Recognizing that there is a direct link between mental illness and juvenile unsociable behaviour and suicide, Elevated Grounds – which emerged after a youth took his life in East Scarborough – uses the performing arts to increase and promote mental health awareness among young people.
The organization also engages teachers, families and mental health practitioners through its theatrical presentations and extensive school programs made possible through the Youth Challenge Fund (YCF).
Ontario’s outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty launched YCF in February 2006 to help young people in Toronto’s 13 designated priority neighbourhoods make the right choices, create opportunities and support community ideas.
The provincial government invested $15 million and matched private contributions up to an additional $15 million. The United Way of Greater Toronto leveraged the additional provincial matching funds by raising $15.8 million through generous philanthropists’ donations.
Over the last six years, close to $42.5 million has been invested in 111 unique youth-led initiatives in the city’s disadvantaged communities.
Nearly $27 million of the $42.5 million was allocated to 17 legacy initiatives to develop youth-dedicated space to be governed by community-based collaborative governance models that have a strong youth-led and youth-driven component.
Elevated Grounds received $450,000 in 2007 for three years and an additional $40,000 of legacy funding two years ago.
“We have been able to execute all of our deliverables and more,” said Elevated Grounds founding director, Nyahsa Ysrayl. “In the past four years, we have employed about 50 youth between the ages of 16 and 26 as mental health promoters. As artists who are part of a cast, they have travelled through the province putting on awareness-building presentations around mental health issues.”
However, the YCF funds have been exhausted and Elevated Grounds has had to develop an innovative strategy to continue to spread mental health awareness through dance, drama, song and spoken word.
“We have developed a social enterprise model where we are now charging for our services and the youths are paid close to market rate for the work they do in developing scripts and doing research because a lot of our work has to be evidence-based,” said Ysrayl.
In the next two weeks, a ground-breaking ceremony will take place at 365 Bay Mills Blvd. for a 4,000-square feet youth resource centre for under-served young people in the Steeles-L’Amoreaux community that also encompasses Chester Le and Glendower.
“There are several drop-in recreation centres, but what we are doing is different in that we are setting up a resource centre to build capacity,” said Minhaj Showkat who is the program director of the two-storey Steeles-L’Amoreaux Youth Club expected to be completed next March. “In addition to a recording studio, there will be computer work stations with Internet, a dance studio, a community kitchen and office space.”
Showkat, a former supervisor at the Ossington Neighbourhood Centre and a recent University of Toronto graduate, said the centre will be able to accommodate up to 150 young people at a time.
He and Ysrayl were among several young people involved with YCF projects who attended a recent celebration to mark the organization’s work in the last six years, including the launch of a website and video and the transitioning of the YCF approach and its office to the United Way of Greater Toronto.
Nation Cheong, the YCF’s director of community engagement and grants, will be the point person within United Way to support the day-to-day operations of YCF initiatives and also assist the agency with developing a youth impact strategy and programs.
“The YCF has been a signal for young people across the inner suburbs in the 13 priority neighbourhoods that their leadership counts, their ideas matter and their passion for their community means a lot,” said Cheong. “With the resources from the province and United Way, we helped to build a village around youths in the priority neighbourhoods.
“We have invested in youth ideas and more importantly young people who now have the capacity to be civically engaged in their communities. They now know how to negotiate with the City of Toronto, their local councillors and how to bring their ideas to fruition.”
Videographers Joel Gordon and Dameion Royes produced a video that showcased the YCF approach through the youths’ anecdotes, insights and voices. A website was also launched to ensure the organization has an innovative online platform to showcase its work to a wider audience.
“Our video and website tell the story of the ripple effect of what happens when a community of diverse backgrounds and sometimes interests and priorities comes together to transform systems and break down barriers facing Afro-Diasporic youth,” said outgoing YCF executive director, Pamela Grant. “These media tools demonstrate how our impact in the community is so much greater when we consider what we have been able to achieve and need to continue to achieve as a whole through collaboration.”
The YCF legacy will continue through annual awards honouring an Afro-Diasporic youth, an adult ally or volunteer and an institution.