15 OCTOBER 2001

Finding friends for at-risk young earns award

Peerless program for youth

FAST FRIENDS: Brian Park, 12,
and Karolina Machalek, 18, are
just two of the young people
matched up by Youth Assisting Youth.

Karolina Machalek will never forget the day she first met Brian Park.  The 10-year-old boy had emigrated from South Korea and was living in a sparsely furnished Richmond Hill apartment. He was withdrawn, prone to crying and didn't have many friends. He could barely speak English, relying on pictures and an electronic translator to talk with Machalek, who had just turned 16.

"Coming to that house that day was a huge flashback," said Machalek, whose family came here from Poland in 1992. "Having to start your life from scratch can be quite a terrifying experience for kids. I could totally relate Brian's experience to my own and I thought this is somewhere that I could truly help someone."

Over the next two and a half years, Karolina and Brian fostered an easy friendship. Today, she refers to him as her "little brother." He can't wait to translate the latest issue of his favourite Korean comic book into English for her. Together, they keep an album filled with memories of times spent together, a collage of camping trips, pickup basketball and Leafs games.

The two were matched up by Youth Assisting Youth, an organization that links "at risk" children aged 6 to 15 who are experiencing social, emotional, behavioural or cultural adjustment problems with volunteers aged 16 to 24 who can help them.

On Saturday, the organization will receive this year's Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award for its work. The $50,000 annual grant, established in 1998 in the memory of the daughter of former Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson, is designed to recognize an Ontario-based organization whose work has significantly improved the lives of needy children.

In the past, the award has recognized the work of The Family Enrichment Program, Ryerson Community School, and Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.

This year, Youth Assisting Youth impressed the judges for its dual success in fostering leadership among young adults and helping society's most vulnerable children. Since the program started in 1976, Youth Assisting Youth has matched over 10,000 children and mentors. Ninety-eight per cent of all youth participants have stayed out of trouble with the law, and many have gone on to become mentors themselves.

"This program is not just a nice thing to do, it has in fact saved some lives," said Charles Pascal, executive director of the foundation. "The other thing that caught our imagination is that so many of the relationships go on to develop into genuine friendships which are sustained over a long period of time."

`Having to start your life from scratch can be quite a terrifying experience for kids. I could totally relate Brian's experience to my own and I thought this is somewhere that I could truly help.' 
Karolina Machalek

The program focuses on preventing problems before they start. Research shows that having a good role model, beyond improving a child's sense of belonging and self-esteem, can decrease a child's chances of developing serious behaviour problems or criminal involvement.

Youth Assisting Youth recruits mentors through schools and community organizations and then screens them and trains them to recognize signs of abuse, cultural diversity and child management. The children they're assigned to help are referred to the program by social service agencies, doctors or school counsellors.  Most of the youngsters have experienced some kind of abuse, come from single-parent homes and live below the poverty line. Many also have behavioural problems in school.

"These kids need a special friend, someone they can confide in, a role model who can show them the way," explains John Provenzano, spokesperson for the organization. "Our mentors are the cream of the crop."

The agency tries to match people with similar hobbies who live relatively close to each other. Together they attend agency-sponsored events such as family picnics, summer camp and basketball games. Currently the agency has 380 matches, but there is still a waiting list of almost 400 children in need of mentors.

"We need more resources to advertise and go out and recruit mentors in schools to cut down that waiting list," Provenzano says.

The success of the agency's work is clear. Their matches last an average of five years, far longer than the initial one-year commitment.  "It turned out to be more than great," Machalek says. "It's more than volunteering, it's a friendship of great meaning and a life-changing experience."

The organization now operates in Toronto, Newmarket, Vaughan and Midland, with an annual budget of $1.3 million garnered from numerous sources including corporations and government grants. Money from the Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award may seem like a drop in the bucket, but Provenzano says it will go a long way to help open satellite programs in other Canadian cities.

Plans are in the works to expand Youth Assisting Youth to Vancouver, Regina and Saint John, N.B. The agency has also had requests from England for a program. 

The award was due to be presented during a special ceremony in front of Queen's Park this past weekend.


Sonia Verma
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