Joan Kelley Walker with Todd Bender, founder of City Kidz in Hamilton
Growing up in small town Saskatchewan, I never really knew what bullying was. Our town was made up of around 200 people. I went to school with 36 kids and that was the whole school! Everyone knew each other. Back in the day I felt we were more labeled rather than bullied. You were the shy one; the dumb one or where you sat in your class determined your cool factor among peers. What grounded me though was family.
I consider myself blessed, and this year give thanks for family because as you eat your turkey and meet to feast, there are others who are part of a family you and I never knew growing up.
I recently met face to face with a group of Hamilton youth that opened my eyes to the challenges facing our future leaders. These are children dealing with the following realities. Statistics according World Vision's Poverty at your Doorstep report reveal steel town's poverty rate is 10 per cent coupled with an unemployment rate of more than 6 per cent. More than 13 thousand people in this port city depend on social assistance. Another 18 thousand people need the food bank to keep bellies full.
Doesn't sound like a great reason to give thanks but there is a silver lining when you meet the kids behind these stats.
I recently spent a Saturday at City Kidz in Hamilton. It's a role-modeling project operated by World Vision Canada made up of children from the lowest income neighborhoods of Hamilton.
I sat beside 16-year-old Molly who came to City Kidz because she felt like "the odd child out." Her self-esteem was super low at the time. Her new focus is on helping other kids that have been bullied.
"City kidz made me feel like someone really cared about me and they took the time to visit me and it was pretty special and had positive role model all along."
I also met Joe. He told me that he started at City Kidz at four years old. It was "cool" because it was a way for him to see his brother who lived in a separate home. "When I was young I didn't recognize it, but as I got older I saw it was an escape. Home wasn't the best. Today Joe will be the first person ever in his family to attend University. He wants to be a journalist and I am sure he will.
Todd Bender the founder of city Kidz, mirrors this sentiment: "We see kids have been transformed. It matters and it makes a difference." Todd likens it to Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point. "If we can get to 5000 kids a week with constant re-enforcement, they can experience faith hope and love every week, they will take that to their schools, homes, communities etc. The biggest factor is external validation from someone outside the family that doesn't have to show love. We can be the best at relationships. The kids remember the person who visited them. Over the years we keep re-enforcing the momentum that creates systematic change. We can break the cycle of poverty."
This is a program that has taken root. World Vision Canada is one of the key contributors to supporting the infrastructure, training and providing framework for expansion in Canada. New branches are beginning in Ottawa and Regina, which World Vision hopes to support in the coming years.
Trevor Thomson, the gentle retired school teacher, assigned to show me around for the day, confides, as I prepare to leave with a new light in my heart " I believe this is where I am supposed to be. All those things I have done in my life before prepared me for what I do now. It gives me purpose."
I say well-done City Kidz.
One more stat to leave you with. Child poverty rates in Hamilton have indeed dropped from 13 per cent to 4 per cent. So what's happening in The Hammer to move one of Canada's most industrialized cities to become even more industrious? Plain and simple -- kids.