Good food means a better life for youth in Strathcona
Rohani moved to Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood from Iraq when she was three. She grew up in a big, supportive family that always had food on the table.
“I was blessed,” Rohani said.
Today, Rohani works with youth in the neighbourhood, and she knows many kids lack the support and nutrition she grew up with. As the youth program coordinator at Kiwassa Neighbourhood House, she’s trying to change that.
Last summer, Rohani ran a five-week youth program at MacLean Park, a BC Housing-managed property in Strathcona. The goal? Provide a safe place for youth, from 9 to 18, to hang out during the day and eat nutritious meals.
One of the things I always incorporate into my programs is good food. And by ‘good food,’ I don’t mean we have pizza all the time. Good food is just a meal that's made with love.
At the summer program, “good food” also meant eating together.
“We had so many kids say, ‘I’ve never sat down and had dinner with somebody. I always just have it on my own,’” Rohani said.
Sofia, a youth settlement worker at Kiwassa, was part of the three-person team that ran the program. She made lunches, which was extra special because of her own upbringing. As a first-generation immigrant raised by a single mom, she experienced food insecurity in her youth.
“To be able to make the lunches and feed these kids who have been in the same situation that I've been in is just so rewarding,” Sofia said.
Rohani, youth program coordinator at Kiwassa.
Food insecurity isn’t the only issue facing youth in the neighbourhood. Other problems include substance use, violence, and sexual exploitation.
The Strathcona neighbourhood has a long and vibrant history. Today it’s home to many Indigenous residents and people from around the world. People have long been drawn to the area by its reputation as a diverse and inclusive community. A significant portion of the community experiences marginalization, discrimination, and oppression, which can result in higher rates of poverty and trauma.
For the dozens of young people who came each day, the program was a safe place to hang out, connect with peers, and gain life skills. A typical day involved eating together, arts and crafts, and workshops.
“Colouring was really, really popular for all ages” Sofia said.
Community professionals came and shared their expertise, including a nutritionist and mental health counsellor. Rohani and Sofia also created space for participants to talk about some of the issues in the community.
Tragedy struck the program twice, which quickly put those conversations into perspective. On the first day, a youth in the community died in a traffic accident. Later, another young person died from an overdose.
“After the overdose, the youth were like, ‘Whoa, Rohani, Sofia, you guys were right. Like this stuff happens, and it just happened to somebody we know,’” Rohani said.
Rohani and Sofia made space for the youth to voice their feelings. Rohani and Sofia voiced their feelings, too.
“We had a moment of silence, and we just all started crying,” Rohani said. “And I think for me, growing up in this community as well, crying is something culturally that I don't normally do. And so, I think to be emotional with the youth and for them to also see me in that light was just a very beautiful moment. And I think it really did help me grieve.”
The program wrapped up for the summer with a party.
With funding from BC Housing, Rohani hired Sylvia, a teenager from Strathcona, to help run the program. Witnessing Sylvia’s growth as a leader was a highlight for both Rohani and Sofia.
“It was amazing to see her growth,” Sofia said. “She became such a leader at the end of it. She was able to be really proactive with what she was doing. She led a couple of programs with the kids, too.”
For Rohani, witnessing Sylvia’s growth and the growth of the participants was the only validation she needed.
“At the end of the summer, I didn't need anyone to say, ‘Hey, good job.’ What mattered was the youth that were present in the program. And now when I see them doing something good in the community, I’m like ‘good for you,’” Rohani said.
On the final day of the program, a party wrapped things up for the summer. It was a celebration of the youth who attended the program, and it was also a time for remembering the two youth in the community who lost their lives.
A participant performed an original song, and testimonials from participants were read aloud. Here are a few of their words:
“At Kiwassa, I have become an open and honest person. I like being here because it's a safe environment.”
“As a Muslim, I am most grateful for the fact that there are always Halal options as I have had issues with food restrictions in the past programs I've been to.”
"This program has changed my perspective on many things, and how I want to live my life.”
BC Housing is proud to support Kiwassa Neighbourhood House’s summer youth program at MacLean Park. To learn more, visit the Kiwassa website.