At first glance, the Cabbagetown Youth Centre is a plain, unassuming sight. A medium sized, modest building tucked away on Lancaster Avenue, it lies in a forgotten part of town overshadowed by the upscale Victorian-style renovations on Parliament Street.
Inside is quite the contrast. As one enters, the first things to jump out at you are the bright, vivid drawings plastered on the wall. The halls echo with the unmistakable laughter, and sometimes shouting of children.
Some kids at the Cabbagetown Youth Centre (CYC) are more than a handful. Dance instructor Christina de la Cruz knows this all too well. Her grade 3 and 4 students are the most difficult, she says. But De la Cruz understands where they’re coming from, because many years ago, she too was a student at the CYC. And each day, as she teaches them different dancing techniques, she remembers herself as a student.
“I remember wreaking havoc. I’m not gonna lie, I was a brat for a little bit,” De la Cruz said. “For a while I thought I was entitled to behave like a badass because I’m from a single-parent household, we were lower to middle-class, and my mom was working two jobs at one point just to pay the rent.”
Looking back, she realizes she wasn’t the only one facing these issues growing up.
In addition to Cabbagetown, the CYC serves the surrounding neighbourhoods of St. James Town, the most densely populated community in the country, and Regent Park, home to Canada’s largest and oldest social housing project.
The CYC is a privately funded institution established in 1972 to provide social support to these highly stressed communities. It aims to offer youth an alternative to the streets with a range of social, developmental and recreational programs, such as the performing arts camp that teaches skills in dance, drama, and music.
De la Cruz has been at the CYC ever since she can remember. She first joined the junior playgroup for ages three to five, then went to dance camp right at six. Now a teacher at the CYC, she stayed enrolled right into her teens and developed a passion for dance.
Unfortunately, De la Cruz cannot say the same for many of her peers. Some of the friends whom she met in grade 3 no longer practise the performing arts because they dropped out early. She feels that when youth drop out of the CYC and lose the social support it provides, they encounter problems.
“I’d say about half to three quarters of the people that dropped out aren’t in post-secondary education, some have children, some are living in shelters,” she said. “Honestly, I can’t put it in any other way than to say CYC has been a lifesaver.”
To De la Cruz, the CYC played a crucial role in fostering her love for dance and inspiring her to teach others.
“After growing up at the centre with really positive male and female role models, a lot of whom didn’t come from the best economic circumstances, to see them succeed and to see there are other options other than becoming a young mother or selling drugs is really fulfilling enough to drive you to get off the streets,” she said.
Dr. Fred Mathews, director of programs and research at Central Toronto Youth Services, said youth growing up in areas such as St. James Town and Regent Park with high density populations, high levels of poverty, and high incidences of single-parent families have a statistically higher chance of getting involved in crime, drugs and other social hurdles. A study called ‘Celebrating Youth’ which Mathews helped prepare found that seventy per cent of youth at the CYC suffered from social, developmental or behavioural problems.
“When we see some kids acting out, people can easily label their behaviour in ways that sound like a mental disorder when in fact it’s that the kid may be struggling with circumstances such as illiteracy or problems at home like violence,” Mathews said. “The behaviour itself is indicative of the stress the youth are experiencing, not a mental health issue per se.”
To Mathews, the CYC plays an important role in sustaining the community by providing social support the schools or homes may not be able to offer.
“The programs (at CYC) act as a buffer and moderator to some of the impacts and effects of living in highly stressed communities,” he said. “They’re like a bit of a counter-balance.”
Apart from potential problems at home or in the community, Mathews also noted that Regent Park and St. James Town both have high incidences of immigrant families. They may bring their traumatic experiences from abroad into the class, which sometimes manifest in emotional problems or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You’ve got kids who are coming in the door who may have just arrived in Canada, and may have had experiences of war or extraordinary loss,” he said. “Counsellors can normalize that, by saying, ‘Hey, any person in your shoes will end up struggling like you do, so there’s nothing wrong with you in that sense.’”
But apart from providing social support to youth, Mathews acknowledged that the CYC offers another crucial service for youth in the neighbourhood: it gives them a place to forget about their home problems.
Few know this better than Monique Caine, program co-ordinator of the performing arts program. She feels an important part of stabilizing mental health for young people is simply providing a place for them to have fun and interact with peers.
“They may be having issues at home, but for that couple hours that they’re with us, they can just be a kid,” she said. “For that bit of time they’re here, it’s kind of like a creative outlet.”
But while Caine recognizes that the community is a high-stress environment, she feels the same problems come up in any neighbourhood.
“If any kid doesn’t have something else besides going home and watching TV., or going out and playing on the streets, then they are at risk,” Caine said. “It really has nothing to do with the neighbourhood or background they come from.”
De la Cruz still remembers her days as a student at the CYC with each class she teaches. She sees how her students’ passion for dance slowly develops, and how they go from troublemakers to skilled, focused dancers.
“I see the work ethic they learn from dance translate into the rest of their lives. They’re more disciplined,” she said. “It’s really inspiring and rewarding for me, because not only am I making a difference in their love for dance, but I’m making a difference in their character.”
And for Mathews, it’s that difference that has a long lasting effect on the community. Despite what problems at home or in the community the children may bring into the CYC, when they leave, they’re never quite the same.
“As human beings, we’ve got to remember that kids are resilient,” he said. “They may have been failed by hundreds and hundreds of adults, but all it takes is one positive experience with an adult or mentor and all that can be turned around.”