. And when the pandemic shut things down and the center had to close, Lions knew it was time to up their involvement to keep those most at risk off the streets.
“Many of the youth experience mental health issues and/or homelessness,” says Lion Denise Naughton, who is the club chairperson. The Orillia Youth Center (OYC) is a drop-in facility for children ages 11 to 17. They offer at-risk youth meals, opportunities for social engagement, workshops to support self-esteem and build life skills, mental health support, arts activities and much more. A recent Twitter post reminded kids to bring their laundry — including cloth masks — so staff could help them use the free washing machines. They even offered to do it for them if needed.
During the shut-down, OYC staff were laid off, but they kept working anyway, knowing how much they were needed. “They continued to do their jobs via phone chats, virtual meetings, working with school officials and [Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada] workers to check in on high-risk youth, and distributing food, which was supplied by many local restaurants and the community,” says Naugton. “The Orillia Lions felt the need to step up our support.”
The center set up weekly meals for kids and their families. The meals were intended to provide food, of course, but they were also a way to keep watch over the kids they’d been working so hard to help.
“During the lockdown, these kids weren’t in school and they didn’t have a lot going on at home,” says Lion Jamie Mask. “We needed a way to keep tabs on them and make sure they were OK. Having them come in once a week to get meals was a way to keep in touch.” Lions and OYC provided enough meals for the kids and their families. Those who didn’t show up had meals delivered to them.
Lions bought gas cards for OYC staff who had been using their own vehicles and gas to deliver the food, and began coming in weekly to help pack and sort the meals for delivery.
Their efforts really paid off when, during the summer, two kids hadn’t been seen or heard from in a long time. “They weren’t at home, they weren’t showing up for virtual school. Nobody knew what was going on with these kids,” says Mask.
So, during meal pickups, staff began asking other kids if they had seen the boys. “Turns out, they were living rough. They had found a tent somewhere outside of town and were living alone,” says Mask. OYC staff went and picked them up and got them over to Children’s Aid. As a former police officer and policy-maker for juvenile offenders, Mask knows how grave a situation they were in. “What could have happened to them down there?”
For many of these young people, the youth center provides the only guidance in their lives. “They’ve really turned a lot of these kids around who were sort of on the edge,” says Mask. And having the Lions involved lets the kids and their families know that the community really cares about them and is there to support them.
“It’s been good because we’re getting to know the kids,” says Mask.
“The youth are our future,” says Naughton, who believes providing opportunities for young people will help foster partnerships between the community and its residents. And many of these same youth have already given back to the community by donating their time to Lions activities, like roadside cleanups. “I’ve seen them slowly come out of their shells,” says Naughton. “Because they’re giving back. They’re doing something outside of themselves. It gives them a purpose. They feel proud to be out there picking up garbage and helping you out.”
“Kindness is one of the few things that benefits both the giver and the recipient,” says Mask. “It’s a win-win for everybody. There’s no downside to kindness.”
The Orillia Lions Club is one of the 2021 Kindness Matters Service Award winners. For more stories and to check out a list of all the winners, visit lionsclubs.org/KMSA.
Erin Kasdin is the senior editor of LION Magazine.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has impacted communities around the world in different ways. To ensure we’re serving safely wherever we live, Lions should follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization or local health authorities. Visit our Serving Safely page for resources that can help you safely serve your community.