Ukee’s Youth Room helps local teens find friendships, learn new skills and occasionally score free food.
The room is located within Ucluelet’s community centre and offers daily drop-in opportunities as well as larger scheduled experiences like Mt. Washington trips and surf adventures.
The district’s youth coordinator Erica Benson told the Westerly that having a judgment-free space for youth to connect and collaborate helps foster a positive teen culture on the Coast.
“While it does have structure, it also has that more informal atmosphere promoting social growth,” she said. “Kids can come and either bring their homework or just socialize with each other.”
She said the room’s loose structure helps build mentoring skills among older youth who are uniquely positioned to guide young teens through early growing pains.
“For example, when we do have conflict or problems that we need to work through in the youth room, I really like to get the older kids who have experience in leadership positions to role model behavioural expectations,” she said.
“Coming from the people that they maybe look up to, like the older kids is, I think, a bit more effective than having adults just tell them how it is and that gets the youth themselves to take ownership and create the space and culture.”
This mentorship helps create a united front against rising social pressures as a generation that has never known a world without the Internet grows up in a global neighborhood where online images push distorted realities.
“There’s so many hours a day spent on screens and different message that it can get overwhelming to know what to think,” Benson said.
She said social pressures from online sources are an oft-discussed topic during the room’s Girls Speak Out drop-in events, held every Wednesday at 3 p.m.
“We talk a lot about the idea of body image or different expectations put on certain people to reach certain milestones at certain times,” she said.
“What the trouble is now is finding out what’s real and what’s true. With all the different kinds of software like Photoshop, it’s so easy to doctor an image and the translation then looking in the mirror just doesn’t align.”
She added social media can ease teens into creating online personas that don’t reflect their true selves and it’s important to help them understand the online footprint they’re creating with every post will stay with them forever.
“They’re interacting with a screen. Yes, what’s on the screen is representative of people on another screen but without having that direct human-to-human interaction I think it’s one step back,” she said.
“It’s like a mask…It’s more impulsive and we know that adolescents already have reduced impulsive control and so posting based on reaction rather than thinking about it and taking a step back to really think twice about what they want to post can have negative consequences.”
She said the youth room helps promote positive play as an alternative to focusing on online falsehoods.
“Yes, talk about Photoshop, talk about people starving themselves to have this ideal image, but also just promote play, promote going outside and learning,” she said. “There’s promoting health and promoting well-being…just help kids be kids and do their best along the way.”
Benson collaborates with youth to create the room’s programming and she is stoked to ring in the spring season as the weather starts to turn and the West Coast’s vast and fascinating outdoor playground opens up.
“I definitely come from a very outdoor recreation focus and background and I really want to maximize living in Ucluelet and on the West Coast so we do surfing and SUPing [stand up paddleboarding] and outdoor trips,” she said.
“Impromptu nature walks are great. Youth will know trails that maybe adults don’t so we get to look at Ucluelet from their perspectives.”
Tofino’s recreation programmer Jess Towers commended Ucluelet’s youth room initiative.
“It’s a really challenging demographic to capture for a parks and rec. department… unless the department makes a very firm stance in trying to branch out and reach the youth community like Ukee has done,” Towers told the Westerly. “You really need to devote some time, resources and space to them.”
She said locals have been asking for more youth programming in Tofino but it’s a tough demographic to cater to.
“As programmers and as departments we talk a lot about how we get our youth more engaged, it’s definitely a challenge,” she said.
“It is important to overcome because the youth need something to do and if they don’t have somewhere positive to express themselves then they turn to things that maybe aren’t so positive…Recreation can help in a lot of ways. We know how it helps your general well being to stay active especially when those hormones start kicking in; it’s a good time to be able to have ways to express your energy.”
She said the key value of Ucluelet’s youth room is its ability to host drop-in programs.
“Drop in programs tend to very successful among youth because there’s no commitment involved and they can bring whoever their friend is that week,” she said. “In Tofino it’s hard for me to speak to youth programs because, to be completely frank, we don’t have a huge amount of it…For us it’s a space issue we run into where we can’t host something for the youth because we just really don’t have the space for it.”
Tofino’s Royal Canadian Legion opens its doors to youth every Tuesday night and Legion executive member Duncan McMaster said these youth nights see solid weekly turnouts enjoying a wide array of activities like bingo, movies, pool, and darts.
The Legion’s youth nights kicked off in 2012 and McMaster said they’ll continue as long as interest remains strong.
“We’ll do it as long as we can. It makes sense to keep young people involved,” he said. “It’s really important. It gives them a chance to meet, get out of the rain and just hang out.”