Scarborough resident Sally Spencer always had a heart for her community, especially the young people she would notice living on the streets, or those dealing with mental health challenges. When she heard that the government was looking for ways to keep youth in school and out of the criminal justice system, she brainstormed solutions with a group of local citizens, including police officers, teachers, and service club providers, to devise a plan for change.
Forty-three years later, Spencer is now the CEO of Youth Assisting Youth (Y.A.Y.), an organization that invests in transforming the lives of at-risk and newcomer youth in the GTA and York region through the power of mentorship.
“We look at this organization as one that takes all of the kids that no one else wants.”
Today Y.A.Y. stays true to its name—with youth between the ages of 16 and 29 mentoring children and youth between 6 and 15 on a one-to-one basis.
Before leading the Y.A.Y. team, Spencer knew, by way of her personal experience, that the city needed a better policy in place to assist youth in high-risk positions.
“I would pick kids up, bring them home, and six months later I would find them on the streets again. In most cases, they were worse off than that first time I’d found them,” she said.
It was in these moments where Spencer realized what youth on the street really needed. They needed mentorship. Today, mentorship is the backbone of Y.A.Y., giving this organization tens of thousands of opportunities to impact young lives.
“I would see youth come in with very explicit issues, and within a short span of time helping them change their ways, there was a significant life transformation. We came to a point where it was necessary to develop the program further,” she said.
Y.A.Y went from serving only Scarborough, to serving youth across the GTA and York Region.
A typical journey with Y.A.Y. begins once at-risk or newcomer youth are referred by professionals in the community; from teachers to social workers and settlement workers. Y.A.Y. staff conduct a home assessment at the youth’s household to ensure that their home is a safe place to visit throughout the mentorship period. The next step is recruiting. Aspiring mentors go through an intensive training and orientation process, called Mentoring 101. This training teaches them about child abuse awareness, learning disabilities, and mental health awareness. Mentors are also required to pass a home assessment and provide reliable references before commencing their mentorship journey.
Although mentors are asked to commit to Y.A.Y. for at least one year, equalling a maximum of 156 hours a year, the average length of time spent supporting the program has become five years. Spencer says this speaks to the enriching experiences and relationships forged between mentees and mentors at Y.A.Y.
“Mentors feel like they are getting more out of it than they are putting in. It builds their own personal skills and gives them clarity on their career choices. Some have changed the direction of their careers and decided they wanted to become social workers,” she said.
But mentorship isn’t always a walk in the park. The first three months are typically challenging for some mentors as it takes time for youth to trust them. Thankfully, over time, these pairs grow in relationship with one another after engaging in eventful activities in the city throughout the years such as community bowling nights, sports games, or networking events. It’s all about bonding.
Spencer says one rewarding aspect of her job is seeing Y.A.Y. mentees later become mentors themselves once they become of age.
“We are just a vehicle, but it is our young people and volunteers that do the grunt work to keep this program running.”
It’s the life transformation stories that move Spencer and her team to work beyond the value of their paychecks. In one pairing, a mentor challenged her mentee, whose family lived off of a 4-generation dependence of welfare, to break the poor financial legacy of her household. The mentor made a deal with the child: to join her at work, do some light labour, and in turn, she would give them $5. The mentee eventually saved up enough money to purchase their own commodities. This sense of ownership urged them to look for work once they were of age. This mentee later became a high school, then college graduate, and today is a childhood educator.
“Mentoring allows people to rethink what they have, where they can be, and what they can accomplish. Sometimes they just need extra help and support from those who believe in them,” said Spencer.
Y.A.Y. believes that the power of mentorship is undoubtedly lifechanging. Their records show that invested time and genuine care for a young individual has the power to multiply into transforming the lives of many. Mentorship has proven to boost the self-confidence of young people, open doors of opportunity, and ultimately break the barriers they face in society.
In the long term, Y.A.Y. aims to provide mentorship throughout Canada to every community that needs it—and they are committed to doing it their way—youth to youth—just like their name says.
We applaud Y.A.Y.’s efforts to nurture young people in the city through mentorship, inspire their growth, and encourage them to continue to build on the amazing impact they are having in our community! See what you can do to support them today!