Be the Change: the First Hurdle is the Hardest

Sam, a high school athlete, faces discouraging barriers until one person, then another, then another, decides to make a difference....

Sam, a high school athlete, faces discouraging barriers until one person, then another, then another, decides to make a difference….Read about it in our story!

 

Before he crouches in the starting blocks, Sam can see the university track team coach, standing at the finish line, holding up a university team uniform. Between Sam and that uniform are several hurdles with the first in letters so large that they make the first hurdle taller than all the rest. He reads, “Fee to apply: $95.”

If Sam can’t raise $95, it doesn’t matter that he can easily clear the academic and Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) application hurdles.

“Sam” is not his real name, but his university application dilemma is a real life story currently unfolding in Etobicoke.

A year ago, Sam didn’t dream about track or about university. He had money from odd jobs for drug dealers and gang members. So, how did he change direction?

If you care about the answers, you can be part of the change.

The Youth Justice Initiative

Rexdale Community Legal Clinic’s new Youth Justice Initiative was the catalyst.

When Sam had trouble with the law, a duty counsel lawyer put him in touch with Camieka Woodhouse, our Youth Justice Initiative worker.

She discovered that he had the potential to continue onto university and that his athletic prowess would probably assure him of a scholarship. Suddenly, Sam could see horizons that had previously been completely blocked by the ugly brick buildings encircling his neighbourhood. Once he could “see” the university, he began to work and dream and train.

Sensing a change in him, Camieka asked some probing questions. She was familiar with the barrier posed by the Ontario Universities Application Centre process.

Moneyed families, preparing to fork out large amounts for their children to succeed, barely notice the registration fee.  On the other hand, young people without family supports or money are completely stymied. They’re only eligible for OSAP if they are accepted into university, and they cannot be accepted because they cannot afford to apply.

Because of this fairly modest barrier, budding opportunities die.

Where legal clinics can step in to help

Legal clinics are funded by Legal Aid Ontario to provide access to justice for low income residents in their communities.

Most clinic workers understand this can go beyond legal remedies and could include reducing poverty, increasing access to education and generally making a difference in any way that they can. And so, Camieka began searching for the non-legal remedy. Without it, she worried that Sam would return to his previous career options, mostly involving various forms of crime and ultimately, violence and incarceration.

Camieka believes that Sam has the ability to cross the other hurdles without her, but she was very concerned that he would turn to his former criminal associates to get the registration fee, and that this would amount to “falling off the wagon.”

Unknown to Sam, several conversations cascaded into a happy ending. A conversation at the clinic led to a request to a service club, and within 24 hours, the Knights of Columbus had come up with more than enough for Sam to launch his career plan.

Being the Change

At the clinic, we puzzle over how to create a pool of funds for cases like Sam’s and how to make guidance counsellors, youth counsellors and students aware of it.

Too many in our community face these hurdles:

  • growing up in poverty
  • bad role models for future paths
  • lack of opportunities for youth

Camieka sees her clients strolling around the starting line, studying the hurdles. On either side of the hurdles, there are “run off” lanes where the finish line is much closer. At the end of that line, a corrections officer is holding not a lycra tracksuit, but a cotton prison uniform.

Finding another path is about Being the Change: partnering and networking in our community and reducing poverty by addressing the causes.

Camieka is one of many people at our clinic and in our community who is part of the change. Now, so is Sam.

 

Footnote: Sam is a real person. For purposes of this article, Sam has been given a fictitious name.  Camieka Woodhouse is a real person, who has moved on to a different job, as real people do. Her work with young people at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic is being carried on by Tameka Francis.

 

Ann McRae is the Director of Legal Services at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic. 

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