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Youth Engagement Series provides a safe space for youth

Brantford Police ServiceYouth Engagement Series provides a safe space for youth

A new pilot program titled the Youth Engagement Series (YES), wrapped up the first run of its six-week program on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

Built in partnership with the City of Brantford and the YMCA, Brantford Police Chief Robert A. Davis, Sergeant John Billone, Brantford Police Services and Megan Potvin, a Youth and Transition Worker for the YMCA, established Brantford’s YES program during Laurier Wilfrid University’s Community Safety Search Conference back in November of 2023.

“It wasn’t the type of conference where you just sit there and you listen to people speak, it was more of, ‘let’s break into groups and sit at a table with like-minded people and let’s discuss how we can help make the community better and break down some of those walls between services,” said Potvin. “By the end of the two days, we knew we wanted to see more recreational programs, and being a youth worker, I wanted to see more youth rec programs specifically.  Because a lot of my youth that I work with don’t like the police for various reasons, and with my background in forensics and crime, I saw that there was such a need for positive police engagement in our community.”

Chloe Acerra, 15, and Wendy Arroyo, 15, give their best shot at a mock police fitness test during the final installment of the YES pilot program on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

She said that once everyone was on board and committed, the team quickly began organizing and taking the next step to put the program in motion.

Basing it off of the already established youth engagement series from the Hamilton YMCA, the three were able to adjust the content to meet the needs of Brantford and came up with a six-week program.

Evangeline Stephen, 15 (front) and Kira Pink, 18, remain collected as they perform a core endurance test during the final installment of the YES pilot program on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

Starting on April 16, 17 teenagers from the ages of 15-years-old to 17-years-old met every Tuesday evening for a two-hour session. 

“Each week, we would spend the first hour in the gym playing some sort of sport like basketball, volleyball, or pickleball and for our final day we actually did a mock police fitness test which was a lot of fun,” said Potvin. “During the second hour we would do a presentation workshop done by myself or officers from specialized units. So, the first week we talked about healthy relationships, the next we did internet safety, then we did a trafficking session, a drug session and in the fifth week we did a presentation on gangs and guns.”

Michael Ugwu, 17, and Funbi Akin, 17, run the beep test during the final installment of the YES pilot program on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

Sgt. Billone said that for him, the program was an opportunity to help local youth make positive decisions and to give them tools for success.

“Working downtown for so many years, I’ve dealt with a lot of people that have been struggling with narcotics use, homelessness and mental health issues and that’s the big trifecta on repeat. During this time, I have struggled to find solutions. It didn’t matter how many tickets I wrote, how many people I arrested, warrants I gave out, or the charges I pressed, I could not change the outcomes,” he said. “For me, this is where programs like this one, come into play because now, I can help influence the decision-making ability of the young people so that hopefully they never make the decisions in their own personal lives that will lead them to all the services that we find downtown. I’m a police officer, yes, but I’m also just a guy who lives in the community that’s trying to help kids make good decisions in their life.”

Billone said that in a world where every child deals with their own struggles, be it at home, in school, or online, it can be easy to get wrapped up into not-so-great situations.

“Sometimes curiosity gets the best of both us and them, right? People and kids want to be involved in and be a part of something,” he said. “But sometimes that thing you become a part of, can take you in a direction that you don’t necessarily know what to do when it gets out of hand. I want to be able to give these kids the ability and the confidence to say ‘no’ if it doesn’t make them comfortable. I want them to feel 100 per cent confident in their decision to walk away if they need to.”

Anthony Stewart, 16, and Const. MacLean Armstrong participate in a friendly push up competition during the final installment of the YES pilot program on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

He said that with the new YES program, it offers a different perspective on not only life in general but on what police officers do day to day.

“I’ve seen in Toronto and Hamilton, that programs like this one can slowly break down different stigmas about the police and open that channel of communication. Sometimes people think that all we do is drive around and give people speeding tickets but that’s not the case,” he said. “This program has been a great chance to actually educate the youth on what we do in the community and hopefully we have offered these youth a different perspective. I hope that when they leave this room, they no longer see us just how other people paint us, but as people too. And who knows, maybe there’s a chance that some of these kids who may come from a background where they’ve struggled, might end up being the very best police officers.”

Students, police officers and program coordinators pose for a group photo during the final installment of the YES pilot program on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

Potvin added that her wish with the series is that the youth involved will have a better understanding of the resources available to them.

“I want them to know that the police are safe and that they have trusted adults that they can go to,” she said. “I think after building that connection with safe adults and with each other, that they now know the resources available in their city and they know there’s a safe place for them to hang out. The biggest thing though, is giving them a positive sense of belonging in the City of Brantford.”

Not only did students receive two bus passes each week to get to and from the YMCA, but they were also given incentives like a six month gym membership to the YMCA if they attended each session. During the final week, the students received certificates of completion, a yoga mat, t-shirt and a toque, a $20 Tim Hortons gift card, sunglasses and their gym membership.

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