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Life comes full circle for 'street kid' who now works at youth shelter

Jennifer Kaplinski has overcome many hurdles including addictions and a suicide attempt; 'I feel like everything I have gone through ... has brought me' here
Jennifer Kaplinski of  Barrie Youth Haven
Jennifer Kaplinski, once a 'street kid' is now the Assistant to the Executive Director of Barrie's Youth Haven. Wendy King/BarrieToday

"It's a full-circle moment."

That is the feeling of Jennifer Kaplinski, the new Assistant to the Executive Director at Barrie’s Youth Haven.

Kaplinski was once a young person who used the services of the shelter when she was a self-described “street kid” at the age of 15.

Fast forward to today and the single mother of three, ages 9, 17 and 21, serves as office administrator of the shelter doing social media, promotions, fundraising and representing Youth Haven at public events when needed.

“My story was not a secret to the staff. I had volunteered with the agency for several years," said Kaplinski. "I think the fact they knew I was already a passionate advocate for the shelter was beneficial but it was my educational background, event planning skills and years of charity work that got me the job.” 

Kaplinski said she "came from a dysfunctional family. I was adopted by a mother who just couldn’t handle me. I don’t blame her in any way. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I needed more than my mother could offer at that time.

"I love my mother and now can better understand her struggles, but I became a ward of the state," said Kaplinski. "I lived in foster care. I couch surfed at friends' homes. I lived with some relatives and sometimes I lived outside on the street. It was a scary time," she admitted. 

"There was abuse of alcohol, marijuana, and acid.”

Kaplinski was taken by a teenage friend to the Barrie shelter, which in 1994-95 was no more than a big empty space on Dunlop Street above a business.

“I stayed just a handful of times but I will never forget walking up those stairs and seeing a bunch of other young people and realizing I was not the only homeless kid," said Kaplinski. "There was a realization that I was not the only one. That really stuck with me."

At the time she was only 15 so she wasn’t allowed to stay there long-term.

"But I remember bunk beds. I remember being given shelter and food and there was a pool table I thought was cool. More important than any of that was the feeling that there was hope," she said.

“I remember having a knapsack and everything I owned was in it," she continued. "I never let go of it.”

Looking back, Kaplinski remembers there was a lot of trauma. It led to a suicide attempt just after her 16th birthday.

“The day after, though, I felt re-born and decided only I could take care of myself,” she added.

That is also what she would tell the youth currently experiencing homelessness and utilizing the services of Youth Haven on Wellington Street.

“Of course, I see myself in these young people. I am not their case worker but my general advice would be to not give up on yourself and to learn to take care of yourself," said Kaplinski.

"Use the services available to you, take the opportunities offered to you and flourish. If you apply yourself, it will work," she says. "The support workers are there to help you become successful adults.”

Kaplinski has been on the job just a couple of months, but already feels it’s the perfect fit.

“I feel like everything I have gone through and everything I did with education and life skills has brought me to this position. I just want to make a difference," she said. "I feel really, really happy.”

For more information about Youth Haven, click here.

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About the Author: Wendy King

Wendy King writes about all kinds of things from nutrition to the job search from cats to clowns — anything and everything — from the ridiculous to the sublime. Watch for Wendy's column weekly.
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