Urban Youth Adventures: Winnipeg’s North End

Winnipeg is divided between the central business and
commercial districts and the poorer neighbourhoods on the
north end of town.

Urban Youth Adventures (UYA) is a new Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) inner city initiative with a vision to help youth overcome poverty and its affects. UYA focuses on the north end of the city. Rail yards divide the north end from the city’s central business and commercial districts. These yards are a physical, social, and economic divide. They are the heart of an industrial and commercial zone that is also the scene for prostitution, drug trade, and violence.

Nestled up against the yards and the warehouses are the poorest housing tracts in the city. These include social housing, slum landlords, empty lots, boarded-up houses and businesses, for sale and lease signs, burnt out buildings, and dumpsters. The provincial government recently announced significant new money to catch up with maintenance issues, including leaky roofs, mould, and bugs in the social housing units. “Beware of Dog” signs are common along with fences, gates, and alarm systems. In some neighbourhoods, it appears everything is at risk. Most yards are not well kept. New initiatives, such as Habitat for Humanity and government-funded programs, resist further degradation of these neighbourhoods. Beyond the rail yards there are transitions for new housing and properties that are well kept. Businesses are active and prices are more in line with market values. There are fewer “Beware of Dog” signs.

Problems on the North End
The people who live in the seven neighbourhoods that comprise the north end of Winnipeg reporting Aboriginal identity range from fourteen percent to fifty-five percent of the population. (Winnipeg as a whole is at nine percent.) These neighbourhoods also report significantly higher proportions of people under twenty years of age. One neighbourhood, Lord Selkirk Park, reports that forty percent of the population are under age twenty. Many children are raised by older siblings. Parents can be difficult to find. In the summer, children roam in groups at night and destroy windows and gardens.

Poverty in this population is entrenched. It is generational. High incidences of alcohol and other substance abuse as well as sexual abuse of children have been reported. Our ministry has encountered disproportionately high numbers of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders (FASD). Sufficient and healthy foods are absent from significant numbers of homes. Supplies of clean, untattered, and proper (sufficiently weather proof) clothing are limited. There is much suspicion between people. Caucasians stand out and may feel unwelcome. Some people are hurting, fearful, and angry. There seems to be a fairly high level of racial awareness and racism is experienced. One Métis person explained that she and her family are targeted by more visibly Aboriginal persons in the community.

Mission and Urban Youth Adventures
UYA focuses on youth out of the conviction that given nurture and encouragement, youth can accomplish great things for themselves and their communities. Our intention is to help youth become agents of community transformation.

We believe that God not only desires to but is reconciling the world to himself in Christ and that the Holy Spirit is a key divine mover in this (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Romans 8:9-16). Followers of Jesus are called to participate with God in this God-driven initiative (2 Corinthians 5:16ff). We believe that children and youth have important parts to play and that they are also called to co-labour with God. We take a passage—“a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)—and we apply it to our context. If we believe in children and bless them, work with them, and empower them to hope and to dream, and if we continue to help them acquire knowledge, skills, disciplines, attitudes, and access to resources, they, their families, and their communities will be transformed.

Mission in this community must be done in
humility. We must go as called participants
with God in the mission of God.

Mission in this community must be done in humility. When the rich reach out in mission to the poor, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of trusting in ourselves. Instead, we must go as called participants with God in the mission of God. We go, knowing that we are incomplete and that the people we meet co-labour with God in the mission field that is our own broken lives. If we do not go with this respect, humility, and openness both to receive grace and to learn, then perhaps we will come to our suffering brothers in the manner in which Job’s friends visited him (Job 2:11ff). Our desire is to work together with people and anticipate seeing God do great things all around, including within ourselves and our sending communities.

We build relationships with youth and their families. Programs are not the goal. We ask our volunteers to relate to youth in small groups and one-on-one. We encourage them to listen to the youth, to get to know what is important to them and what is going on in their lives, and to listen to their dreams. Our programs and activities are set up to help us provide specific encouragement and positive reinforcement. At this point, our Great Plains School of the Arts is our major focus. Currently, we provide afterschool music lessons and lunch hour practice times in a neighbourhood school. There are also “jam sessions” (opportunities to play and sing with other musicians) for the youth who take lessons. The sessions are held in a neighbourhood church. Also, staff visit homes of the youth in order to build relationships with the families. Finally, there are performance opportunities.

We introduce biblical principles through short “God talks.” Our overarching theme is: “Who are you and who do you want to be?” We speak about topics such as: “I am specially made,” “somebody loves me,” and “respect starts with me.” We do not force God on youth, nor do we use fear or intimidation. However, we are open about our faith and pray with kids as opportunities arise. We do not treat all kids the same; instead, we value their unique situations. We try to create a positive atmosphere for workers and to be encouraging in our interactions so that this will serve as a model for the youth. As staff, we support and listen to volunteers to see how their experience is going and how we can make things better. UYA has a Results-Based Management (RBM) system which requires that we work together to give feedback, both positive and negative, after every event. Listening to the youth, staff, volunteers, and community are key parts of this.

The Beginnings of Transformation
UYA is seeing the beginnings of transformation in individual lives and a few signs of positive developments between community institutions. Two examples demonstrate this.

First, one jam night a volunteer spent time with a voice student, teaching her a simple song on the piano. Afterward, with everyone watching, the volunteer invited her to play for everyone. She was reluctant; however, she was talked into it and afterwards everyone clapped. As a result, other kids were also willing to perform. One staff member told me,

I feel I have been transformed through conversations in which the kids or their parents let us into their lives. When you can see them opening up or becoming vulnerable, that is incredibly powerful. Seeing the kids excited about learning something during the lessons is a huge motivation for me. One boy comes up to me after each guitar lesson and tells me about his progress and I give him a high-five. It’s mostly the little things that seem to transform me. Maybe it is similar for those we are working with.

Second, we are youth with FASD become more focused. For example, during her noon-hour music practice sessions, one girl was always asking, “Can I leave now?” More recently, when practice time was complete and it was time to go, she said, “Okay, but I’m going to play one more song first.” This desire and ability to focus on practice is remarkable and in time we trust will transfer to other areas of her life.

If you think of UYA and Winnipeg in your prayers, pray for love, faith, and hope to grow in our hearts and in the hearts and lives of youth, families, and community participants. Pray for wisdom and revelation to keep on track with God’s call. As a new organization we are seeking to develop: a network of community volunteers; a persistent prayer network; a network of churches that will support us with accountability, prayers, volunteers, and finances; and sustainable financial support. In all things, our desire is to demonstrate the unity of love and hope we have in God through Jesus Christ by the present power of the Holy Spirit.

Cornelius Buller is executive director of Urban Youth Adventures, a ministry working with youth who are impacted by poverty in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He was a key leader in creating the Invisible Dignity Project, which featured art exhibits, art talks, and a concert, all focused on bringing to light the dignity of persons who are regularly ignored or oppressed. Previously, Buller served as an ethics consultant for The Salvation Army, where he developed an annual international weekend of prayer and fasting on behalf of persons victimized by trafficking. He holds as doctorate from McMaster University.