When it comes to overcoming youth mental youth challenges, it’s game on for Shak Edwards.
Edwards, the president of Shak’s World Community Centre in downtown Barrie, and her team have been offering youngsters between the ages of seven and 17 years old healthy options since opening the facility in November.
Located at 59A Maple Ave., Shak’s World is open, ready and reaching out to youth looking for a hand up, but with programs changed up due to evolving COVID restrictions.
“Things have been quite a roller-coaster (during the restrictions),” she tells BarrieToday. “COVID has put a damper on some of the programming we were hoping to offer, but we have pivoted and started providing programming in very small groups and virtually until we are able to have youth on site.
“We’ve been extremely innovative when it comes to our programming and the connections we’ve built with our community members and organizations and businesses," she added.
Since November, Edwards and her staff — who have years of experience working with youth — have connected with homeless young people within the foster-care system to provide them with an opportunity to use the centre’s mental and physical wellness resources.
“We like to do mentorship programming, so ideally we work with more youth than just five to eight (at a time in a group),” Edwards says. “But right now, we are working (with those numbers) to provide as much help and support as we can as youth mental health is dwindling due to these times.
“We’ve been able to provide access to our physical resources to over a 100 youth in the past few months, which we think is incredible because, again, with the small numbers we’re working with it’s just what we’ve got,” she adds. “We offered basketball programming, we offered dance, art, yoga, girls’ self-defence, cooking, a nature club... So many different clubs.”
Shak’s World continues to work with its community partners and charities, Edwards says, including the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) of Simcoe County, New Path Youth and Family Services, Empower Simcoe, and Simcoe Muskoka Family Connections.
“And that list is continuing to grow as the community support continues to blossom,” she adds.
The approximately 12,600-square-foot Maple Avenue facility — which includes a small gym, office space, several multi-purpose areas and a kitchen area — has had a significant makeover.
“We have done countless renovations, including the front foyer. Now it’s all orange. It’s bright, it’s welcoming,” Edwards says. “We’ve got an art room. We split a lot of the back offices into what we call safe studies. They can come in and get a change of scenery from their house to a community space and do their work in a comfortable, safe environment outside of home.
“They’re doing school from home so being able to change the scenery is extremely important. And we’ve got New Path counsellors on site once a week to help them so the kids know that if they need to talk, they know what day to come in with anything they are struggling with, at no cost," she adds.
Edwards says, especially for youth during these restrictive times, it’s very important for their own social aspects to be out in the community, building those important relationships and getting together with like-minded people “who can propel them toward what they want to do in life.
“Being virtual has really hindered that for them,” she says. “They aren’t able to create solid connections. Their attention spans can be lacking.”
But in the ever-changing world of COVID restrictions, sometimes there's light emanating from the provincial government.
“We just got word last week that we will be able to host our summer camp,” Edwards says. “So we’re very excited. That camp will be all-encompassing. It will have the art, dance, sports — everything is included and the youth choose what they want to do when they come.
“With an almost 13,000-sq.-ft. facility, it’s going to be a blast. They’re going to have so much fun with all of the different instructors who are youth-based instructors and are passionate about what they teach.”
And while the pandemic may have tweaked Edwards' game plan to include more virtual support for youth mental health (the website includes options for people from Vancouver to Halifax to become part of Shak’s World Community Centre), she definitely prefers getting together in person.
“The reason we opened this space was to bring the community and youth together and it’s just not the same virtually,” she says.
“So we really just hope that any youth who come through our door find something they can be passionate about so we can incubate them and accelerate them in that direction."
For more information about Shak's World, click here.