Helping Saskatchewan Families flourish: The YMCA Strong Kids Program

Strong Kids, Strong Communities

The current building opened in 1969, and from there it has provided multiple kinds of support for the city – a history echoed by its current manager of marketing and communications, Serena Dallas.

“The whole time, there’s always been some kind of financial assistance offered to the community,” she says. “It used to be the ‘Campers’ Fund’, to help kids go to camp in the summer. In the 1980s, YMCA converted to the Strong Kids campaign – focusing on providing financial assistance to whole families.” This takes the form of funding for programming, camps, and even swimming lessons, allocated to hundreds of recipients each year. It has helped children for generations now, giving them access to sports, wellness programs, socialization opportunities, and even leadership training that they otherwise wouldn’t have. “The kids who need it most are the ones unable to afford it,” Serena explains.

The result is a tightly-knit community in which everyone is welcome, and where staff like Serena and her colleagues can watch families grow and flourish. “A parent comes in to sign up their kid – it usually starts with swimming lessons – and they’ll sit and watch, playing on their phone. Over a few weeks, they make connections, get more social.” From there, it changes from something their child does to an activity they can do together: “The Y has become a place where they can decompress with their child. They’re not ‘customers’, they’re part of our family and community, and we become part of theirs.”

A Safe Place to Learn

Mesrak, her husband, and their four kids (aged between 7 and 10) first came to the YMCA of Saskatoon in 2015 after a recommendation from the Open Door Society. “I went there with four kids on Wednesdays, just so I could get a break,” she recalls with a smile. “I just wanted somewhere to put them, to entertain them and relax…They could get some exercise in the process.” In the years since, they have become inseparable: “The kids have almost grown up playing sports over there.”

It’s a far cry from that first day, during which she remembers being worried about how much it would all cost – after all, extracurricular sports can be notoriously expensive. But instead of an inaccessible club with pricey memberships, Mesrak instead found an entire community enthusiastically reaching out to help, financially and otherwise.

“There’s karate, camping, fishing, swimming lessons. I wouldn’t have been able to afford all of this. But through Strong Kids, I get a subsidy to help keep them entertained.” The scale of what was available was unexpected, but warmly welcomed and appreciated. “There are many people here who have no chance to get all that they want – and without the support [of the YMCA], those kids wouldn’t get to take part.”

Going Beyond Sports

One of Mesrak’s favourite things about the YMCA is that the learning doesn’t stop with sports. They keep her kids busy and active, but they are just one facet of the many life lessons and skills that are taught and passed on there.

“There are lots of life lessons beyond sports. The YMCA gives tools to deal with school, with friends, with healthy lifestyles. One of my sons is bullied, so he gets to talk to someone and ask the leadership for help with that,” she says. “When they go to stay at their friends’ houses, they are confident. One of my daughters used to be a bit depressed, the other was very shy when she was small – she used to be so scared of people that she had stomach aches. But when they began going to the YMCA…they learned how not to be shy, how to dance, things I didn’t teach her.”

These new skills and useful lessons are meant to enhance the lives of people in the community and are tailored to suit those needs in specific ways. One such program is the Home Alone course, which teaches kids information about how to stay safe if they are home by themselves, while building up their ability to be responsible and “earn the key”. Another is the dedicated leadership course, which helps kids develop their empathy, emotional intelligence, and communication skills so that they can more effectively lead and listen. “You get to do a lot of fun stuff – I learned how to act things out and think them through the way other people would,” Mesrak’s eldest daughter says. “We learn about independence, and how to be a grown-up.”

Creating a Stronger Saskatoon

For Mesrak, this extra attention adds another layer of relief and satisfaction on top of the benefits offered by the sports. Her kids are seeing how important it is to contribute to the community, and how great it is when everyone works together to learn and improve – and they will grow up with a fondness for the place that made it all possible. This idea is reinforced by Serena, who sees it returned in more tangible ways: “Many of the kids end up volunteering, or even working for the Y – we’re often their first employer. They take what they learn and pass it on. It’s all about giving children the opportunity to have better lives and strong spirits.”

The impact for the Henderson family is immeasurable, but the community benefits made possible by the organization – and, in turn, by the donors that fund it – are even better, Mesrak says. “If I couldn’t take them [to the YMCA], they would have never gotten over their shyness, or gotten better at school. It started as somewhere to put them so I could relax, but it’s become so much more. The feeling is great.”

Those lifelong lessons may seem like a stretch for an organization that is best known for sports programs, but Serena sees how those small actions – attention, leadership, skill building, achievement, and unbiased equality among peers – take root and change a child’s life for the better.

“I see a vision down the road where Youth+Us and the Y are helping kids here, but also offering programs that are quite different. The assistance provided [by Youth+Us] allows us to reach the community, and it doesn’t just impact a life right now. It impacts a life forever. It has a ripple effect.”