A community can be defined by the way it enables those less fortunate: in some cases, young people who need a safe place for the night (or longer), a bite to eat or a kind word.
Or a place to nurture their possibilities and create positive futures.
Youth Haven, in Barrie, has been doing just that since 1987, when a group of concerned citizens realized there was nowhere in Barrie for a young person experiencing homelessness to find shelter.
“They began taking kids into their homes, and quickly realized that the need required a better response (from the community),” says Lucy Gowers, Youth Haven’s executive director, of the original inspiration for the non-profit organization more than 30 years ago.
Her young clients arrive at the door with varied experiences along with trauma and abuse, and they have faced big challenges.
“Approximately 80% of youth experiencing homelessness are often fleeing unsafe situations,” she adds.
Over time, Youth Haven - Simcoe County’s only emergency shelter for youth aged 16 to 24 years old - has expanded its programs and services to include the ‘RentSmart’ program and transitional housing and outreach services offices in Orillia, Midland, south Simcoe County along with services being provided to the Collingwood and Bradford areas as well.
But the non-profit isn’t done yet; the new Barrie YMCA will soon be home to Simcoe County's first stand-alone transitional housing unit for youth, working in conjunction with Youth Haven.
“Great things happen when community members come together for a great cause,” Govers says with a big smile. “We have recently partnered with the YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka to eventually move our long-term transitional housing outside of the emergency shelter and together with the YMCA we will facilitate transitional housing dedicated to youth.”
All the support for young people who are eager to change their lives speaks to their needs, and the efforts of a caring city and county, says Gowers.
“We live in an incredibly generous and caring community, one that we can be tremendously proud of,” Gowers says. “But our communities just don’t happen; it takes a lot of people, organizations, and volunteers with energy, pride and passion to build our communities that are strong, healthy and vibrant.
“The focus for nonprofits, their staff and volunteers is to make our communities a better place to live and work, and to build a vital and thriving place or all of us,” she says
Gowers’ introduction to the world of non-profits goes back to when she was a young girl living in Niagara Falls.
“My first volunteer role was working at a nursery school for atypical children: children with physical and mental health challenges. I realized then that my actions - no matter how big, or little - were helping to make a difference in the lives of the children I helped care for.
“Their smiles said it all.”
Those children were facing some pretty tough challenges, she adds.
“I, on the other hand, would never have to endure the hardships these kids would continue to face their whole lives. I was grateful for what I had: my physical health, a supportive, loving and caring family, a good home, friends, a good life, and a bright future.”
So, Gowers has brought that dedication and first-hand knowledge of years involved with non-profits to Youth Haven.
She has held positions with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Grey and Bruce counties, Habitat for Humanity Grey Bruce, Parkinson Society South Western Ontario as well as the Georgian Triangle and Orillia Housing Resource Centre.
The youth that come to the shelter and/or access Youth Haven outreach programs come from all over Simcoe County, York Region, Grey County, Toronto, Niagara Falls and even as far away as Timmins.
“Over the years we have helped transform the lives of thousands of youths, for the better,” Govers says. “Some youth have gone back to school, others have found employment, and housing, and are well on their way to creating a better life.”
Many often return to volunteer and help out any way they can.