keaton and kidsIt’s no secret that Boys & Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters (BGCBigs) has a lot of kids on our waiting list for a Big Brother or Sister. Right now the number is right around 1000, with 800 of those being boys. Thanks to the support of the Edmonton Community Foundation Vital Signs program, we’re piloting a project that will address the needs of our community’s boys with a bit more urgency.

Vital Signs funding has generously allowed us to hire a male Outreach Support Worker & Club Program Facilitator. Meet Keaton, a young man with a lot of energy and a heart for our community’s kids. Through Keaton’s time, we have been able to increase support in our clubs and provide more immediate service and programming to children who are waiting for a mentor.

“Lots of boys lack a male figure in their lives,” Keaton says. “My role in the Club is to give them someone to talk to that’s not their parents – I’m just someone else to hang out with.”

That hangout time is incredibly important. According to Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada, after school hours is the largest block of discretionary time in a child’s typical day. Many kids spend that time in isolation, at home in front of the TV or a computer. We know that children need to lead active and healthy lives and having too much unstructured, unsupervised and unproductive time can undermine their positive development.

In February and March of 2015, BGCBigs undertook a number of focus groups and surveys with the parents and guardians of our kids. One of the parents from South Edmonton told us, “I wish the Club was open more because there’s nothing else for my kids to do after school in this neighbourhood.” And that sentiment was echoed my many other caregivers.

Thanks to the grant, we’ve been able to increase the hours at our Club Connect sites so that kids are able to spend more time engaging in programming and hanging out with our staff and volunteers. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of boys served – nearly 40 percent more than the previous year.

“When I first started lots of kids would only come one night a week, or they would go through weeks or months when they just wouldn’t show up at all,” Keaton says. “But now, we’re seeing the same kids every night we’re open.”

Two brothers are a great example. They’re 10 and 8 years old, and they had been absent from the Club since the summer. But once Keaton started running a group specifically for boys suddenly the brothers were back. And they haven’t missed a single night in over 4 months!

The boys who are part of the Vital Signs program are able to spend their time afterschool engaging with other children and with a male mentor. Together, they play everything from soccer to broom ball. This winter they played hockey, and went skiing and skating. Many of the boys were newcomers to Canada and got to the experience our winter sports for the very first time!

A young guy from our Sakaw Club used to only ever play with action figures at the Club. To talk with him, you’d have to start by bringing up one of his action figures or else he wouldn’t engage in conversation. Plus, he would go home once the staff tried to run any active programs. But Keaton was able to get him participating in the boys group and now he plays with the other kids, and will open up to the staff without any prompting.

Another great component of the programming included a heavy focus on nutrition. Once a week they would have “Nutritional Night”. Together the boys would discuss what makes food healthy, play games, and prepare a healthy meal for dinner.

“One of my favourite nights was when we had a potluck,” Keaton explains. “I asked the kids to bring in something that they would normally eat at home that was also healthy. It was so cool to see what they brought in and watch them all experience different foods.”

We’ve also made positive strides towards recruiting more male volunteers in South Edmonton, thanks to the specific male recruitment efforts of Keaton and our Volunteer Recruitment department. So kids all over the city, not just in the south, have access to a caring mentor. Since Keaton first started, they’ve got a few male volunteers to be a consistent part of the boys groups, and it’s amazing that these kids now have several grown men to look up to.

One of the boys sums up the program quite nicely with just a few words: “I love the boys program because it gives me an opportunity to make more friends and we do cool stuff all the time.”

We are so grateful to the Edmonton Community Foundation for enabling us to run this program and we can’t wait to see the impact it has over the coming months and years!

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