YMCA campaign helps Chilliwack kids grow stronger

YMCA’s ongoing Strong Kids campaign hopes to make a difference in young people's lives

Sheri Josephson was at Bernard elementary school last Thursday, handing out YMCA Strong Kids Play cards to lucky students.

One of the recipients, a young girl, took one a card and got a quizzical look on her face. Josephson, you see, had just handed her options. The card in her hand was good for three-month youth membership to the YMCA on Hocking Avenue.

Or $100 towards a summer day camp.

Or $100 towards an overnight stay at YMCA’s Camp Elphinstone.

Fun options all for a kid who was caught completely by surprise and wondered why she was so fortunate.

“This little girl said, ‘Why me?’ And the principal said, ‘Because you’re special,’” Josephson recalled  with a smile. “The girl said, ‘I’m not special’ and the principal said, ‘Yes, you are special. All kids are special.’”

Josephson, the general manager of the Chilliwack Family YMCA had several such moments as she visited local elementary schools last week, distributing 75 cards as part of the YMCA’s ongoing Strong Kids campaign.

The campaign aims to remove barriers to participation in YMCA programs.

Friday morning, Josephson found herself at Chilliwack Central, distributing another 10 cards.

Again, smiles all round.

“The reason for the card format is because we wanted to get something in people’s hands,” Josephson said. “Rather than making it an onerous process to go through with registration and everything, it was about how simple we could make it The easiest thing to do was put something in their hands and let them go. And I can see firsthand how excited these kids are.”

A donation of $50,000 from the YMCA Endowment Fund paved the way for this program.

Six hundred and fifty cards in total were distributed to kids in the Vancouver, Surrey and Chilliwack school districts.

The criteria for selection was left almost entirely in the hands of the schools.

“It’s up to the principals and administration, the people who would know best which students will benefit from the cards, and use the cards,” Josephson elaborated. “The only criteria we provided was that the recipients be 13 years or younger, because its easiest to change behaviour patterns in that age group.”

With that in mind, Chilliwack Central principal Jim Edgecombe said his school’s criteria was straight-forward.

“You look at the kids who have the supports to access the YMCA and will take advantage of what’s being offered,” he said. “The kids selected here will use the cards, and wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.”

On the surface, this program appears to be about active kids — getting them off the couch, away from the TV and video games, and into something that will be of far more benefit.

The current generation may be the first in modern history with a shorter life span than their parents.

So that is a big part of it.

But Josephson believes this program touches on another of the YMCA’s three pillars.

“Isolation is one that comes up quite strongly, in that people aren’t feeling connected to each other or their communities,” she explained. “They don’t know where resources are to get help, nor do they feel comfortable asking, and it’s not just a low income problem. It’s right across socio-economic levels. If we can provide a way for that connection to happen, that’s a big part of the premise.”

Edgecombe said there’s a lot of local research data to back up that claim of isolation, and he sees all too often the damage it can cause.

“What we know from research and literature is that kids who are involved in their community often have more opportunities as they get older, because connections at a younger age translate into connections at a later age,” he said. “In some of our north side communities, and some of the more vulnerable communities on the south side, having opportunities where opportunities might not otherwise exist is imperative. Communities need to get together and collectively help to raise children, and I think this is a really great partnership for that.”

The Strong Kids Play cards are a pilot project, one that Josephson hopes will prove worthy of being permanent.

For that to happen, a couple bars must be met or exceeded.

“The biggest measure will be how many of these kids take the cards in and actually use them,” Josephson said. “That’s quantitative. Beyond that, it will be up to us to gather qualitative data, to talk to families and find out how they felt about the experience and whether behaviours were changed. Was this a good way to get people engaged? We want to take action, and we hope this is a program that will come back again and again and again.”

Get more info online at vanymca.org/giving/yskplaycard or call 604-622-4954.