An establishment for troubled youths in the Leamington area with nowhere else to turn to has officially opened its doors.
The Bridge Leamington Youth Resource Centre at 310 Sherk Street — formerly St. Joseph’s Catholic Church — began welcoming youths from ages 14 to 24 to its facility Thursday, Feb. 1. A grand opening will be held after it acquires its charitable status number — a date targeted for March 1.
The newfound organization operates under the mission statement “Bridging the gap between homeless youth and the resources they need to excel,” but also welcomes residents of the same age group who are not experiencing homelessness or other domestic problems.
“This is a centre for all youths gaes 14 to 24,” explained The Bridge public relations and fund development coordinator Maria Peters. “We’re not just about homeless issues and we don’t want to segregate. We want to integrate those who are struggling with those who are not. This is meant to be a safe place to hang out or a quiet place to do homework.”
Peters noted that homelessness for Leamington-area youths is a bigger issue than many people realize and explained that the reasons why local teens are left with no place to stay vary from one individual to the next.
“Youths here experience homelessness because of some very serious problems,” she said. “It’s not because they’re brats or that they’re not getting enough screen time. They’re dealing with parents with addictions or mental health problems, abuse at home or even getting kicked out for being gay. There have been issues where a single parent became sick and died and one where a dad kicked out his son before Christmas.”
The Bridge includes a large kitchen with industrial grade equipment that will soon become fully functional as well as bathroom and shower facilities. Peters explained that following a research process, it became evident that the latter was of paramount importance for clients.
“For someone without a home, there’s nowhere they can have a free shower,” she said. “How do you go to school looking like you’re not homeless? It’s about preserving their dignity. We accept donations, but encourage gift cards so they can shop for what they need to maintain their dignity, even if it’s a $5 gift card for McDonald’s.”
The Bridge is also equipped with laundry facilities featuring a washer and dryer donated by Essex Appliances. The facility provides laundry detergents with the support of donations and shows client youth how to do their own laundry as one of many steps to develop essential life skills. Storage sections are on site for donations of new clothing including socks, underwear and winter apparel such as toques, mitts, scarves, coats and boots. One of the greatest donation needs is backpacks — both in support of the “Seventy-two Hour Emergency Backpack” program with items needed to survive the first three days and for the storage of personal items.
“We don’t have enough storage space to be a thrift store and for youths who are couch surfing, they need something to keep their stuff private — they often have nothing more than a garbage bag, which is heartbreaking.”
Supplies, services and materials that are crucial to youths facing homelessness are often provided at The Bridge thanks to partnerships with groups and businesses including Mark’s Work Warehouse, Thrift On Mill, Value Village, South Essex Community Council (SECC), local churches, the Leamington OPP and Access County Community Support Services. Upon opening, The Bridge welcomed ACCESS as a cohabitant of the Sherk Street building. While sharing the same roof, ACCESS offers many of its programs to homeless youth. Clients may also benefit from SECC programs including employment services, skills training and one-on-one tutoring.
“We want there to be as many services under one roof as possible,” explained Peters. “There are a lot of agencies doing great things, but there’s one tiny pot of funding and those agencies are competing for the same money. To get it, they must show a need, and to prove the need, they have to show numbers (of clients).”
The Bridge also provides youth with a homework station featuring several refurbished computers offered through the Computers For Kids program, a common area with furniture offered at a discounted rate from Ernie’s TV in Kingsville and a healthy snack station complimented by fridge and storage areas for food donations. Sustenance is in part supplied through an ongoing series of fresh meat donations being offered by a Wheatley-area family.
“To think that there are youth in Leamington who are hungry with no means of finding their next meal is outrageous,” said Peters. “Fortunately, we’re seeing support come through. It’s really amazing how a community can come together with different kinds of assistance — it’s been absolutely overwhelming.”
The Bridge also offers a multi-faith chapel that can double as a meeting room, sponsored by Meadowbrook Church. The room can serve as a location for spiritual and group councilling and includes an electric wall fireplace donated by The Fire Box. Future plans include the addition of an emergency shelter segment of the building with 11 units that can each accommodate two clients in instances where it is safe to do so. The next section will be a dormitory style unit with 13 one-bedroom apartments and additional showers and bathrooms.
Presently, The Bridge is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday and is accepting volunteers for the positions of youth mentor, kitchen support, nutrition program and food service coordinator, administrative services, general maintenance and other duties. For information on how to volunteer or donate, visit the website www.thebridgeyouth.ca.
The next community event in support of services at The Bridge will be the facility’s second Giving Spoon fundraiser. The Bridge will host the gatherings Saturday, Feb. 17 and Sunday, Feb. 18 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The first Giving Spoon at the site raised just over $10,000. Peters explained that while there is no set goal for this month’s edition, she would like to see funding reach the $12,000 mark.